In the realm of industrial design, Dieter Rams is Yoda. The foundations were laid during a 40-year tenure as design director of Braun, a German electronics manufacturer. Rams helped to usher a functional modernist agenda into households the world over.
Elevating audio speakers from the carpet and removing the record player from its heavy wooden tomb, Rams ignited a design revolution with a philosophy of “less but better”. He took a functional and aesthetically streamlined approach to everything from alarm clocks to cigarette lighters, and then to arm chairs and shelving units while at Vitsoe, an international furniture manufacturer.
His Ten Principles of Design are routinely referred to as “commandments” in the field. Designers such as Jonathan Ive, Jasper Morrison and Naoto Fukasawa hew closely to Rams's precepts, such as “design is consequent to the last detail” and “design is as little design as possible.”
Now London’s Design Museum pays tribute to Rams’ body of work with “Less and More—The Design Ethos of Dieter Rams”, a definitive retrospective of his career. The show features his groundbreaking 1956 phonograph, the SK4 (dubbed “Snow White’s Coffin” for its then-unprecedented transparent lid), his 1959 TP1, a 20-year predecessor to the Walkman (featuring a combination transistor radio and miniature turntable), and his modular 606 Universal Shelving System for Vitsoe (introduced in 1960 and included in the design collection of New York’s Museum of Modern Art).
Just before the retrospective opened on November 18th, Rams spoke with More Intelligent Life about his distaste for noise pollution, the need for better instruction manuals and the awful cult of celebrity designers.
More Intelligent Life: You’ve always emphasised the importance of functionality in design. In light of that, is it funny for you to see your products on display in a museum setting?
Dieter Rams: It’s not a funny feeling; it’s a feeling that I’m becoming old.
MIL: Are you comfortable with your designs being viewed as art?
DR: No. Design has nothing to do with art. Design can help to make the products we use everyday, to make them “less but better”. We have enough products. If you look at the market you have ten or 20 coffee makers that basically look all the same, doing all the same thing: they are making coffee. We don’t need 20 of these things, we need one good one. A lot of my colleagues are concentrated on making spectacular things—pieces of art they want to be art. It’s not good for the few companies in the world that take design seriously. There are only a few—Apple is one example. So what I try to do in my work with Vitsoe and Braun is to keep them away from being pieces of art, even though they are now in museums.
MIL: You mention Apple, whose lead designer, Jonathan Ive, has frequently cited you as a major influence. Yet you yourself do not own a computer—do you have reservations about the technology?
DR: I’m still fascinated. While I was responsible for the design department at Braun, I started with computers in our model shop. It’s a great help and the computer can do wonderful things. But you have to be very careful, you should be careful with what a computer can do and what it should do—there’s a difference.
MIL: Do you feel that the emergence of celebrity designers and their product lines has helped or hurt the design world?
DR: Take the English word "design": It means construction. It has nothing to do with “Pop”—nothing to do with that. I often say I’m not a designer, I’m an architect. I’m trained as an architect. It comes now to the point that the word "design" is not a good one anymore. Products get prenamed “design” before them—designer shoes, designer [this or that]—it’s just not helpful. Design is a very important thing in our lives, or should be if it is made in the right way. And if you give products that have nothing to do with design the prename “design” it’s a terrible movement.
MIL: Your phrase “less but better” was initially read as an endorsement for purity in design. But it has been adopted as an environmental message about reduction and sustainability. What does the global community need to do to address that secondary message?
DR: We live today with a lot of chaos, and designers should concentrate on helping to lighten the chaos, including the noise. Nobody notices any more that we’re living with a lot of noise. We don’t register the chaos; sometimes, yes, when we are in the middle of traffic or running late, we discover that everything is chaotic around us. It’s London, it’s Frankfurt it’s Berlin—it’s what Corbusier used to say about New York in the ’30s: It’s a "wonderful catastrophe". Now all our cities around the world are wonderful catastrophes. We have to think much more about what we really need: how often we need things and how many we need. If we want to stay on this planet 50 years from now then we have to take that more seriously.
MIL: For many people the chaos in the environment is mirrored in their own personal spaces, in the jumble of belongings. Is clutter ever a positive thing?
DR: In your personal surroundings there should be places where you have some disorder, so that you find the other places that are in order. Order with disorder—the contrast—can be sometimes fascinating. You have to have the difference; otherwise, you forget the feeling for order, for the necessary things.
MIL: You’ve been interviewed a number of times while meticulously pruning your Japanese garden at home. Has Japanese culture influenced your attitude to design?
DR: It comes from China—Zen Buddhism tells you that you should take care of your surroundings. Because the Japanese don’t have a lot of space, they cultivate small areas. When they’re cutting trees, like the bonsais, what they are doing tells us that we can do something even if we have only a balcony—we don’t need a large garden, we are not millionaires all. We need a solution for a smaller place. I had to visit Japan often during my time with Braun and I learned a lot from these Japanese gardens. My garden makes my life a little bit more in connection with nature. They are designed, the trees are arranged, everything is landscape design—everything is done by man. And what we are doing in this field is much more important than making another coffee maker .
MIL: Have improvements in technology made products easier to use?
DR: Only few people can operate a television; the television becomes bigger and larger but to operate these things is still very difficult. England’s Prince Philip has problems to manipulate the television—there was even a story about it in our newspaper in Frankfurt. We have to make the things more self-explanatory.
“Less and More—The Design Ethos of Dieter Rams”, Design Museum, London, through March 7th 2010
Picture Credit: Luke Hayes