From August 27, 2011, through February 20, 2012, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) will present the exhibition Less and More: The Design Ethos of Dieter Rams. The exhibition features some 200 sketches, prototypes, and original products that elucidate the seminal designer’s distinctly modernist approach and philosophy about the function of design.
Dieter Rams is widely regarded as one of the most influential industrial designers of our time. Many of his works have achieved iconic status, while his ideas—in particular his advocacy for “less but better” design—have proved formative for a contemporary culture concerned with design ethics and sustainability. For more than 40 years, Rams was the lead designer for the German electrical appliance company, Braun, and the British furniture company Vitsœ. The exhibition, originally organized and produced by Suntory Museum Osaka in collaboration with Fuchu Art Museum in Japan, presents a survey of the designer’s work and includes a section on the legacy of Rams in contemporary design. The San Francisco presentation is organized by Joseph Becker, SFMOMA assistant curator of architecture and design.
Ever concerned with craft and technique, Rams (b. 1932) studied architecture at the Werkkunstschule Wiesbaden. After working for architect Otto Apel in the 1950s, Rams joined the electronic devices manufacturer Braun in 1961 as chief of design, a position he kept until 1995. While at Braun, Rams ushered in a new wave of holistic attention to domestic products, forever changing the relationship between design and the consumer. With over 500 products designed by him and his team, Rams’s contribution to the history of industrial design is immense. Simultaneous to Rams’s work with Braun, he collaborated with German company Vitsœ & Zapf (later British Vitsœ), which started production of his furniture designs in 1959. In 1960 Rams designed the acclaimed 606 Universal Shelving System, which is still being produced by Vitsœ today.
Rams’s personal vision and philosophy was so entwined with the Braun brand and image that it is no wonder that the two names are nearly synonymous. In a 1989 interview with Taz magazine about Braun, Rams responded as both designer and company: “We are economical with form and colour, prioritize simple forms, avoid unnecessary complexity, do without ornament. Instead [there is] order and clarification. We measure every detail against the question of whether it serves function and facilitates handling.”
Many of Rams’s designs—coffeemakers, calculators, radios, audio/visual equipment, consumer appliances, and office products—are represented in numerous museums all over the world. In 2010, to mark his contribution to the world of design, Rams was awarded the Kölner Klopfer prize by the students of the Cologne International School of Design. Recently, Rams’s work, as both an exceptional designer and a shepherd for exemplary brand coherence, has been reprised in the context of its influence on Jonathan Ive, Apple’s senior vice president of industrial design. In the documentary film Objectified, Rams states that Apple is the only company designing products according to his principles.
The exhibition will feature a vast array of the prolific designer’s oeuvre, framing the works within the historical context as well as presenting a small selection of contemporary works inspired by Rams’s coherent balance of aesthetics and functionality. Models and designs by Rams, never before shown to the public, will be presented as a means of reconstructing the development process and his specific design methodology. The Braun and Vitsœ corporate identity including some advertising and print media will also be presented.
Rams’s Ten Principles of “Good Design”
Good Design Is Innovative— The possibilities for innovation are not, by any means, exhausted. Technological development is always offering new opportunities for innovative design. But innovative design always develops in tandem with innovative technology, and can never be an end in itself.
Good Design Makes a Product Useful—A product is bought to be used. It has to satisfy certain criteria, not only functional but also psychological and aesthetic. Good design emphasizes the usefulness of a product while disregarding anything that could possibly detract from it.
Good Design Is Aesthetic—The aesthetic quality of a product is integral to its usefulness because products are used every day and have an effect on people and their well-being. Only well-executed objects can be beautiful.
Good Design Makes A Product Understandable—It clarifies the product’s structure. Better still, it can make the product clearly express its function by making use of the user’s intuition. At best, it is self-explanatory.
Good Design Is Unobtrusive— Products fulfilling a purpose are like tools. They are neither decorative objects nor works of art. Their design should therefore be both neutral and restrained, to leave room for the user’s self-expression.
Good Design Is Honest— It does not make a product more innovative, powerful or valuable than it really is. It does not attempt to manipulate the consumer with promises that cannot be kept
Good Design Is Long-lasting— It avoids being fashionable and therefore never appears antiquated. Unlike fashionable design, it lasts many years – even in today’s throwaway society.
Good Design Is Thorough Down to the Last Detail—Nothing must be arbitrary or left to chance. Care and accuracy in the design process show respect towards the consumer.
Good Design Is Environmentally Friendly— Design makes an important contribution to the preservation of the environment. It conserves resources and minimises physical and visual pollution throughout the lifecycle of the product.
Good Design Is as Little Design as Possible—Less, but better – because it concentrates on the essential aspects, and the products are not burdened with non-essentials. Back to purity, back to simplicity.
About Dieter Rams
Rams is possibly the most well-known German industrial designer, who not only produced—or directly oversaw— the design of more than 500 products in the course of his 40 years of service for Braun, but also established and headed a design department, which was extremely productive and made a global enterprise out of the company Radio Braun of Frankfurt. To date, Rams and Braun represent what is considered the typical German design approach, in which thoroughness, straightforwardness, clarity, and meaningfulness play a special role.
Born in Wiesbaden in 1932, the much-honored and highly distinguished designer was a graduate of the innovative Wiesbaden Werkkunstschule. Following his initial employment in the architectural firm of Otto Apel, Rams took a position at Braun in 1955 as an interior designer. At the time, the two young Braun family heirs, Erwin and Artur Braun, were in search of a new approach to the design of their radios, shavers, and household appliances in a manner keeping with the spirit of the times. In the “Braun lab” of the 1950s, to which the Bauhaus designers Wilhelm Wagenfeld and Herbert Hirche as well as the young design academy Hochschule für Gestaltung in Ulm contributed substantially, Rams soon took a leading position; in 1961 he was appointed head of the newly established design department. Already in the early years of the new decade, Braun design earned the highest recognition through awards and exhibitions at the Milan Triennale, the World Fair in Brussels, and the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Rams’s furniture designs for Vitsœ further carved out a permanent place for their products in the residential environments of contemporaries with a modern consciousness.
Support for the San Francisco presentation has been provided by Braun and Vitsœ.