I was keen to do a post that was related to our shared musical interest, but in a more oblique fashion. There are few things that unite or divide opinion like music, but the look of things is certainly one of them. Modernism or Victoriana are just as likely to elicit a negative reaction as they are to be embraced, but all eras have styles or objects of enduring appeal.
I have worked for 20 years on and off for design companies. This happened entirely by accident, a result of a job interview I did in London. My interviewer was late and tipsy and I was offered the job on the spot. What sold me was a visit to this German company’s showrooms – it was like a Pauline conversion. I had no idea I was interested in design up to that point, but leaving there that day I was sure that I was! Since then I have worked mainly with German manufacturers of high end kit and they all took their cues in one way or another from one man: Dieter Rams.
Rams is an industrial designer. His goal was to make products from a functionalist persuasion rather than an aesthetic one – the design being based on what is purposeful rather than starting out with the mindset of producing something which will look pretty. However many products which he designed do indeed look pretty. Here’s his take on hi-fi equipment.
The SK4 must have looked like something from outer space when it was launched in 1956. Nicknamed “Snow White’s Coffin”, it had a see through lid – an innovation typical of Rams. He was ahead of his time on speakers and tuners too!
These products look as good now as the day they were launched. Rams became chief designer at Braun in 1961 and oversaw a range of products from juicers to clocks and calculators. In the 80s he came up with Ten Commandments of good design. They may seem trite but they are universal in their applicability and it is amazing how often they are not followed, leaving us with unappealing, incomprehensible or plain useless 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
The last commandment is probably the most telling. He’s not really interested in minimalism, things are not pared down for just that end. His maxim is Less, But Better. These commandments and the quality of his work have had a profound impact on the way things look today. There will be something in your pocket or on your desk that betrays his influence on product designers, the most obvious disciple being Jonathan Ive of Apple. Check out some of these products and their progenitors.
In each case the Braun product predates the Apple one by 30 years or more.
Dieter Rams retired in 1998 but many of his designs are still in production. He recently said that Apple are the only company currently manufacturing products that adhere to his Ten Commandments. I don’t really go with that in that one of Apple’s core strategies in recent years has been to drip-feed innovation onto the market, forcing their devotees into an endless cycle of product purchases to “consume” innovation. This to me is a profiteering strategy which does not place the customer at the product’s focus. Apple will eventually pay the price for this, they are losing customers already to the Android product and their focus on innovation is on the wane
I have a Braun alarm clock which I have thrown around my bedroom for nigh on twenty years. It is voice activated, keeps time perfectly and of course looks beautiful. Rams will remain an inspiration and next time you pick up your iPhone or iPod, smile and spare him a thought!