Dieter Rams – The Man Who Shaped the Modern World

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.

Braun SK4

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!

Braun LE1 Loudspeaker

Braun 9 FM Radio

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.

Braun T3 Pocket Radio & Apple's iPod

Apple iPhone & Braun ET44 Calculator

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!

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39 thoughts on “Dieter Rams – The Man Who Shaped the Modern World

  1. Mr Maloney; A lovely piece, I share your taste and your enthusiasm.
    I spent my career at a university where I had keys to the Industrial Design department to give me access to their darkroom, consequently I was in constant contact with design students and faculty and became involved with many of them. That of course influenced the rest of my life.

    • Thank you for your kind comments! My background was in marketing and I had no idea about design when graduating, partly I suspect because nothing was manufactured in Ireland in those days!

  2. Fascinating, I know nothing about design per se but I admire people who can pare things down to their most functional form without losing the aesthetics. One of my brother’s has that ability – he just sees things differently, my other brother and I don’t have it (whatever “it” is). I don’t know if it’s something that can be learned, or if you have to have the mindset to start with!

    • Thanks Ali. I don’t know what “it” is, and I suspect that Dieter Rams doesn’t either. My brothers are an architect and a chip designer and my sister can do anything creative – I’m the dunce!

  3. Fascinating post, Mmoloney!! That green Braun 9 FM radio is a real thing of beauty! I collect old 8mm and 16mm moving pictures cameras and projectors. Many of them have that industrial/simple/useful and yet aesthetically beautiful aspect. Often German or Swiss. I find them very inspiring, but I’m not sure what they inspire me to do! Make a film? design a product? Who knows!

    Thanks for this post!

    (psst, now look a few posts down for “pictures please”….)

    • Thanks steenbeck. There are a huge number of products on the market but very few manufacturers seem to be bothered about creating products of enduring appeal. To my mind they are doing themselves out of a sale in the long term. People will stick with innovative and well designed products once they buy into them.

      I’ll see if I can find a photo for your excellent thread, but it might take me a wee while!

  4. This is a fascinating article! Thank you so much for writing it.

    I think the radio is an incredible design to look so modern after all these years!

    It is interesting to see that great design is beyond fashion somehow and really timeless!

    I found it very interesting and will try and find out more about him!

    • Thank you for your kind comments, Sakura! Some of the Japanese manufacturers made products influenced by Rams back in the 70s and 80s. They seem to follow their own styles these days. I suppose it’s good that people try different design styles or everything really would look the same!

  5. great and interesting post!

    I really like Braun designs too and we have two or three of the old Braun alarm clocks in various locations around the house, but i’d never heard of Dieter Rams before.

    Mrs Panther has her own interior (small goods only, no furniture)shop that sells mostly Swedish and Finnish antique/retro goods. The functional simplicity of Dieter Rams seems to have a lot in common with some of the Scandinavian designers of the same period, we love ‘em and our house is full of their sstuff!

    • Thanks PantherSan. The clocks are great and becoming very valuable – particularly the older ones – so you should keep a hold of them. I go to car-boot sales and always keep an AA battery in my Man Bag just in case I find one for sale so I can test it!

  6. Very interesting. I have a lot of admiration for the “back room guys” who made things the way they are, especially when they are made to look good.
    I’m a simple soul and it is totally beyond me how some people can design complex machines.
    I saw a TV programme that featured an old 19thC steam powered weaving machine the other day and my main thought was “How on earth did they get something so complex to work ?”.
    However, I’m also a cynic and I wonder just how much of the “box” for the radio and record player is actually necessary.

    • I guess the “box” is really there to protect the innards, provide information and the interface to enable operation.

      Are you all set for your Spill Challenge?

      • Yes, thanks.
        I’m suspicious because I saw someone, years ago, open an Amstrad “Hi-Fi” , which looked cool ( very state of the art for the 70s) only to reveal a box that was 90% empty.
        That’s not necessarily a bad thing, aesthetics have a place.

      • The trouble with Amstrad was they tried to innovate – while forgetting the function part. Some really good ideas came out of the company but with a sadly shoddy feel. Aesthetics really do have a place, but it has to work first.

  7. That Braun LE 1 loudspeaker looks like an electrostatic speaker, I believe that concept originated in UK in the 1950′s by a company called Quad, they produced electrostatic speakers that were very highly rated, they looked very similar to the Braun and worked on a totally different principle to the ‘normal’ speaker cone. I had a good friend in LA who owned a pair for over 40 odd years.

