Alexandra Lange | Essays

Making Dieter Rams

A selection of Braun products, 1963 (via Phaidon)

I reviewed Sophie Lovell's new monograph, Dieter Rams: As Little As Possible (Phaidon) for The Architect's Newspaper. For a Rams fan like me, this book is the ultimate, with every product put in a timeline and lovingly photographed. New photography by Florian Bohm even documents the archives (slideshow here), an indication of the project's high fetishism. As I write in AN:
Open Dieter Rams: As Little Design as Possible. Turn to page 64. There you will find the Braun product line circa 1963. I would buy any one of those products today, save the cameras, were they sold in stores. Which is to say, you will get no argument from me about Rams’ greatness as an industrial designer and the superiority of his achievement as head of Braun’s product design department from 1961 to 1995, where he designed or co-designed 500 products, lighters, door handles, coffee grinders, hi-fis and televisions, hair dryers, and cameras. Plus those Vitsoe 606 shelves, still great, still in production.
But for a design historian, I found the book wanting in perspective and interpretation. It adds a great deal to our understanding of the team that made Rams's long career at Braun possible, giving credit to the Braun brothers for embracing architectural modernism before they hired Rams, and identifying which famous products were in fact designed by members of his in-house design group. It goes in depth on the process and tactile moves made on a number of key products. But it never defines the Braun style in any deeper way.

SK4 Record Player (a.k.a. "Snow White's coffin"), 1956, Dieter Rams and Hans Gugelot (via Design Museum)
One of Rams’ earliest successes was the SK 4, the stereo known as “Snow White’s coffin.” Rams added the transparent Perspex cover. To me this appliance looks exactly like a modernist building, complete with wood trim and windows. It was obviously designed in plan and elevation, so that each side is a balanced two-dimensional composition. It would be a perfect place to describe the connection between Rams’ architectural efforts and his industrial design, to suggest that his work acquired more curves and tactility as it went on. But that doesn’t happen.
Jonathan Ive is up front to sprinkle Apple pixie dust on the enterprise, but I want to know how this form of white, unisex, unadorned modernism found a commercial market long before the iPhone. Braun is a rare success story for an aesthetic, and we don't really see it in context of mid-century peers in the USA and elsewhere in Europe. When I wrote about "Good design is aesthetic," the third of Rams's ten principles of good design, last year I treated it as a kind of gentleman's agreement on the part of modernists. But a monograph might dig deeper.

I own two products from the Rams years, a coffee grinder and a calculator, plus Jasper Morrison's homage-to-Rams coffee machine. I'd be interested to hear what Braun totems others treasure, and whether you'd still be in the market for more.

UPDATED: A couple of new links from today. The exhibition "Less and More: The Design Ethos of Dieter Rams" opens at the San Francisco MoMA on August 27 (it originated at the London Design Museum in 2009). And Sight Unseen directed me to this visual overview of Rams's work and home on Yatzer.

Posted in: History, Media, Product Design

Comments [4]

Couldn’t a deeper definition of the Braun aesthetic be found in Max Bill’s idea of “die gute form”? Given Bill’s pivotal role in the Ulm School it seems likely that the groundwork for the success of the Braun aesthetic program lies with the culture emerging from Ulm as much as from one (albeit amazing) designer. And yes, good design is aesthetic, but good design is political too. There’s a moralist polemic at work in both Ulm – and by extension Ram’s work at Braun. (The politics of the school at Ulm are well documented in “Ulm Design - The Morality of Objects”). Ulm’s raison d’être was originally political and the ultimate demise of the school and its aesthetic project point to the limits of this line of investigation. More to the point – to reference the last line in your book review – ultimately the idea that these designs are fetish objects for rich or “cultured” people runs counter to a political idea at their core.
javier zeller

frankly, I wouldn't buy any of these in 2011. They are good as objects, but would only serve to gawk at and impress my fellow design snob friends. they would go totally unused because they are inferior as technology except the radios. true form over function. ha.

I want to agree with Javier above. The deeper explanation for these design's power and success can be found in the political nature of the Ulm School, really the successor to the Bauhaus in defining European modernism after the war. As well, the post war Swiss style of "neutrality" was of a piece with the Ulm political point of view. It was about a post war internationalist outlook that embraced things like the UN and non-alignment. It was opposed to the cold war between east and west. Another Ulm alum named Otl Aicher was the graphic equivalent of Rams. The Swiss chemical industry also adopted the neutral style in their pharma packaging - which is still used to this day and, yes, fetishised by none other than Damien Hirst. But the important thing is not the current fetishisation, but the internationalist outlook of the time (1950-1975 or so) that embraced things like the Olympics (Otl Aicher 1972) and world travel, jet age, multi-nationals and NGOs. It was a response to WW2 and a rejection of the cold war system. Did it make a difference politically? Who knows, but its beautiful stuff.

I feel I have to mention that Rams has not worked solely on the many Braun designs, in fact there were others involved e.G. Lubs, Wagenfeld (who studied / taught at the HfG Ulm, whereas Rams didn't). In my opinion this should be mentioned in literature. Rams did a good job as a designer and director but today is overestimated by many as the hero of German Design.

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