When Dieter Rams joined Braun in 1955, it was a small German electronics company making radios and shavers. Within a few short years he had revolutionised their products – and modern design.
Introducing an unerringly elegant and versatile new style for Braun, Rams came up with designs so far ahead of their time they still function as the epitome of modernity even today.
“Braun wasn't really well known then, even in Germany,” says Rams, who is now 77. “That was the beginning. Braun went from being completely unknown to known worldwide.”
Born in Wiesbaden in 1932, Rams drew early inspiration from watching his grandfather at work as a carpenter and enrolled in the architecture and interior design course at his local art school in 1947. He interrupted his studies to complete a carpentry apprenticeship before joining an architect's office in Frankfurt in 1951. Four years later, he was recruited by the brothers Artur and Erwin – the sons of Braun founder Max – initially as an architect and interior designer before switching his attention to the firm's product line.
Appointed head of Braun's design department in 1962, Rams went on to create hundreds of iconic items that became instantly recognisable from his signature sleek yet rigorous style. Buttons, switches and dials were kept to a minimum and aligned in an orderly manner. Braun products were made in white and grey with the only hint of colour on the switches and dials. In 1965, Rams replaced this pale colour scheme with anthracite black that went on to dominate consumer electronics for the next 30 years.
His epoch-defining “Ten Principles for Good Design,” developed while working for Braun and teaching at the Academy of Fine Arts in Hamburg, anchored his approach and created a functionalist language which still endures as an inspiration to designers.
“It was necessary to do something which you could tell the students, tell the press and also for our own design department at Braun,” Rams says. “These principles were developed one after the other over a long period of time; the first three in the 1970s, etc.”
Jonathan Ive, Tom Dixon, Jasper Morrison and Philippe Starck are all avowed fans of Rams, who has often been referred to as the ‘designer's designer.'
In fact, the basic design for Rams' 1958 T3 Pocket Transistor Radio, complete with a futuristic-looking jog-wheel to change channels, bears an uncanny resemblance to Ive's iPod for Apple. And the built-in calculator on the iPhone shares similar curves, buttons and layout as the German design guru's classic Braun ET88 pocket calculator. But what many see as blatant rip-off, Rams prefers to consider an homage to his earlier products.
“I am an admirer of Jonathan Ive's work and I like to take it as a compliment,” says Rams magnanimously.
Bringing the stereo out of the closet
Before Rams joined Braun stereo equipment was hidden in wooden cabinets, disguised as furniture. Rams brought record players, quite literally, out of the closet. In 1956 he designed the SK4, nicknamed “Snow White's coffin,” with Hans Gugelot. The device had a radically transparent cover revealing the mechanics of the record player for the very first time. Its glacial elegance resembled something straight out of Kubrick's “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Consumers considered it chic and see-through lids quickly became the industry standard.
“Everyone said it looked fashionable but no-one thought it would become normal for all record players,” recalls Rams. “The reaction at the time was different. It was not a successful product; it was a shock. But I wanted to give these products a more technical look. Technical products should look like technical products.”
Rams' next innovation in audio equipment came the following year with the Atelier 1 and L1 speakers – the first ever separates in hi-fi technology and a design breakthrough that was again swiftly copied by Braun's competitors.
Rams' designs also stretched beyond the world of consumer electronics. In 1957 he designed the revered 606 universal shelving system for Vitsœ, which has been in continuous production ever since. Easy to assemble, its modular system allowed for endless variations and could be adapted to fit anywhere. In 1962, Rams even developed a new hi-fi series, the Audio 1, to fit snugly into the 606 system; a seamless continuation of his coherent ‘family' of Braun products.
“People should be able to have their own ideas,” says Rams. “But you can only do it if you develop a system that is changeable.”
The idea that a single shelf bought 50 years ago could be incorporated into a series of interchangeable units, shelves, cupboards and drawers has even been showcased by Rams himself.
He installed the 606 system in his office at home, starting off with one metal shelf and expanding it to a network of shelves to house his book collection as it mushroomed over the years. Looking at Vitsœ's 606 shelving in 2010 it still looks as modern now as it was when Rams designed it.
“It's timeless,” he says.
As are his “Ten Principles,” which have since been applied to much more than just his landmark designs for Braun. He retired from the company in 1995, but he has stayed true to his “less is better” credo.
“I think that design has a great responsibility for the future,” he says. “And I'm always optimistic.”
Dieter Rams' Ten Principles of good design:
Good design is innovative.
Good design makes a product useful.
Good design is aesthetic.
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Good design makes a product understandable.
Good design is unobtrusive.
Good design is honest.
Good design is long-lasting.
Good design is thorough down to the last detail.
Good design is environmentally friendly.
Good design is as little design as possible.
The Design Museum in London currently has a comprehensive Rams retrospective running until March 9. The exhibition, called Less and More: The Design Ethos of Dieter Rams, then travels to the Frankfurt Museum for Applied Art from May 22 to September 5.