Dieter Rams discusses the people and principles that have made him a design legend.
The German language has a useful ability to unite ideas in a single word that somehow exceeds the capabilities of its parts. Industriekunst is one of those words. It’s translated into English as “industrial design,” but this loses the crucial senses of balance and fusion implied in the German word. Industry-art would be closer. The pioneering German industrial designers of the early 20th century perceived in this conceptual union of the practical and aesthetic a liberating force for the imagination. They felt its potency in their ability to evoke delight in functional objects. This radically simple idea has stood as a challenge to every modern designer—and a promise to every consumer—for more than a century.
Dieter Rams, head of product design for Braun from 1955 to 1997, met this challenge and delivered its promise more capably and comprehensively than perhaps any other designer of the late 20th century. His designs for radios, calculators, clocks, kitchen appliances and furniture make them quietly understandable and agreeable. These seemingly modest attributes derive from an intense effort, Rams says, to “return to simplicity,” to abandon the designer’s ego and to fight the market’s “ruthless exploitation of people’s weakness for visual and haptic signals.” So, his products explain rather than announce themselves, their buttons and dials invite rather than demand adjustment and their colors and textures gently serve these ends. Each refinement finds more effective ways to use industrial processes and optimize material, so that manufacture and aesthetics resonate together.
A deep ethical current flows through Rams’ thinking and ripples into the products he designs. Its primary force is discipline, a word Rams uses to express the constraint a designer must exercise to “omit the unimportant,” let products express themselves and allow users to take their own pleasure in them. These goals contribute to a larger moral imperative: to enrich human life in a way that encourages holding on to things, rather than always seeking the new or the spectacular.
This is a global struggle against excess, waste, visual pollution and environmental destruction. Since his retirement, Rams has continued to advocate these values forcefully in essays, interviews and exhibitions—and later this year in a documentary film—reasserting that design must serve rather than dominate people, and that it must help us feel comfortable with fewer things so that we can resist wasteful exploitation of material and energy. “We need new structures for our behaviors,” he declares, “and that is design.” For Rams, industry-art must not only evoke delight; it should also guide ethical thought. Design historian Klaus Klemp refers to Dieter Rams as one of the two great bridges of modern design. If earlier designers carried the traditions of art toward industry, Rams carries industry toward the home and civil society. Dieter Rams recognizes the responsibility of designers to activate the liberating capacities of industriekunst and to enlist useful and agreeable objects in service of people and the planet.
You were an early pioneer of sustainability in its broadest sense, and a critic of wastefulness, visual pollution and triviality in design. Now that environmental sustainability has been in the public consciousness for a while, these broader issues are beginning to come around again. Would you agree with Lance Hosey, an architect and author on aesthetics and sustainability, who declared, “If it’s not beautiful, it’s not sustainable. Aesthetic attraction… is an environmental imperative”?
Beauty, not just appearance, that is both exemplary and instructive, certainly intensifies and prolongs the relationship with the user and therefore also makes sense ecologically. In my 10 principles of good design, I have written that the aesthetic quality of a product is an integral aspect of its usefulness, for the appliances that we use daily have an impact on our personal environment and influence our sense of well-being. But a thing can only be beautiful if it is also well made. Of course, there are general criteria of beauty such as harmony, contrast or proportions, but individual aesthetic sensibilities can vary a lot and can also depend upon knowledge, education and awareness. This is why I have always tended to steer well clear from this discussion about beauty and argued instead for a design that is as reduced, clear and user-oriented as possible and simply more bearable for a longer period of time. But “simple” is especially hard to achieve; even Leonardo da Vinci knew that.
Does a conflict between practical utility and abstract beauty still encourage innovation in product design, or are there other more assertive mechanisms at play?
Calm, sober and intellectual surprises should always be possible with design. Practical value and beauty are not mutually exclusive, even today, and they are unlikely to be so in the future either. For me, a restrained aesthetic and function that is as optimized as possible have always been important. These qualities lead to long utilization cycles: The objects do not become visually unbearable after a short time because they have not pushed themselves into the foreground. Certainly, these qualities also act as a constraint upon innovation. We really should consider very carefully whether we constantly need new things. I have been arguing for a long time for less, but better things.
Early on, artists, critics and manufacturers perceived two key benefits of industrial design: It made products both more desirable and more profitable, and it contributed to a general improvement of public taste. You seem to perceive a third benefit of industrial design, which is that it reduces wasteful consumption by producing objects that people will like and hold on to, which in turn benefits the environment. Do you think the consumer product industries feel a conflict between those earlier goals and this newer one?
I completely concur with [German architectural and art critic] Adolf Behne that we need “comfort” instead of “luxury.” He believed that really good design should not be fuel for consumption that brings us nothing but irreparable resource problems and environmental destruction. There has been much and persistent talk about sustainable growth; it’s time to do something about it! The only plausible way forward is the less-but-better way: back to purity, back to simplicity. Simplicity is the key to excellence!
A number of authors have noted that your work was influenced by the Bauhaus. It seems more productive to think of your work as fulfilling the promise of Peter Behrens, widely considered the world’s first industrial designer and mentor to Mies van der Rohe, Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius and many of their contemporaries. Very early in his career, Behrens declared that there is “a liberating quality” to the union of practical utility and abstract beauty because these were so often in opposition to each other in his era. Part of his success later, it seems, is that he capitalized on overcoming this opposition—with appealing and often surprising results. During your career at Braun, did you sense any continuity with the pioneering efforts of Behrens in his role of creative consultant at German industrial design company AEG?
During the relatively short period of his position as artistic consultant to AEG, between 1907 and 1914, Peter Behrens did indeed—as one of the first industrial designers ever—have the opportunity to shape many areas of that company. What he succeeded with, above all, was overcoming historicism and also to a certain extent Jugendstil, which was so prevalent at the time. For me, his enduring achievement was that he showed clearly the value of collaboration between top management and design. When I arrived at Braun in 1955, their products were still conceived by engineers and detail engineers and censored by sales-people. In the early years, we began working on a more modest product language that derived from function but was stripped of the formal mendacity that was commonplace at the time. This was thanks to the appreciation and support given to design by the top management—in particular, Erwin Braun himself. In this respect, there were clear parallel design goals to those of AEG.
I was most certainly aware of the Bauhaus culture during my studies at the College of Applied Arts in Wiesbaden. The founding director, Professor Hans Soeder, had based the school’s curriculum on Bauhaus principles. Particular role models were Mies and Gropius, who had also both worked as assistants in Peter Behrens’ office.
Are there products that you use regularly and that you particularly enjoy, or that you think exemplify the principles of design you developed and refined over the years?
My wife and I live in our house furnished predominantly, but not entirely, with products from Braun and Vitsoe. For example, the Vitsoe 606 Universal Shelving system: I designed it 56 years ago and still feel comfortable with it. When you live with products, you get to learn their faults so you can improve them and thus keep the designs alive for longer!
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Words:Alex Anderson & Molly Mandell
Photography:© bpk / Abisag Tüllmann