Dieter Rams is undoubtedly one of the 20th century’s most influential industrial designers. With his mantra “less but better”, he is renowned for his pared-down, quietly elegant consumer products. From pocket calculators, alarm clocks, and radios for Braun to furniture and shelving systems for Vitsoe, Rams created an overall design ethos from the 1950s to the 1990s. Highly disciplined in his intuitive approach, Rams scripted his 10 Principles of Good Design, sometimes referred to as the 10 Commandments, in 1985. He expounded that good design should be innovative, make a product useful, be aesthetic, make a product understandable, be unobtrusive, be honest, be long-lasting, be thorough

down to the last detail, be environmentally friendly, and be as little design as possible. An exhibition now at the Vitra Design Museum juxtaposes his pieces for Vitsoe and Braun alongside one another, pinpoint- ing the coherence between all things great and small.

Dieter Rams talking about the adjustable feet of the 621 Side Table © Vitsoe
“I often get the question, ‘Worldwide, which company is really excellent at making good design?’ It is easy to say Apple”, voices Rams. “But Apple is also changing, due to international competition. It is a problem that there aren’t more companies taking design seriously.” We are meeting at Schaudepot, the Herzog & de Meuron-designed Vitra building that opened last year. The exhibition Dieter Rams / Modular World is on the ground floor, in the centre of Vitra’s collection of chairs from the 19th century up to today. Our conversation is taking place in the basement, which seems an unlikely place to be meeting a design luminary. “Design is firstly a think- ing process”, he insists. “I’ve said it more than once that we designers and architects, who are responsible for the environment, have the same objective: to make our world and our future easier to live in. I’m absolutely sure that our surroundings help to bring people and politicians together. There are many things to do. One of these is to eliminate the chaos that we have to live in today – forgetting all the wars and things.”

Since the beginning of his career, Rams has been concerned with “visual chaos”. Born in the spa town of Wiesbaden in 1932, Rams – the son of an electrical engineer – grew up during the Second World War, experiencing the division of Germany into East and West. In 1955 he joined Braun, headquartered in nearby Frankfurt, as an architect and interior designer. During four decades at the company as head of its design department, he oversaw the creation of around 500 products. This prolific continuity was largely thanks to his positive relationship with brothers Erwin and Arthur Braun, who had inherited the company from their father. In post-war Germany, working in a city whose mediaeval centre had been badly bombed, Rams believed that good design had a role to play in enhancing people’s daily lives.

740 Stacking Programme Photo: Christoph Sagel Courtesy of Appel Design Gallery, Berlin
Among Rams’s pioneering products are the SK4 record player (1956), also known as Snow White’s Coffin, and the TP1 portable record player (1961). The former has a transparent acrylic lid, which marked a radical departure from putting radios in a cabinet. The lat- ter, meanwhile, is widely considered a precursor to the Walkman. From coffee machines to cigarette lighters, televisions to hairdryers, his designs harnessed technological innovation yet were aesthetically modest and inconspicuous. Favouring black, white, and pale grey, Rams advocated that products should not boast about themselves but withdraw into the background. Colour should be used as a coding signifier “for in- formation purposes”, such as drawing attention to the buttons on a keyboard. The designs were characterised by purity and ergonomics, so that the end-user would not need to pore over an instruction manual.

What is less known is that Rams began designing furniture in the 1950s. First, small pieces, such as furniture racks and boxes used for TVs, for Braun in 1957, then larger pieces for Vitsoe+Zapf (now Vitsoe) from 1959. Many of the Vitsoe+Zapf pieces were conceived as modular systems that could adapt to the owner’s changing circumstances – a visionary approach at the time. The 606 Universal Shelving System (1960), still in production, enables modules manufactured today to be combined with a 1960s shelving system. Rams configured its dimensions with his Braun products in mind, so that his Hi-Fi systems could sit nicely on the shelves. In Sophie Lovell’s book, Dieter Rams / As Little Design As Possible, Jasper Morrison refers to it as “the endgame in shelving”, being “as close to perfect design as it is possible to get”.

The new Vitsoe showroom, Frankfurt, circa 1971 with the 620 RZ 62 Chair Programme Photo: Ingeborg Kracht Rams
606 Universal Shelving System for Vitsoe, circa 1971-75
The 620 Chair Programme, which includes a one-, two-, and three-seater sofa, is modular too: the pieces can be fitted with different side and back panels. Contrasting with the angular geometry of Gerrit Rietveld and the more organic style of Ray and Charles Eames, Rams developed a kind of ‘soft cubism’ for his seating – curved lines with leather upholstery. Meanwhile, the barely-known 740 furniture system is based on round stacking elements inspired by Japanese sitting mats. In Rams’s house in Kronberg, near Frankfurt, which he designed himself, he and his photographer wife Ingeborg still live surrounded by his furniture and Braun products.

