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Dieter Rams 2019, Foto Sabine Schirdewahn
Photo: Sabine Schirdewahn, @ Dieter and Ingeborg Rams Foundation, recording date November 2019

On 20 May Dieter Rams turned ninety. His purist designs for Braun dusted off industrial design and made him famous worldwide. Some became models for the Walkman and the iPhone. He was president of the German Design Council for ten years and has always emphasised how indispensable it is to produce in a sustainable and environmentally friendly way.

By Thomas Wagner.

Dieter Rams, the doyen of industrial design, has long been world-famous and held in high esteem by older and younger members of the guild alike. If there were such a thing as a design Olympus, in which a cheerful crowd of outstanding designers would cavort, Dieter Rams would already have his place in such a heavenly residence during his lifetime. If it were a question of the furnishings of the gods’ domicile, he would be the usual argumentative interlocutor among all the more or less like-minded people.

Continuity and concentration

It may be due to less hectic times and a corporate culture geared towards continuity rather than permanent change, and yet Dieter Rams only worked for two companies during his working years: for Braun and for Vitsoe. Rams, not yet thirty, had not been with Braun long when he asked Erwin Braun in 1959 for permission to design furniture for Niels Vitsœ and Otto Zapf as well. Braun agreed. And already in the following year, the wall-mounted shelving system 606 came onto the market.

Intensive and precise work for just two companies, this alone shows Rams’ ability to concentrate and optimise what is recognised as important and right until it meets his own – strict – standards. Today, when designers who are considered prominent because they are in demand, and who are in demand because they are considered prominent, often run their own studios and work on projects for this or that manufacturer, such loyalty is remarkable. Against the temptations and impositions of celebrity, Rams has always held on to the conviction that the best design comes about in a close and trusting collaboration between entrepreneur and designer. For Rams, Braun has become the starting point, the home and the basis of his own success. From 1955 until his retirement in 1997 – from 1961 to 1995 as head of the design department – he played a decisive role in shaping the face of the company and, which is also a matter of course for Rams, designed many groundbreaking electrical appliances together with his team and in exchange with the engineers – from hi-fi stereo systems and slide projectors to pocket calculators and lighters.

Be convinced and be able to convince

Klaus J. Maack, Managing Director of Erco Leuchten for many years, sums up that this requires a great deal of assertiveness: “If someone wants to do as little design as possible, and that as a designer, then he must have a convincing quality and an analytical mind to do justice to this self-imposed task. If someone enforces this attitude in a company for many decades, certainly against the insights of many marketing people, he needs a high degree of conviction and persuasiveness not to ‘go soft’. Dieter Rams, with his sparkling gaze and severe frown lines, has these qualities, which makes him likeable to me and also to the Braun company, which has to put up with him.” Being convinced of a cause, fighting for it and being able to convince others of it are among Rams’ qualities. Ettore Sottsass, a friend with completely different design fantasies, once characterised him thus: “Under difficult conditions of industrial and consumer culture, which are not always necessarily decisive and not always necessarily fun, Dieter Rams invents counter-images to set new standards of existence; he invents new open spaces, animated by the idea of a new inner responsibility and of conquering the finest quality claims backwards and by a form of new, modern metaphysics of the spirit.” Anyone who, as Sottsass calls it, designs counter-images and thus sets new standards of existence, must obviously be strict and faithful, possess a great deal of concentration, persuasiveness, perseverance and a sense of responsibility.

Dieter Rams, Braun and the Happiness of the Beginning

The story of how Rams came to Braun shows how permeable structures are when they are just being formed. Rams is not a designer at all when he came to Braun and apparently does not see himself as one either. He is hired to improve the quality of the office, exhibition and guest rooms, a task little defined in the company. In the mid-1950s, Braun’s design department, then headed by Fritz Eichler, worked closely with the Ulm School of Design, including Hans Gugelot and Otl Aicher. Rams, recognisably talented and not fully occupied with the tasks assigned to him, was soon involved in the design work. Hans Gugelot, as Uta Brandes puts it, “was Rams’ problem and luck at the same time”. Rams slipped into design via Gugelot, who was working on completely new phonographic devices. Wilhelm Wagenfeld (record player) and above all Hans Gugelot were involved in the design of the “Phonosuper SK4”, the famous “Snow White’s Coffin”, which caused a sensation at the Düsseldorf Radio Exhibition in 1955; however, Rams can also claim his share in the completely new device in terms of chassis and layout.

