Summer 2011

Dieter Rams: As Little Design as Possible

Ian Volner


Pop artist Richard Hamilton once said of the work of Dieter Rams that it occupies “a place in my heart and consciousness that the Mont Sainte-Victoire did in Cézanne’s.” In thirty-five years as chief of design for German manufacturer Braun, Rams personally oversaw the development of more than five hundred products—primarily consumer electronics—that came to define the interior landscape of the late twentieth century. The black, stacked stereo console; the modular shelving system afloat on its slotted track; the unassuming electric razor (below) perfect to the hand: These were Rams’s gifts to modernity, imitated the world over, and by now so integral to our day-to-day lives that we scarcely notice them. Which effect was, as Phaidon’s new monograph reminds us, Rams’s very objective. As longtime company headman Erwin Braun was fond of saying, the firm’s appliances “should be humble servants, to be seen and heard as little as possible . . . like a valet in the old days.” It’s a quote that Rams was fond of citing, and Sophie Lovell, editor of Wallpaper*’s German edition, writes here that it’s an ethic embodied in the man himself: Rams’s “life, his thinking, and even his appearance” have been refined, like his designs, to an elegant quintessence. It’s not easy to coax such a self-effacing personage out of the corner. Early in Dieter Rams, its subject asks, “Why on earth do we need another book about me?” Lovell makes a good case in favor. Tracing Rams’s development, beginning with his early architectural training in the postwar neo-Bauhaus milieu, through his call to the as-yet-unidentified trade of industrial designer, Lovell lays out the complexities and collaborations that have yielded the designer’s most successful gizmos and fixtures. She gets an assist from Apple’s Jonathan Ive, whose iconic iPod is a shameless plagiarism of Braun’s T3 radio, and from scholar Klaus Klemp, who attempts to insert Rams, against the academic grain, back into the modernist canon. Rams’s unobtrusive excellence deserves to be celebrated, even if it blushes in the spotlight, especially as technology becomes more and more the armature of our lives. His true métier was never really functionalism, nor was it even interface (though that certainly will be his prime legacy to the digital age). Rather, the genius of Rams is located at the moment we stop using the product, step back from it. At that instant, his devices quietly withdraw from us, and we become once again integral to ourselves, free and serene.

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