It was 1996 when designer Markus Heckhausen arrived on the Berlin art scene from his native Tübingen in south west Germany. In the former communist east of the city, “everything was still so grey and brown and at night, it was complete darkness,” he told The Local.
“I walked around the streets keeping an eye out for things from the old East, as the new government was replacing everything,” he said. This meant there were plenty of old pedestrian crossing lights - the Ampelmann - lying around, no longer guiding East Berliners across the streets.
“I was speechless that such a characterful, recognisable figure could be so easily replaced,” he said. “I don't think the West thought about them being a part of the country's identity,” the 52-year-old explained.
Driving an old East German Trabant car, he set off to collect as many discarded pedestrian crossing lights as possible from around the old GDR and brought them back to the re-united capital in his boot.
He then set to work making new lamps out of the old lights. “I made the first 200 lamps myself,” said Heckhausen. It was these lamps that kicked off the business. He sold all of them between the summer and winter of 1996. “They became a cult favourite really quickly,” he said, although he was surprised at how quickly it happened.
Nearly two decades later, Heckhausen holds the copyright to the iconic Ampelmann design alongside its original creator, Karl Peglau, who was sceptical of Heckhausen’s project at first. But after getting to know the artist he was soon on-board, becoming not only a shareholder, but also a father figure in the company until his death in 2009.
Together they turned the design firm into a €7-million business and in doing so made the Ampelmann into something East Germans could be proud of.
Ossi, a term for people living in the GDR, “was such an insult. But the Ampelmann started to change that as it was something more positive,” the father-of-three said. As interest grew, Heckhausen said that he began to realize the green man was “a symbol that the GDR was more than just the Stasi.”
It was when the initial cult hype died down, that Heckhausen realised he had to move the company forward. “We thought about making a film or a song, but then decided to make a whole range of products surrounding the Ampelmann,” he said.
Now the walking man image has been stamped onto everything from tea towels to pasta. “It's important for me, as a designer, that we keep the up the standard of quality,” he said.
Next on the agenda for Ampelmann, now that the company has four shops, a restaurant and a cafe, is setting up a foundation to help educate children about road safety. “It's okay that it's a popular souvenir,” said Heckhausen. “But it's important that we can use it to give something back to the city.”