If the radio-audio combination “Atelier 1” from 1957 can still be generously understood as a variation of the SK4, then Rams consistently and step by step countered the staid phono furniture in walnut cabinets with modular hi-fi audio systems – from “studio 2” from 1959 to the hi-fi radio-phono combination “audio 2” and the legendary “wall system” consisting of a control unit, tape recorder and separate, format-matching loudspeakers, both from 1964. It is not only in the field of “stereo” and “high fidelity” that Braun sets new standards in technology and design. During the same period, Rams also designed the T 52 portable radio (1961) and the T 1000 world receiver (1963), as well as slide projectors, flash units, alarm clocks together with Dietrich Lubs and much more.

Weltempfänger T 1000, Braun
T 1000 (1963), © 2021 Braun Audio
TP 1 (1959) © 2021 Braun Audio

Prospects for an increasingly mobile society

What is characteristic of Rams is that among his designs there are always those that have anticipated future developments. For example, those that, almost prophetically, point to the increasing mobility in society, but in terms of design – like basically all of Rams’ designs – embody solidity, stability and longevity. The series ranges from the portable radio-phono combination TP 1 (1959), which pointed the way to the “Walkman”, and small transistor radios such as the T 41 (1962), to the ET 66 control pocket calculator from 1987, reborn as the first Apple iPhone and designed together with Dietrich Lubs. Not because they would simply appear technoid, but because the designs avoid any fashionable attitude in their clarity, they fulfil the claim that Rams claims for himself and for design as such: to be usable without fuss, durable and thus sustainable.

Wandanlage, Braun
Braun wall system. Photo: Sebastian Neuhaus braunaudio.de

High Fidelity

The new terrain of high-quality audio systems, which Braun and Rams finally occupied in connection with the term “high fidelity” in the 1960s and coined in a completely new way, certainly has symbolic significance for Rams’ design approach. The fidelity of reproduction alluded to in the term “high fidelity” has also been a characteristic of Rams’ designs from the very beginning: remaining faithful to a thing means not over-shaping it with elements that are alien and external to its essence. In this respect, Rams has always remained a Platonist who has tried to get as close as possible to the idea of a thing.

The new terrain of high-quality audio systems, which Braun and Rams finally occupied in connection with the term “high fidelity” in the 1960s and coined in a completely new way, certainly has symbolic significance for Rams’ design approach. The fidelity of reproduction alluded to in the term “high fidelity” has also been a characteristic of Rams’ designs from the very beginning: remaining faithful to a thing means not over-shaping it with elements that are alien and external to its essence. In this respect, Rams has always remained a Platonist who has tried to get as close as possible to the idea of a thing.

“Good design is as little design as possible”.

It is no coincidence that Rams, who taught industrial design at the Hochschule für bildende Künste Hamburg from 1981 to 1997, among other things, always speaks of “good” design in his ethics of design proclaimed in ten theses: good design is innovative, makes a product usable and understandable; it is aesthetic, unobtrusive, honest, durable, consistent down to the last detail and environmentally friendly. In short: “Good design is as little design as possible.” And: “Less design is more, because it concentrates on the essentials instead of cluttering the products with superfluous things. Back to the pure, the simple!” It is part of the dialectic of Rams’ approach to design that after reading all the characteristics of “good design” one could also conclude that good design needs as many and as forward-looking designers as possible.

If, on the one hand, one can still hear the echo of the debates about “good form” in the theses, on the other hand, Rams’ need for harmony and the idealistic idea that at least some order could be brought into the chaos of the world through design is also revealed in the alliance of good and beautiful, which the preachers of permanent progress like to scold as old-fashioned. It may be one of the riddles of design, but important designers (and artists) always knew what “good” and “better” meant – and made their standards visible to everyone in their works.

