Designing the Future

Text by Kosuke Ide Coordination by Yumiko Urae
Special thanks to Mark Adams, Vitsoe, Jo Klatt, Design + Design Hamburg,
Dieter Rams and Ingeborg Rams Foundation, Supervion

Dieter Rams, the legendary industrial designer whose reputation spread from postwar Germany to the entire world, continues to be celebrated to this day. Let’s look into his design philosophy of “Less, but Better,” an imperative to create products that improved life for everyone.

©︎BRAUN P&G
Radio-audio Phonosuper SK 4
Braun, 1956

Radio-audio Phonosuper SK 4 (avobe), born from a collaboration between Dieter Rams and Hans Gugelot, an instructor at the Ulm School of Design. From the metal and wood case to the acrylic glass cover and the arrangement of buttons and dials along a grid, the ingenious design is modern with no lack of warmth.

“Good despite being old,” or “good because it’s old.”

When things stand up to the test of time, the justification usually falls under one of these two camps. What makes designer Dieter Rams so special is that his work barely makes us conscious of the paradigm “old versus new.” When most people see the SK4 radio-phono-combination, pictured on the facing page, they would be positively astonished to hear that it was designed over sixty years ago, in 1956. But this is only the beginning. Working at Braun for over four decades, Rams designed more than 300 products, either alone or collaboratively, from radios and calculators to electric razors, lighters, watches, and food processors, all of which possess an unbelievably timeless charm.

Though the impact that Rams made on industrial design across the globe cannot be fathomed, it’s widely known that Jony Ive, who supervised design at Apple for such products as the iMac, iPod and iPhone (before leaving in 2019), drew considerable inspiration from Rams’s designs. Turning eighty-eight this year, Rams could rightly be called a “living legend” of the world of design, though perhaps the man himself would not appreciate such a lofty title. “Never be pushy, and always exercise restraint. Don’t make things look good for show.” These are the ideals that Rams exhaustively pursued over a lifetime of design.

Dieter Rams was born in 1932, in the German city of Wiesbaden. His grandfather was a skilled furniture craftsman, and so he spent his early years in close contact with the family trade. In 1947, at age fifteen, he entered the Wiesbaden School of Art (now the RheinMain University of Applied Sciences), where he studied architecture and design. At the time, Germany was rebuilding from the rubble of defeat in World War II, attempting to contribute to a new and better world. In the global architecture and design scene, there was renewed attention to the ideals of German modernism as advocated by the Bauhaus school, which prior to closing under pressure from the Nazis had sought to establish a rational and functional form of art suited to modern industrialized society, a mission carried on by the Ulm School of Design, which opened in 1953.

After graduating with honors, Rams spent several years working at an architectural office in Frankfurt before moving on to Braun, whose headquarters was nearby. The premier German manufacturer of consumer appliances, the company was led by founder Max Braun until his death in 1951, after which his sons Erwin and Artur took over. At the time, they were just thirty and twenty-six, respectively. With their eyes on the future, the brothers recognized the crucial role of design in the creation of superior products adapted to a modern way of life, and in 1955 initiated a collaboration with the Ulm School of Design. This is precisely when Rams joined the design team at Braun, spearheading collaborative projects with design luminaries at the university such as Hans Gugelot and Otl Aicher.

Rams went on to develop the SK1 / SK2 tabletop radio, released in 1955 at the International Radio Exhibition in Düsseldorf, winning Braun worldwide praise for its functional modernist designs. The following year, Rams and Gugelot designed the SK4 radio-phono-combination. Up until then, record players had been thought of as a kind of furniture, but this device, which occupied the entirely new category of audio equipment, shocked the world. The turntable and radio controls are arranged exclusively on the top panel, while parts like the tonearm and dials, often hidden in the case of other phonographs, are displayed for all to see. The attractive white sheet metal case has trim slits for both emitting sound and providing ventilation, while the transparent acrylic glass cover (today industry standard, but wholly novel at the time) will not resonate like metal. This thoroughly minimalist and modern geometric design had such an immense impact that rival companies gave it the nickname “Snow White’s Coffin.”

Thereafter, thanks to the leading-edge technologies and elegant designs produced by Rams and his team, Braun became increasingly renowned for its products. In stride with the rapid progress of industry in postwar Germany, the company exported its creations to over 120 countries, and in 1958 a number of its products were exhibited by the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

The TP1, released in 1959, is an innovative portable stereo system that Rams himself has called “the first Walkman.” Combining the T4 portable radio and a miniature record player, the device is smaller than a 7-inch record, and its form, almost exclusively composed of rectangles and circles, is the epitome of simplicity. The tonearm protrudes from the interior of the case (playing the record from below, unlike most devices), necessitating delicate and precise calculation of the needle pressure, a sign of intimate collaboration between the engineers and designers. In those days, Braun had an open atmosphere, where employees could freely engage in energetic debate regardless of their department or standing.

