Profile – Dieter Rams – DesignCurial

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Dieter Rams is the definition of a design living legend who is still hard at work


Words By Emily Martin

HE IS RECOGNISED as one of the most influential industrial designers of the 20th century and this August will see Dieter Rams celebrate his 91st birthday. A protégé of the Ulm School of Design (successor to the Bauhaus), he closely associated himself with Braun and Vitsoe throughout his working life, where he was head of design at Braun from 1961 to 1995 and continues to work at Vitsoe today. His influence can be seen in product design today; Rams’s design ethos has somewhat impressed Apple designer Jonathan Ive (you can’t help but note a striking visual resemblance between the original Apple iPod and the Braun T3 transistor radio) and Rams famously set out the ‘good design’ principles where he introduced the idea of sustainable development.

Rams set out what he called ‘good design’ principles, which made him the father of modern thinking about what sustainable development means and what it should look like in practice. Image Credit: Vitsoe

I was hopeful to reach out to Rams and tap into his pioneering mind. But, now in his 90s, even great minds need to draw a line somewhere. ‘Dieter Rams is no longer giving any interviews (of any length),’ said Vitsoe in an email back to me. ‘He feels that he has said everything he needed to say over the course of his long and illustrious career.’ So, whilst I’ve not been able to speak to Rams, it’s a pivotal moment and I’ve delved through the achieves at Vitsoe to revisit some of his great achievements.

Rams set out what he called ‘good design’ principles, which made him the father of modern thinking about what sustainable development means and what it should look like in practice. Image Credit: Vitsoe

Deep at the heart of Rams’s philosophy was commitment to responsible design. In his 1976 speech ‘Design by Vitsoe’, which took place in New York, he highlighted an ‘increasing and irreversible shortage of natural resources’. He wanted people – designers, architects and consumers – to take on more responsibility to tackle excessive waste, which he associated with bad design. Rams said: ‘I imagine our current situation will cause future generations to shudder at the thoughtlessness in the way in which we today fill our homes, our cities and our landscape with a chaos of assorted junk.’

Living up to his principles of using ‘as little design as possible’, Rams’s designs showcase products that are at once simple while maintaining function and practical use. Image Credit: Vitsoe

It was pioneering talk. And whereas sustainable design and delivery is a subject on the tip of all our tongues today – shaping the industry and prompting massive investment – for Rams and Vitsoe founder, Niels Vitsoe, sustainable design wasn’t necessarily something so outward. ‘[It was] common sense,’ explains Vitsoe’s managing director, Mark Adams. ‘Neither Dieter Rams or Niels Vitsoe ever talked about sustainable design. They were designing, making and selling down-to-earth products that were intended to last as long as possible by sticking singlemindedly to a system-thinking ethos that allowed customers to live with timeless products that adapted constantly to their changing lives. Decades later many call this sustainable thinking. Vitsoe and Rams call it common sense.’

Living up to his principles of using ‘as little design as possible’, Rams’s designs showcase products that are at once simple while maintaining function and practical use. Image Credit: Vitsoe

Rams was born in Wiesbaden, Germany, in 1932. He trained as an architect and applied for a job at Braun in 1955, where he quickly became involved in product design. He first made the move into furniture and interior design when presenting a sketch of his proposals for the new interiors at the company. The boldly modern scheme includes a track-based, wall-mounted storage system, which would become the 606 Universal Shelving System launched a year later by Vitsoe+Zapf, as it was then known. It was the start of a design partnership between Vitsoe and Rams, which it partially credited Erwin Braun who said Rams could develop his furniture range with Neils Vitsoe and designer Otto Zapf, to ‘help the market for our radios’. While he managed the design department for Braun until 1995, he still works for Vitsoe today with the company attesting his products are more popular than ever. ‘Niels Vitsoe knew that the furniture designed and produced with Rams was ahead of its time. Almost 30 years after his death, Niels Vitsoe would be proud to see that his furniture is now sold to more than 80 countries,’ Adams tells me. ‘Rams’s design principles have had to evolve to accommodate the soft interfaces of many of today’s products. Weeks labouring over the position, shape and size of a button are probably gone. But the principles have stood up remarkably well, especially the need to make a product understandable, and the plea to be environmentally-friendly.’

Living up to his principles of using ‘as little design as possible’, Rams’s designs showcase products that are at once simple while maintaining function and practical use. Image Credit: Vitsoe

Rams has been visiting the company’s new production building in Leamington Spa. Returning home from his last visit, he’s created what he called, ‘My response to your building’. ‘Watch this space,’ says Adams, which I certainly am. I’m intrigued to know what work is coming next from the man who is often hailed as one of most influential industrial designers, given he is no longer giving interviews having said all he needs to say, he clearly doesn’t feel the same for producing good design. So what makes his designs so special?

‘Rams has observed that many try to copy his aesthetic by stripping away as much as possible but, in so doing, manage to lose the function and/or the ethic of the product’, says Adams. ‘When Rams has been asked this question, his answer has almost always been that the trick is, “As little design as possible”.’



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