  8. excellent post..

    I’m all for Form Follows Function… it’s kind of amazing to think how much of a shock the designs from The Bauhaus must have been back in the day..

    http://www.art.highlandschools.org.uk/links/movements/bauhaus/bauhaus.html

    I love the brAun aesthetic – and find in quite shameful that it probably comes across as a ‘cheap shavers’ product identity now… and I find the apple design worship is funny when you show images like this next to each other.. shows you there is nothing new in ‘Being Inspired” hee hee.

    • You’ve rumbled my masterplan sameshane!! My next topic was going to be on the Bauhaus, or the Bauhaus II which would be my particular fave. Tune in next month!

    • I too am an FFF Freak, Shane – I got into it after doing an OU architecture module. There are some fascinating photos of Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye with state-of-the-art-at-the-time aeroplanes and cars flying over/standing in front – guess which look the more dated?

  9. Genius post. Like you, i love design. And i too got my piece of paper in marketing, but started as an art major. I think the love of design may have started with my dad, who wanted to be an architect but ended up as a computer engineer. The first few years of my life he wasn’t around because he worked in Greenland and came home once a year. When the job finished and he came back home for good, he brought with him new furnishings ordered up from Scandinavia, Denmark, and Germany – flatware, glassware, and tableware, teakwood furniture, etc. The inside of our house in the 60′s didn’t look like anyone else’s.

    I had never heard of Rams, but the first thing i thought of at the beginning of your post was Apple. Apple is sort of the rock star designer of today it seems (the head designer there is a British guy i believe). It seems that in the 80′s and 90′s there were more rock star designers around – Sotsass / Memphis, Starck and the like. It doesn’t seem to be that way so much now, but it just may look that way to me because i don’t live in a big city anymore.

    Great post, thanks.

    • Thanks amylee – glad you enjoyed it! I think there are some influential designers around at the moment but some cannot resist the temptation of spreading themselves too thinly – Starck for instance is now involved in hotels as well as household stuff. You should check out http://www.eoos.com for starters – they are a small practice based in Vienna who do some beautiful stuff under their own name but are designers for hire to other brands. I met one of them in my last job and it was fascinating listening to the extraordinary detail that they go into to fulfil a brief. I suspect Dieter Rams would approve of their work.

  10. Great post, thanks. Lovely pix. I’d seen some of them before, in the context of Mr Ives’ inspiration/plagiarism. I love good design, but sadly have all too little of it at home. (habitat r.i.p.). Not even a Le Corbusier recliner, like Blimpy. I have a little design sense, but my dad had tons, and what’s more he could actually make things himself out of wood and valves and stuff – a talent I envied, but never acquired. His home made mahogany radiogram was a thing of beauty. In his teens before the war, he made a TV out of an oscilloscope to watch test broadcasts from Ally Pally, before you could even buy a TV!

    • Thanks for sharing the story about your dad – they don’t make dads like him any more!

      I don’t really have a strong adversity to what Jonathan Ives has done with Apple. Rams work is undoubtedly patent protected and he approves of what Ives has taken from his work.

      Design is a bit like music in the sense that it eats itself and is in a constant cycle of trends, rediscovery and when it’s not good obsolescence. I think any product which makes good design affordable can only be good. However, some of Apple’s products are not as aesthetically pleasing as the once were – the main culprit being the iPod. The Classic model is far from a classic!

      • Agreed about Ives and Apple. But you have to give Apple an A for trying. I loved the see-through iMac, and I regret sometimes that in the name of progress good designs get junked – I loved the swan neck iMac, not least because the beauty concealed brilliant functionality in the adjustability of the screen height/angle, an ergonomic convenience now lost with the new iMacs. I do like form and function in perfect harmony!

  11. @glassarfemptee

    Replacing a successful product is a major dilemma for manufacturers: after all, why kill off the goose that laid the golden egg?

