Recently, we took a studio trip to the Dieter Rams show, Less and More, at the SFMOMA. The show presents an expansive and insightful look at the 50-year career of one of the greatest industrial designers. The curators also made a point of displaying how Rams’ work has influenced Apple’s design team, Sam Hecht of Industrial Facility, and other notable designers. As I walked through the space, observing the myriad of ordinary yet not-so-ordinary objects, I came up with a few observations about his approach to design:
Rams’s work is not glorious or self-centered. He has dedicated years to perfecting ordinary objects: hair dryers, beard trimmers, speakers, audio systems, and other “stuff.” Today, it is nearly uncool to make gadgets so aesthetically pleasing and well considered. The show itself and his belated ascent to stardom is a good step toward rebalancing the design world’s priorities. Except for Apple products, few industrially designed objects get noted or celebrated as cultural progress or art. I left the exhibition wondering what the state of design could have been if that level of dedication, attention, and respect to ordinary objects had been more common among the brightest designers around, many of who focus on more flamboyant careers in furniture and design art?
Confronted with the well-curated selection of Rams’s designs, only a small representation of his work, I immediately noted the inconsistency. Well, not all the objects, such as the hairdryers, are examples of great design. Yet the overall dedication, across generations of products designed throughout decades, creates an amazing body of work. Quality comes from that fortitude and iterative progression. The notion of spending decades creating similar objects under one brand is mind blowing in today’s design world. It is a true challenge to our current restlessness and resistance to commitment to design for the long run.
Stepping back from the displays, the exhibition struck me as visually cold. Looking at Rams’s work, one cannot ignore the color tonality, or to be more precise, the lack thereof. The mechanical precision, strict design language, and above all the gray mood are overwhelming. The work is timeless, created as if postmodernism had never arrived. With only a few colors other than gray, anemic wood selections, and the use of stark metal mesh, the objects cast a subdued and lifeless shadow. These are efficient objects, beautiful in their purposefulness, yet they fail to enlighten or revive their surroundings.
Many of the objects include readily available parts. The metal-mesh covering the speaker grills seems drawn from industrial air ducts; the screws holding the cases together look like they were sourced at the local hardware shop. Gaps between parts are yawning millimeters wide, simple metal profiles are joined aggressively even though all the forms are planar. And it works! Walking through the section on Rams’s influence on current designers, I found the newer products to be finicky, overdesigned, and less pure. The sub-millimeter manufacturing revolution of the last decade and the fanatic craze for myopic details are not holding up well against the straight honesty and directness of Rams’s work of yesterday.
Finally, against the backdrop of his famous 10 design commandments, Dieter Rams’s great body of work is not beyond criticism. In my honest opinion, none of the objects completely stands up to such a thorough and demanding philosophical view. And that’s soothing: Real, ordinary products cannot be a figment of pure philosophical extremism. And even that philosophy is not beyond scrutiny!
[Top image by Abisag Tullmann]