Ten principles for good design by Dieter Rams

"Rams’s “Ten Principles for Good Design,” summarizing his design philosophy, continue to be viewed as a gold standard by innumerable designers. Examine any of the products that Rams worked on and you’ll find a practical, efficient, and approachable design that holds fast to these principles. The ET66 calculator, created together with Dietrich Lubs, his longtime collaborator at Braun, was designed to encourage intuitive use, as demonstrated by the typography and layout of the rounded buttons, which are color-coded brown, yellow, green or red depending on function. The goal of rendering lengthy manuals unnecessary has been embraced by Apple in their product design.
Photography 1~6, 8, 10 ©︎BRAUN P&G, 7,9 ©︎Vitsoe"

Thereafter, thanks to the leading-edge technologies and elegant designs produced by Rams and his team, Braun became increasingly renowned for its products. In stride with the rapid progress of industry in postwar Germany, the company exported its creations to over 120 countries, and in 1958 a number of its products were exhibited by the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

The TP1, released in 1959, is an innovative portable stereo system that Rams himself has called “the first Walkman.” Combining the T4 portable radio and a miniature record player, the device is smaller than a 7-inch record, and its form, almost exclusively composed of rectangles and circles, is the epitome of simplicity. The tonearm protrudes from the interior of the case (playing the record from below, unlike most devices), necessitating delicate and precise calculation of the needle pressure, a sign of intimate collaboration between the engineers and designers. In those days, Braun had an open atmosphere, where employees could freely engage in energetic debate regardless of their department or standing.

By the time Rams became chief design officer in 1961, he had become an internationally celebrated designer, but this was due at least in part to the market and industry expectations of a burgeoning consumer society, eager to appoint a recognizable star. As goes without saying, products at Braun were not singlehandedly designed by Rams, but represent the combined efforts of a host of skilled designers. Over the course of his long career, Rams made a point of crediting as designer everyone intensively involved.

Since the late 1970s, Rams has turned a theoretical lens on his own efforts, lecturing widely on the design principles behind them. Refining his ideas over the years, he eventually released a list of “Ten Principles for Good Design” at the ICSID Congress held in Washington, D.C. in 1985. These concise principles were Rams’s way of responding to his own questions about a consumer society increasingly bloated by the onslaught of globalization, the ever more frequent use of form and color for the sake of product differentiation, disappearing resources, and a world fraught with chaos.

In his view, “good design”: 1. is innovative. 2. makes a product useful. 3. is aesthetic. 4. makes a product understandable. 5. is unobtrusive. 6. is honest. 7. is long-lasting. 8. is thorough down to the last detail. 9. is environmentally-friendly. 10. is as little design as possible.

A simplistic focus on creating novelty will yield an endless stream of superfluous, unnecessary and cheap but low-quality products that will go out of style and be thrown away all too soon. In the process, underground resources are exhausted, the environment is contaminated, and trash proliferates indefinitely. Rams argued this was no way for a modern society to behave. In his view, designs that make life better for consumers will be as neutral and durable as possible, and should be understated as well, to give the user space to express their individuality.

The motto “Less, but Better,” later used by Rams for the title of a book in 1995, expresses his philosophy in its most compact form. Though similar to “Less is more,” a favorite saying of architect Mies van der Rohe, former director of the Bauhaus, it adds a note of urgency that rallies our attention to the state of the environment. In today’s information age, where everything is consumed faster and in greater quantities than any other era, Rams’s legacy of truly universal creations has more to offer us, in terms of messages, than any other product of design.

Rams in 1970, at the office. Over the course of his long tenure at Braun, from 1955 to 1997, Rams spent his days devoted to design, debating not only with the designers working under him, but with the tech department and sales department as well. He never used computers, but rather started all of his designs by hand, sketching with a soft pencil on giant sheets of tracing paper.

Photography: bpk / Abisag Tüllmann / distributed by AMF

©︎BRAUN P&G

Sketch for a showroom , Rams’s first assignment after entering Braun as an architect.

©︎BRAUN P&G

The rightmost of the three items above is a sketch (1963) for the T1000 “World Receiver” (alternate plan). The two items on the left are sketches (1962) for the FS1000 portable television.

Dieter Rams
Industrial Designer
Born in 1932 in Wiesbaden, Germany. Graduated from the Wiesbaden School of Art (now the RheinMain University of Applied Sciences), where he studied architecture and design. After working in the office of Frankfurt architect Otto Apel, he moved on to Braun in 1955, becoming chief design officer in 1961 and head of design in 1968. His famous contributions to the world are numerous. Since 1959, he has maintained a close relationship with Vitsoe, manufacturers and vendors of his furniture. From 1981 to 1997, he was a professor of industrial design at the University of Fine Arts of Hamburg. His awards are many, including the SIAD Medal of the Society of Industrial Artists and Designers, UK. Rams has also held the esteemed position of president of the German Design Council. He left Braun in 1997 to focus on lecturing and other activities.

Personal Timeline

1932
Born in Wiesbaden, Germany
1947
Began studies at Wiesbaden School of Art
1955
Joined Braun
1968
Promoted to head of design at Braun
1981
Accepted teaching position at the University of Fine Arts of Hamburg.
Exhibition Design: Dieter Rams & opens in Berlin
1997
Left Braun
2018
Debut of documentary film: Rams
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