    I had a few experiences of this with a German furniture manufacturer which insisted on killing off a perfectly good design classic before it had the replacement available in a form which was marketable. They took us to Milan and beat us all over the head to take their new showroom display product which was untested and wanted to use us as guinea pigs to sort out any manufacturing problems. I was not alone in complaining about this and compared it to Ford bringing out a new Focus: the first product launched should be the three or five door versions and you should leave the beach buggy ’til later. They gave us the beach buggy and all the top brass who handled the new product were fired…

  12. I’m a bit torn by the ideas expressed in this post.. on the one hand, I appreciate the Braun aesthetic to a certain extent (though I find some of Rams’ work sterile and/or cramped, including some of your examples- I don’t like his knobs much, for example), on the other hand, I recall my dad’s approach to the subject based on motorcycles.. for him, good design ended with, it works, it won’t break, it can be repaired. He’d scoff at the new ageness of “Design is honest” or “aesthetics”, as well as things like, say, the transparent record player lid owing to the brittleness/non rigidity of the plastics used; the lid-less record player was de rigeur in any student flat I can recall, some of them were Brauns, the rest were Braun rip-offs. Sometimes I have to admit he is right in some ways. At other times, I rail against the pragmatism of such views.

    I’d certainly rate the Bauhaus as considerably more important than Rams, given that he was active in a fairly narrow field whose main purpose seemed to be arranging buttons, grilles, screens and levers on the surfaces of rectangular prisms. Perhaps I’m slightly jaded at the amount of Rams worship of late.. Spiegel and Guardian have both uncritical erected shrines to the man in recent years.

    As far as Apple goes, I like some of their work but am generally cynical about the company for its monopolising tendencies, to the extent that I don’t own any of their products. (In some cases, admittedly, because I can’t afford them). Samsung, Acer, and HTC for my tastes match Jobs’ behemoth in certain fields, either in value-for-money terms (the eleventh commandment, Dieter) or design-wise.

    • I am interested in design. There didn’t seem to be a huge number of posts with a design bent and I wanted to test the water to see if there was an appetite for it. The path of least resistance is to start with something familiar and Apple products are known to everybody – like you I don’t own any of them! I thought it might be a useful starting point to take the reader on a journey as I was planning to follow up with some other posts. I hope the piece didn’t come across as a bit of hero worship – that certainly wasn’t my intention.

      We remember artists/actors/writers for their best work. The Bauhaus was certainly very important and influential but the work of contributors there is not uniformly important/influential. We are comparing one man to a whole movement which seems a bit lopsided. Put to one side the Braun products for a minute and consider Rams’ contribution of his concise description of what is important in design. Let’s face it there are so many badly designed products around today, we need to be reminded of what is significant even at the basic level!

      I’ll be going down to the National Museum of Scotland before too long and will get some nice photos for ya – not from the underside!

      • It was a good post; didn’t see it as hero worship. I just have strong views on the subject and, presenting a counter view in the context of a blog thread, it’s hard to retain nuance and not appear overly bullish. But I appreciated the choice of subject matter. I agree that Rams’ work had integrity and that it casts a long shadow over 20/21 C. electronic industrial design, and that his design tenets were a worthwhile effort to define aspects of the discipline which are often forgotten.
        Among other possible subjects I could imagine Aalto or the Mackintosh four fitting well into this format, if you’re planning a series.

        I’d like to see the NMS photos- that article reminded me of my own home-town museum which had a huge moon fish hanging in the staircase, some freaky dinosaur skeletons, and loads of pull-out wooden drawers with indescribably hideous insects stuck on pins; luckily all retained after the recent refit, those are the things you remember as a kid in museums.

      • Would love to see a post about the National Museum of Scotland – thinking of taking young Munday as Edinburgh is easy for us on the train .He has never been out of England so would be doubly exciting for him!

  13. Great 1st post Dr Moloney.

    A little boxey for my aesthetics but the influence is undeniable. Apple may have jumped the shark (e.g. the overpriced i-Pad cover/stand that doesn’t work). Will be interesting how some of the current patent lawsuits work out. The big A may have even more money coming to them from all the androids.

    Look forward to the next installment.

    • Thanks for your kind comments Shoegazer. Seems to me that the big companies devote a good deal of time and money to suing each other’s asses. My nephew who was an Apple devotee until a couple of months ago has just gone to university and has done a cost/benefit analysis, resulting in him selling his iBook and replacing it with a Dell laptop. If the competition sharpens up it will be a good thing for all of us.

      BTW those are just my initials – a doctor I ain’t!

  14. Pingback: Dieter Rams – The Man Who Shaped the Modern World « Lavidadeunobjeto's Blog

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  16. Amazing blog! Do you have any recommendations for aspiring writers?

    I’m hoping to start my own site soon but I’m a little lost on everything.
    Would you suggest starting with a free platform like WordPress
    or go for a paid option? There are so many choices out there
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    Bless you!

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