As head of design at Braun, the German consumer electronics manufacturer, DIETER RAMS (1932-) emerged as one of the most influential industrial designers of the late 20th century by defining an elegant, legible, yet rigorous visual language for its products.
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.
Copyright Dieter Rams, amended March 2003 and October 2009
These ten principles defined Dieter Rams’ approach to “good design”. Each of the hundreds of products he developed during forty years with Braun, was unerringly elegant and supremely versatile. Units were made in modular sizes to be stacked vertically or horizontally. Buttons, switches and dials were reduced to a minimum and arranged in an orderly manner. Rams even devised a system of colour coding for Braun’s products, which were made in white and grey. The only splash of colour was the switches and dials.
Rams’ objective was to design useful products which would be easy to operate. Yet he achieved much more by dint of the formal elegance and technical virtuosity of his work. Rams’ designs always looked effortless with an exquisite simplicity borne from rigorous tests and experiments with new materials and an obsessive attention to detail to ensure that each piece appeared flawlessly coherent. Dieter Rams remains an enduring inspiration for younger designers, notably Jonathan Ive and Jasper Morrison, who have acknowledged his influence in their work at Apple and Rowenta respectively.
Dieter Rams was born in Wiesbaden, Germany in 1932. As a boy he loved to watch his grandfather at work as a carpenter and interrupted his study – of architecture and interior design at the local art school – in the late 1940s to become an apprentice carpenter. In 1951 he joined an architects’ office in Frankfurt and, four years later, was employed by Braun as an architect and interior designer.
Founded in Frankfurt in 1921 by the engineer Max Braun, the company had a sound reputation for engineering and for developing new products, including the first combined radio and record player. After Max’s death in 1951, his sons Artur and Erwin took charge and repositioned Braun to benefit from the expansion of the post-war consumer electronics market. It was a time of rapid technological change when manufacturers were harnessing the engineering advances made in the defence industry during World War II to develop new electronic products for consumers. It was also a time of changing taste. The first wirelesses, gramophones and television sets had been hidden inside wooden cabinets to resemble traditional furniture, but the new generation of post-war consumers had lost their parents’ taboos about technology, which they saw as an exciting symbol of progress. Realising that the styling of their products needed to become more sophisticated, in 1954 the Braun brothers asked the tutors of the recently founded Ulm School of Design to advise them on product design and recruited a design team including Rams.
When he arrived at Braun, Rams applied his architectural skills to the design of exhibition sets and offices, but became increasingly interested in products. In 1956 he worked with the Ulm tutor Hans Gugelot on the development of the SK4 radio and record player. Abandoning the traditional wooden cabinet, they devised an unapologetically industrial metal case for the SK4 with two pale wooden sides. The operating panel was positioned on the top next to the turntable, rather than hidden away at the side. Originally the cover was to have been made of metal, but it vibrated too much in tests and was replaced with transparent plastic which exposed the mechanics of the record player. Rather than being repulsed by the sight of electrical apparatus, consumers considered it chic and transparent lids became an industry standard. The plastic lid also gave the SK4 its nickname – “Snow White’s Coffin”.
Rams refined the design language he and Gugelot had adopted for the SK4 in the following year’s Atelier 1 hi-fi system and L1 loud speakers. Until then stereo systems had consisted of single units with integrated speakers, but Rams separated the speakers to make the receiver unit more compact. Subsequent developments in stereophonic technology ensured that this too soon became a standard. Determined to develop a coherent ‘family’ of products for Braun, Rams designed the Atelier 1 and L1 in the same proportions as the SK4. Consequently they could be used together with the L1 being added to the SK4 to amplify its sound. He then placed the L2 speaker on a slender metal stand – another innovation which was swiftly copied by Braun’s competitors.
Not only was Rams determined to ensure that Braun’s products were easy to use, he wanted people to enjoy using them. This meant that each audio product had to be perfectly attuned to the type of music which was popular at the time. As musical taste changed throughout the 1960s, with the growing popularity of rock, pop, folk and then electronic music, Braun’s engineers constantly strove to adapt. When the LE1 electrostatic loudspeaker was launched in 1960, on the eve of the pop revolution, musical taste was still fairly conventional and the engineers’ objective was to produce a clear, transparent sound for jazz and classical music. Rams façaded the speakers with super-light membranes as a visual allusion to the clarity of the LE1’s sound while presenting it as a proud symbol of engineering innovation.