So how does Rams feel today about his 10 Principles of Good Design? “I’m always thinking I should change something, but when I talk to students, they don’t think it’s necessary”, says Rams, who taught at the University of Fine Arts in Hamburg whilst at Braun. “At the beginning, I didn’t want the principles to be set in stone. They are from the time in which I worked and lived, they represent that time. I don’t see any reason for an update.” Rather, Rams affirms that younger designers should take up the mantle. As he says, “Newcomers should ask: ‘What did this guy do to make him think like that?’ Then they should add something to hopefully make us more intelligent and more thoughtful about what we are doing.”

“Today those 10 Principles look obvious, but at the time it was a revolution; his designs are so perfect that they can exist in any period”, says Catalan designer Eugeni Quitllet, who has designed radios for Lexon and furniture for Kartell. “Today, there are other factors like the ‘emotional’”, he adds. Recalling his childhood memories of Braun products, Quitllet says, “I was born in 1972, the year the Citromatic orange squeezer came out, and in our house in Ibiza, that was the only electronic piece we had, along with a PS 1000 record player, both by Rams. I grew up with music and orange juice and these two angelic items. This morning, I made orange juice with my Citromatic.” However, British designer Paul Cocksedge thinks that adhering to a set of principles is not for everyone. “Rams applied the principles beautifully in his own work, but applying rules to design can be restrictive”, he says. “I think he created them for a specific type of mass-produced industrial design, but there are many other things in-between that. If people relate to those principles creatively, then it’s a chance to learn from a great designer. But if it doesn’t feel natural, then people should feel free to find their own way, with- out being constrained by rules.”

Beyond his 10 Principles, Rams has consistently stressed that design should benefit society. In fact, he has several issues on his mind, such as using de- sign to help create a sustainable environment. “We made many mistakes in the past, especially after the war”, he says. “Today we have the same problem: we need more affordable space where people can live.” How to use technology responsibly is vital. “There are new technologies and things that we don’t know how to handle”, he states. “We do not think seriously enough about what’s going on in the future. Technology is moving very fast and we are all wondering how it will change our world in the next 10 years. Despite tremendous changes in the last 10, 15 years, only a few things were made that we can still live with.” According to Dieter Rams, the emphasis on marketing is to the detriment of design. “I hate all this marketing and how companies lie to get into the market”, he hisses. “Terrible things are going on.” The speed of production is encouraging a throwaway culture in which too many products are being made that lack longevity, in his opinion. “I hate all these winter and summer collections that are deemed necessary”, says Rams. “My grandfather and grandmother were happy to live in the same environment from the beginning and to keep it until the end of their lives, and then give it to their children. That should be coming back in, but at a higher quality, of course.”

The key to overhauling design is to start with education. “Education is a catastrophe all over the world”, laments Rams. Part of the problem, he asserts, is that students aspire to emulate the success of the ‘star designers’ exhibiting in galleries and at design/ art fairs. “Students like studying design because it’s interesting and they want to have the same things as the star designers”, he opines. “They are think- ing first of all that design has to be art. Good design has nothing to do with art. It has something to do with art when it’s sensibly done and you can read the product through self-explanatory design. But most things you see today are spectacular looking. Designers are not there to make things look nicer or more spectacular! But I understand why young people want to study design, because it’s easier than architecture.” Less but better education is required. “All of the 16 States in Germany have an architectural design school”, he says. “I’m absolutely sure that only a few of those students could work as a designer.” Rams is convinced that design education needs to be refocused on engineering aspects. “Construction, new materials, all these things are very important”, he insists. “But we have too many schools for this to be taken seriously.” Design schools should be developing internship programmes with companies, Rams reckons. “I was able to teach at the University of Fine Arts in Hamburg because the chairman of Braun thought it was a good idea to have contact with younger people. I could take the students into the design department for two or three months. But the schools should do this.”

What advice can Dieter Rams impart, design-wise? “It all still lies in the details – the same with redesign and how we can improve things”, he replies. Looking back on his long career, what does he regard as his legacy? “My book Less But Better (1995, re-edited in 2014) and the Dieter and Ingeborg Rams Foundation”, he says assuredly. Indeed, when Rams was awarded the IKEA Prize in 1992, he used the money to set up the Foundation for the purpose of promoting design. Deyan Sudjic, director of the Design Museum in London, has this to say: “Dieter Rams synthesised the teachings of the Ulm school of 60 years ago to create an extraordinarily refined language of design, which despite the huge techno- logical shift from analogue to digital, remains valid today. Sam Hecht, one of many contemporary designers influenced by Rams, put it so well when he suggested that everything Rams designed looked as if it was created for the same room.” Quitllet also expresses himself concisely, saying, “I think he invented the instinctive use of tools, which didn’t exist before. I’m still learning from him. Thank you Dieter.”

Modular World is at The Schaudepot, Vitra Design Museum, Weil am Rhein, Germany, until 12 March 2017.

This article appeared in DAM60. Order your personal copy.
Rams's studio at home © Phaidon
Rams's workshop at home © Phaidon
TP1 Portable Record Player, 1961 © Procter & Gamble
Braun calculators © Phaidon
SK 55 Phono Radio Combination Photo: Andreas Sütterlin
Braun logo guidelines © Phaidon
Prototype in the workshop © Phaidon
Dieter Rams, 1975 © Phaidon