When Dieter Rams enters a new country, he doesn’t like to call himself a designer. Instead, the world famous German industrial designer writes “architect” on his passport entry card. In fact, it was as an architect in the early 1950s that Rams got his start building additions and installations for a little known German manufacturer just starting up, named Braun.
As design director for Braun from 1961 through 1995, Rams set the company firmly on a course toward a vision of modern design as compact, sleek, and irrefutably correct. A record player that Rams designed in the early 1956 is a fit example. A compressed ash white with a transparent acrylic lid and confident aluminum knobs, the SK4 record player was nicknamed by competitors “Snow White’s Coffin” and Braun feared it would sink. Instead, it practically put Braun on the map as a design trailblazer and set the standard—rectangular box with clear lid—for record players that stuck for as long as LPs lasted.
When Rams designs something, it stays designed. And that is precisely what Danish manufacturer Niels Vitsoe was after when he asked Rams to design a shelving system with flexible components. More than 50 years later, the 606 Universal Shelving System has achieved that with wall brackets supporting not only shelves, tables, drawers, cabinets and display units, but all those whether they were designed in 1965 or 2005. The entire thing is assembled without tools using instead aluminum pins so elegant and exact that most all other shelving systems (heads up, IKEA) have copied them. Meanwhile, in accordance with Rams’ mantra that design should not be new, only better, the 606 has not been changed, only improved. Case in point: the pins slide in better with a 60-degree angled post as opposed to having straight-up sides. All components from the earliest to the latest are compatible and, in some instances, the same tools are in use as they were in the 1960s.
No effort has been made to keep up with trends. “Go ahead put lime green all around it; the 606 is not going to change,” said Mark Adams, managing director of Vitsoe, noting that in the past 15 years there have been but 54 improving tweaks to the original design.
Vitsoe uses a recycling method for packaging so sophisticated and sustainable that the Royal College of Art in London sends students to observe and learn. The word “design” as commonly used today really does not apply to what Dieter Rams does. On a recent visit to the Vitsoe showroom on Bond Street where there is a small exhibition of the earliest components of the 606 along with some cool Braun pieces, including Snow White’s Coffin, Rams said he would like to see the “D” word replaced by “Gestalt” indicating not an object but a process that encompasses economy, culture, and ideal solutions.
“We don’t need more designs, we need more and better thinking about our resources that exist,” he said, mentioning wind turbines as a prime example of something in sore need of some design intelligence. And is there something he wished he had been the first to get designed? Oh yes, he said, “Everything by Eames.”