DE­SIGN HERO DIETER RAMS

The Ger­man leg­end whose crisp, clean and func­tional style has in­flu­enced a gen­er­a­tion

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‘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

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