Less But Better

Less But Better

Dieter Rams: As Little Design As Possible
Sophie Lovell
Phaidon, $90.00

Open Dieter Rams: As Little Design as Possible. Turn to page 64. There you will find the Braun product line circa 1963. I would buy any one of those products today, save the cameras, were they sold in stores. Which is to say, you will get no argument from me about Rams’ greatness as an industrial designer and the superiority of his achievement as head of Braun’s product design department from 1961 to 1995, where he designed or co-designed 500 products, lighters, door handles, coffee grinders, hi-fis and televisions, hair dryers, and cameras. Plus those Vitsoe 606 shelves, still great, still in production.


Here’s Jonathan Ive, in the Foreword, to tell the lovers of Apple’s smooth, white, simplified, intuitive products that Rams was there first. “[W]hat Dieter Rams and his team at Braun did was to produce…products that were beautifully made in high volumes and that were broadly accessible. He defined how it was supposed to be: how industry could responsibly bring useful, well-considered products to many.” He makes it sound so elementary, this fulfillment of the modernist dream of good design for the masses (though Braun, like Apple, was never cheap). Ive gets at the crux of Rams’ importance with his emphasis on the result: “When you think of Braun, you immediately think of the products, not some abstract mission statement or charter.”

Rams was an animal for work. At his second job out of architecture school he found ideal corporate patrons in Artur and Erwin Braun, who, when they hired Rams in 1955, had already begun to consult with curators of corporate character at the Hochschule für Gestaltung Ulm, to modernize their product line and to display next to Knoll and Rosenthal. They hired him, they promoted him, and they allowed him to put together a team of like-minded, similarly-trained (and all-male) designers who stayed the same for 22 years. He had a direct connection to top management; he knew how to maintain consistency, and he obviously knew how to delegate.

Which to me sounds very American. Rams’ closest American counterpart, whose work is roughly contemporary, would be Eliot Noyes for IBM. But Lovell never mentions Noyes, much less German companies producing comparable work. (She does mention “Hermann Miller,” though, in an amusing Germanization of an American company name.)


This is odd, in that Lovell writes that Rams’ first job, with architect Otto Apel in Frankfurt, brought him into contact with SOM, then building U.S. consulates across Germany, and gave him an understanding of the design office as a corporate enterprise. She adds, “But Rams would be the first to say that what constitutes his ‘work’ as an industrial designer is inseparable from the systems and networks through which it was produced.” She is very good about identifying the team that Rams put together, crediting other designers and co-designers for the 1,000 products made by Braun during his tenure. Reading the book, which has more than enough illustrations to satisfy the most demanding Rams aficionado, we begin to understand how it was done, but we fail to get a sense of historical context.

What she also doesn’t explain is why we love it. She reports on but does not interpret his work. One of Rams’ earliest successes was the SK 4, the stereo known as “Snow White’s coffin.” Rams added the transparent Perspex cover. To me this appliance looks exactly like a modernist building, complete with wood trim and windows. It was obviously designed in plan and elevation, so that each side is a balanced two-dimensional composition. It would be a perfect place to describe the connection between Rams’ architectural efforts and his industrial design, to suggest that his work acquired more curves and tactility as it went on. But that doesn’t happen.

Part of the problem is Lovell speaks in shorthand about Rams’ style from the beginning, assuming the reader already knows Rams, or can intuit his style from the white-on-white texture of the book cover. I wanted more of this: “Many of the clock switches were simply colour-coded with a thin green stripe or dot on the switch to signify ‘alarm on,’ for example, or had a Braille-like ridge on one side so the user could locate the switch position by feel alone. These were particularly easy to operate—another concession to the rather vulnerable and unfocused state of the sleepy user.”

And less of this: “[the] pure, rather masculine utility of Dieter Rams’s products.” Why masculine? One of the nicest things about Braun is that the kitchen appliances look like the movie cameras, the hair dryers like lighters. It seems like he and his team did not design differently across the sexes. And isn’t utility Rams’ philosophy?

Even with these omissions, this is a book any fan of Rams, any fan of mid-century product design will want to buy. I do have a final Ramsian message for Phaidon: “Less but better.” A book on Dieter Rams should not be almost 400 pages and $90.