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DESIGN

Less but better: Design according to Dieter Rams

Legendary industrial designer Dieter Rams has always focused on doing ‘less but better’ – a credo David Sharp found he even applied to a rare interview with The Local.

Less but better: Design according to Dieter Rams
Photo: DPA

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.

Click here for photo gallery of Dieter Rams’ designs.

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.

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.

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10 unmissable events in Germany this October

From dazzling light shows to quirky food festivals, October is a jam-packed month in Germany. Here are some of the events you won't want to miss.

10 unmissable events in Germany this October

Oktoberfest, Munich Teresienwiese, September 17th – October 3rd

As possibly the world’s most famous beer festival, Oktoberfest needs no introduction – and for those who didn’t make it to Bavaria in September, there are still a few days left to catch it at the start of the month.

If you make it on the last bank holiday Monday, you can catch an especially rowdy party atmosphere as professional rifle shooters mark the end of the fest. But any other day at the Wiesn is an experience to remember, with live music and singing in all the tents, delicious Bavarian beer and a gigantic funfair for the most adventurous visitors.

And for those who can’t make it down to Bavaria at short notice, the Hofbräuhaus beer halls around the country celebrate their own mini-Oktoberfests with dancing, singing, live music and of course a crisp litre or two of Hofbräu. 

READ ALSO: Everything you need to know about Germany’s Oktoberfest

German Unity Day Celebrations, Erfurt Old Town, October 1st – 3rd 

Marking the day when West and East Germany were formally reunited back in 1990 – a year after the fall of the Berlin Wall – Tag der Einheit (Unity Day) is a truly special bank holiday in Germany. 

Each year, a different German city takes it in turn to host the annual Bürgerfest (citizen’s festival) in honour of Germany’s national day. This year, the Thuringian capital of Erfurt will be putting on an action-packed programme of political and cultural events all weekend. To start with, Germany’s five constitutional bodies – the Bundestag, Bundesrat, Federal President, Federal Government and Federal Constitutional Court – will be represented with large information stands on the theme of “Experiencing Politics”. And for those less keen to take a deep dive into the workings of government, each of the 16 states will have the best of their culture and cuisine on display. 

There’ll also be live concerts, performances and a light installation representing German reunification over the weekend, making a visit to scenic Erfurt well worth it. 

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: How October 3rd became Germany’s national holiday

Cannstatter Volksfest, Stuttgart, September 23rd – October 9th 

If you want to experience big folk festival but want to steer clear of the tourist crowd in Munich, look no further than Oktoberfest’s Swabian sister, the Cannstatter Volksfest in Stuttgart. 

First launched in 1818, the festival has become a mainstay of the autumn calendar in Baden-Württemberg, and it’s an event that is fiercely proud of its Swabian roots. If you go, you can sample some of the best local beers and wines around, as well as other traditional Swabian delicacies. You can also go on rollercoasters and other fairground rides, hear trumpeting Oompah bands and get dizzy on the world’s largest mobile Ferris wheel. 

Weimar Onion Market, October 7th – 9th

Nobody can say that Germans don’t make the most of their seasonal produce – and Weimar’s historic Zwiebelmarkt (onion market) is no exception.

The Zwiebelmarkt tradition dates back as early as the 15th century, when traders would come to the bustling town of Weimar to sell their wares. Over the years, the onion market days became a major social event where locals would also gather to eat, drink and barter. These days, you’ll still find all things onion-related at the onion market, from arts and crafts to culinary treats. But there’s also a funfair, live music, beer tents and family friendly activities to boot.

Ludwigsburg Pumpkin Festival, August 26th – December 4th

If you’re a fan of all things autumnal, look no further than Ludwigsburg Palace, which becomes home to the world’s largest pumpkin exhibition each year from late August to early December. 