Dieter Rams and the German Design Council

Due to his great worldwide reputation and excellent connections – both of which he still enjoys in abundance in the international design scene and far beyond – Rams was, as it were, predestined to become the ideal design ambassador. As President of the German Design Council from 1987 to 1997, who else but he could have embodied and made credible how indispensable design is in a “modern” society, based on his original experience of the design process and confirmed by his own success – in Germany as well as on the international stage. How decisive it is when the success of a company is to be perpetuated – and why it is better able than any marketing to provide a brand with the necessary radiance and binding power with its customers. It is no coincidence that his time as president included projects such as the 1989 “World Design Exhibition” in Nagoya, Japan, and a year later the “Designed in Germany” exhibition shown in Los Angeles and New York, along with the accompanying publication. The fact that Rams was not only looking to the West but also to the East at that time is also proven by the “FormWende” exhibition in the new federal states. “Design and Challenges for the Environment” in 1992 at the XVIII Triennale di Milano, and “Design and Ecology” in 1993 at the Autumn Fair in Frankfurt also remind us that Rams was pushing for sustainable and environmentally friendly production and consumption long before the topic dominated the media. And at the “International Design Conference Aspen” (IDCA), which was held in June 1996 under the title “Gestalt: Visions of German Design”, Rams reaffirmed in the circle of numerous international participants what a pioneering function medium-sized companies in Germany have when it comes to understanding design as a factor for economic success.

Respecting the function

If an ethical and aesthetic Lutheran like Rams is declared by so many to be the pope of design trimmed to clarity and function, then there is more than one reason for this. Rams is said to have designed around 350 products for the Braun and Vitsoe companies. Many of them are still used today with a matter-of-factness that belies any ambition. The fact that Rams’ designs continue to exert a great influence on younger designers – Jonathan Ive is the best-known example, his Apple design in many respects a continuation of Rams’ approach laced with homages – is no coincidence. One hidden rather than obvious reason may be found in the way Rams understands function (he avoids the term “functionalism”). The simple formula that form must follow function (whatever that means) does not solve a single problem in design. Rams also made it clear (not only in his ten theses) that it is not only the technical function that influences a design decision, but that other parameters come into play through handling, use and benefit – however difficult these and their interaction may be to understand.

Braun ET33 by Dieter Rams, Dietrich Lubs and Ludwig Littmann © Braun/ Procter & Gamble
Apple iPhone, © Apple Inc. All rights reserved

The fascination that emanates from many of Rams’ designs is often due to the way he deals with details. To put it more precisely: how he succeeds in mirroring the impression of the product as a whole in the concrete form of the parts, thus achieving a harmonious relationship between the whole and its parts. The call “Back to the pure, to the simple!” does not conceal an abstract philosophy of design, but rather instructions on how to proceed in concrete terms. In general, we know what a Rams design looks like and can name what characterises it: It is black, white, light or silver-grey; often rectangular, reduced and yet unmistakable. Rams uses new materials and material combinations, relies on new systems, prefers variability and multifunctionality. Controls, especially buttons on electrical appliances, are ergonomic and non-slip. Ram’s detail-obsessed mastery is evident in how a scale is framed, in the spacing and logic according to which buttons are arranged on a front panel and their function is recognisable. The spacing and feel of rotary controls, dimensions, spacing and distribution of ventilation slots as well as the type and size of the lettering and the arrangement of numerals – all this and much more has a decisive influence on the overall impression. The restrained colour scheme of the products should not be underestimated either. Aluminium, light grey and black not only emphasise the technicality of the hi-fi units, they also clearly mark the distance to the dark wooden housings of the music chests and radios intended as furniture.

Perhaps this is what makes Rams’ way of designing so distinctive: he never works with abstractions; everything is decided in the concrete. You might think this is a commonplace of design. If you take a closer look at how things are otherwise designed, you quickly notice where the work is done with a view to the matter at hand and where it is merely a matter of squinting at abstract guidelines and principles, appealing to trends and paying homage to fashions. If the operation or setting of a device is immediately apparent, this means in a very practical way: one is oriented. The space between buttons, dials and knobs is not empty, the distances are not a minor matter; they also contribute to better orientation, to better usability. In this sense, devices designed by Rams are always suggestions and examples for a world that confronts us in a clear and well-ordered way. Anyone who wants to can call this idealistic; or, like Ettore Sottsass, speak of a new “metaphysics of the mind”. What remains important is this: For Dieter Rams, there have never been times of thoughtless design for thoughtless consumption. That is why there is no way around his attitude today.

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