Alexandra Lange
Architecture & design critic

Less but better

Dieter Rams: As Little Design As Possible by Sophie Lovell

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.

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.

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.


Originally published in The Architects' Newspaper