DESIGN HERO DIETER RAMS
The German legend whose crisp, clean and functional style has influenced a generation
‘Good design is as little design as
possible,’ said German icon Dieter Rams (1932–) in his famous 1970s rubric ‘Ten Principles of Good Design’. It’s a maxim the 84-year-old designer lives by in every sense, not only in the functionality of his work but also in the simplicity of his career path: he is known for collaborating with just two companies, electronics giant Braun and furniture brand Vitsoe. Despite this low-key approach, it is impossible to overstate the impact and prescience of his work: Jonathan Ive has cited Rams’ ‘pure, perfectly proportioned, coherent and effortless’ style as a key influence on his designs for Apple, ensuring that Rams’ spirit is felt by a generation of gadget lovers.
The idea that design should be practical was engendered in Rams from his childhood in the city of Wiesbaden, where he observed his carpenter grandfather at work. He studied architecture, but after a short stint in an architect’s office in Frankfurt, joined Braun in 1955, just as the post-war boom in consumer electronics signalled a rosy future for the company.
Rams worked at Braun for 40 years and served as its head of design from 1961 to 1995. One of his key achievements there was the ‘SK4’ radio/record player (1956). At a time when most tech was housed in clunky wooden cabinets, Rams proposed a compact, industrial-looking white metal case. Rather than concealing the controls, he placed them on top and made them an important part of his design. The pristine ‘SK4’ became known as ‘Snow White’s coffin’ and set the tone for Rams’ philosophy, in which all unnecessary details were banished and form and function became one.
In 1959, Rams received permission from his bosses at Braun to design a shelving system for Vitsoe, on the grounds that it would serve as a display space and marketing for the company’s radios. The wall-mounted ‘ Universal Shelving System’ – so-called because its metal components could be arranged in endless ways – has been in continuous production since 1959, and has become the template for countless other modular systems. He followed it up in 1962 with the ‘620 Chair Programme’, made from a boxy metal shell with leather upholstery. Designed for self assembly with one simple magnetic tool, its components are the same now as when they were launched; any chair, however old, can always be updated or enlarged to form a sofa.
Since 1971, Rams has lived and worked in a bungalow on an estate in Kronberg, near Frankfurt, which he helped to design for Braun employees. With its white tiled floors and Japanese-inspired garden, the estate is filled with his designs and has recently been listed as a historical site (vitsoe.com; braun.com/uk).
In Rams’ famous design philosophy, form and function become one
Clockwise from top left Rams’ home in Kronberg. ‘620 Chair Programme’; ‘Universal Shelving System’; ‘740’ stacking system, all designed for Vitsoe. ‘SK4’ radio/record player; ‘AW50’ watch; ‘T3’ radio, all designed for Braun