It may sound novel, but a walk around the grounds of the palace will show you that in Ludwigsburg, the pumpkin artists certainly don’t do things by halves. Not only can you see incredible sculptures made from around 450,000 pumpkins in total, but you’ll also see a jaw-dropping 600 different varieties of pumpkin there as well. And if you work up an appetite while soaking up the exhibition, you can also sample some delicious pumpkin-based dishes, from soup to Maultaschen.

Pumpkin exhibition Ludwigsburg

Balu and Mowgli from the Jungle Book at the Ludwigsburg pumpkin exhibition. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Christoph Schmidt

Filmfest Hamburg, 29th September – October 8

Though it tends to get overshadowed by the show-stopper Berlinale, film buffs who can’t wait until February will enjoy a trip to its Hanseatic sibling: Filmfest Hamburg.

Running throughout the first week of October, the Filmfest brings together the best of contemporary cinema from around the world at a range of venues around the city. This year, the festival is also celebrating its 30th anniversary, so there’s bound to be a truly special atmosphere at the event. 

You can find the full programme in English here.

Berlin Festival of Lights, October 7th – 16th

Each year in the middle of August, the familiar sights of the German capital are bathed in colourful light and transformed each evening into weird and wonderful artistic creations.

This year, the theme of the world famous light festival is “Visions of the Future” as artists explore the question: What will our future look like?

The fruits of their labours can be seen around the city each evening from 7-11pm, after it gets dark. Organisers says there will be a big focus on sculptures this year – as well as the usual large installations – as they seek to reduce their electricity use by 75 percent. 

Berlin cathedral at Festival of Lights 2018

Berlin cathedral lit up in colourful lights at the 2018 Festival of Lights. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Jens Kalaene

Frankfurt Book Fair, October 19th – 23rd 

The world’s largest book fair is returning to Frankfurt this October with the theme of “translation”, exploring the idea of translating ideas into new languages, mediums and contexts.

Alongside the sprawling trade fair and conference, there will also be a packed schedule of literary events where people can hear reading and talks by popular authors. You can find out all about the exhibitors at the book fair this year and what’s on at the conference in English on the Frankfurt Book Fair website

Deutsches Weinlesefest, September 23rd – October 10th 

The picturesque wine-growing regions of western Germany hold wine festivals throughout the year, but the Wine Harvest Festival – or Weinlesefest – is by far one of the biggest.

Fittingly enough, the festival is held in Neustadt an der Weinstraße, a pretty little town located along the famous Wine Route. For the few weeks of the festival, this sleepy little town hosts an enormous wine parade and around 100,000 wine-loving visitors. Head there on the 7th to see the crowning of this year’s Palatinate Wine Queen and sample some Rhineland wines out of a dubbeglas, a big glass that holds a whopping 50cl of wine. As always, drink responsibly! 

READ ALSO: 10 ways to enjoy autumn like a true German

Halloween at Frankenstein’s Castle, October 21st – November 6th 

If the name of Frankenstein’s Castle sounds familiar to you, it should do: apparently, Mary Shelley, the author of the novel Frankenstein, could well have been inspired by the castle when she visited the nearby town of Gernsheim in 1814. 

These days, however, the castle is known for something slightly different: in 1978, American airmen set up an annual Halloween festival at the castle, and the spooky tradition has continued to this day.

Halloween at Frankenstein Castle

A blood-curdling character at Frankenstein Castle’s Halloween Festival in 2018. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Andreas Arnold

If you want to enjoy what’s been described as one of the most spectacular Halloween experiences in the world, it’s well worth booking tickets to go up to the castle in late October. In the weeks around Halloween, the 1000-year-old castle is transformed in a phantasmagoria of monsters and evil beings lurking in the shadows.

Every year, the organisers of the festivals pull yet another technical trick out of their sleeve to ensure that visitors are more spooked than ever. It’s not for the faint-hearted, but if you think you can handle the adrenaline, it’s bound to be an action-packed night. 

READ ALSO: What are Germany’s 8 spookiest places?

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