In 1962 Rams was appointed director of Braun’s team of young designers. Having established its own design resource, the company became progressively less reliant on advice from the Ulm tutors. Instead Rams divided the responsibility for the development of different products among the young designers in his team. Gerd A. Müller was responsible for household products and Roland Weigend for scales, model-making and product graphics; while Rams concentrated on radios, record players, torches and projectors.
Among the most important technical advances in consumer electronics during the 1960s was the development of new transistor technologies. By replacing the large, hot radio tubes which, until then, were required to produce high quality sound, transistors enabled Braun to develop smaller audio products with large top surfaces on which Rams could arrange the buttons, dials and other operating elements in an ordered, easily legible composition as he did for the 1962 Audio 1 radio and record player. For the first time Rams could design a complete set of modular components, including the L45 speaker and TG60 tape recorder. All the units, except the record player, could be displayed horizontally and vertically or wall-mounted.
The Audio 1 series was designed specifically to be displayed on the 606 shelving system that Rams had developed for the furniture manufacturer Vitsœ+Zapf since 1957. Intended to be easily assembled while offering maximum flexibility from the minimum number of components, the 606 was designed by Rams as a series of interchangeable units, including shelves, cupboards and drawers, made from 3mm sheets of anodised aluminium connected to an extruded aluminium E-track by 7mm turned aluminium pins. The original version of the 606 combined beech with off-white lacquered doors and drawers to replicate the glacial elegance of the SK4 and Audio 1/2.
By 1963, when he developed the TS45 control unit, TG60 tape recorder and L450 loudspeaker, Rams had perfected the codification of Braun design in terms of structure and colour. Each unit was exactly the same size to give the user maximum flexibility in deciding how to combine and display them, either vertically or horizontally. In terms of colour coding, the steel plate case of the audio units was in white or charcoal grey with an aluminium coverlid. The operating elements were pale or dark grey except for the green on/off switch. Adhering to these codes ensured that, at a time when technology was changing rapidly, consumers could be confident of learning how to use each new Braun product quickly and efficiently.
By the mid-1960s, Rams’ design style was regarded as the apogee of modernity. Sought-after by fashionable consumers, Braun’s products were even celebrated in the work of the British pop artist Richard Hamilton, who played with the company’s logotype by replicating it in ‘Brown’ and ‘Hamilton’.
Yet the direction of Rams’ work was still dictated by technology. In 1965 he abandoned the glacial style that had proved so successful by replacing the pale base colour with black by coating each side of the units of the Studio 1000 hi-fi system, except the front, with anthracite-coloured structured lacquer. Marking the development of high fidelity – or hi-fi – technology, the black bases made audio units look denser and more compact thereby illustrating their technical strength. Rams was also able to seal the units with unobtrusive elongated and rounded aluminium strips, rather than screws. He then enlarged the knobs and switches of the units to suit the darker palette.
Black dominated consumer electronics design for the next thirty years. Rams and his team applied it to other products throughout the late 1960s and 1970s, including clocks, calculators and watches. Rams enjoyed grappling with new challenges and relished the chance to work on different products. A particular favourite was the 1968 T2 Cylinder cigarette lighter inspired by the development of a new magnetic ignition technology. As a smoker, Rams loved to design lighters as “small sculptural objects” which should be “a pleasure to look at and to use.” His chief challenge with the T2 was identifying the precise place on the side of the cylinder at which the thumb could apply the greatest pressure to the magnetic ignition pad.
Dieter Rams remained design director of Braun until 1995 when he was succeeded by Peter Schneider. During his forty years at Braun, he developed products to be manufactured at vast scale and used daily by millions of people, yet he remained as provocative and questioning as ever in his quest for “good design”. “I think that good designers must always be avant-gardists, always one step ahead of the times,” he said in a speech to the Braun supervisory board in 1980. “They should – and must – question everything generally thought to be obvious. They must have an intuition for people’s changing attitudes. For the reality in which they live, for their dreams, their desires, their worries, their needs, their living habits. They must also be able to assess realistically the opportunities and bounds of technology.”
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