Few living designers command the cult following of Dieter Rams. The 79-year-old and his ethos of functional simplicity continue to inspire today's crop of design purists, including Jasper Morrison, Konstantin Grcic, Sam Hecht, and of course, Apple's Jonathan Ive. Count us among Rams's groupies whose hearts raced at the prospect of meeting him on his way through town to celebrate the 50th anniversary of his iconic 606 shelving system for Vitsoe. (A related exhibition is on view at Vitsoe's Manhattan showroom until the end of the month.) Rams, sensing our anxiety, exuded more avuncular kindness than overbearing ego. To meet one of your heroes is rare, but to make it through the meeting with your crush intact is rarer still.[The 606 shelving system is a kind of anti-consumerist good meant to last a lifetime.]
So what is it about Rams that inspires such doting admiration? For starters, he invented the stripped-down, intuitive language for consumer electronics — decades before Steve Jobs churned out his first Macintosh. During his 40 years with the German manufacturer Braun, Rams produced household products that conveyed their function to their users simply and honestly: control switches, buttons, and dials were reduced to a minimum and arranged in the most logical manner. Hi-tech stereo systems were packaged in modular, perfectly proportioned units that could be stacked horizontally or vertically. In short, Rams made innovation accessible and chic. From a business standpoint, he pioneered the template of having a design team plugged straight into the boardroom — a model that would be mirrored by Apple.
Rams pioneered the idea of having designers plugged into the boardroom.
And his designs, many dating from the "50s and ?60s, still hold up: They're as beautifully uncomplicated and elegant today as they were when they first came off the production line. In the foreword to the forthcoming book Dieter Rams: As Little Design as Possible (Phaidon Press, $90), Ive writes, ?So profoundly good is his design of music players, cameras and kitchen tools that it somehow transcends their technical capability."
That's in part due to Rams's unfailing adherence to his own ten commandments — the holy grail of Rams devotees — which he first articulated in the ?80s. In our exclusive interview, the master discusses his time at Braun, Apple, the importance of entrepreneurs in driving design innovation, and the role of sustainability.
With just about everything bearing the "designer" label, Rams finds the mantle empty and prefers to be called an architect, reflecting his training before joining Braun.
Here, Rams talks about being bum-rushed at a party by Philippe Starck, who exclaimed, "Apple is stealing from you!" But when it comes to Ive and Apple, Rams subscribes to the adage "Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery."
Here, Rams bemoans that more companies don't privilege design, and he argues that for design to have a truly great impact, designers have to be insulated at a company but report to high-level management. That was the case with Braun, and it's true of Apple now.
What would Rams be doing today, if he was once-again a rambunctious young designer? Figuring out new solutions for sustainability. Rams talks about the importance of finding alternative energy sources, but wonders if there are better solutions than the wind farms that ruin the landscape.
Sailboats are generally examples of good design: They fulfill their function even in dangerous situations. Asked what design he's most proud of, Rams demurs, but later, when the camera is turned off, he points to a picture of his P1 pocket record player (for 45s) and T41 radio, which could be combined and carried by a leather strap. The duo debuted in 1959; Rams refers to them as the "first Walkman."
If you're in New York, don't miss the chance to see some of Rams's work at the Vitsoe showroom up close, through this month.