Dieter Rams’s Lesser-Known Genius As A Furniture Designer

Before modularity was a design buzzword, Dieter Rams made it matter.

In the 1970s, Dieter Rams began formulating his 10 principles of good design, which designers today still interpret as gospel–a testament to Rams’s unquestionable foresight and greatness. If you were to quantify his impact, you need only look at the millions of Apple products in our pockets and on our desks; Jonathan Ive and Steve Jobs were disciples of Rams and incorporated his industrial design philosophy–as demonstrated through his work at the German electronics company Braun–into their own work.


Yet it was furniture, not electronics, that was most emblematic of Rams’s 10 principles, according to the designer himself.

“Perhaps even more directly than with the Braun appliances, my furniture arose from a belief in how the world should be ‘outfitted’ and how people should live in this artificial environment,” Rams once said. “In this respect, each piece of furniture is also a design for a certain kind of world and way of living.”

[Photo: Christoph Sagel]

A forthcoming exhibition at the Vitra Design Museum, in Switzerland, zeroes in on Rams’s obsession with modularity in furniture, the conceit that makes his products immortal. In one of his principles, Rams mused: “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.”

Rams created chairs, tables, and storage for Vitsœ–a brand founded in Germany in 1959 and based in the U.K. since the 1990s–that expressed that ethos of longevity. Since these pieces could be reconfigured, adapted, and added to, someone could own Rams’s products for their entire life and their usefulness would never diminish.

Case in point: the 606 Universal Shelving system. A kit of parts, the shelves have endless permutations and their aesthetic is such that they could work at home, in an office, or in a retail environment–you name it. The 606 system is almost like a chameleon, adapting to its surroundings. Similarly, the 620 Chair exists as a single throne, or it can be linked up with other units to become a sofa. The 621 table works in a handful of ways: as a side table, propped on its side for a bit more height, or placed in a row to become a bench. Genius!

Contemporary practitioners in industrial design, furniture, tech, and architecture speak about modularity as if they invented it, but it’s a decades-old concept that pioneers like Dieter Rams have helped mold and shape. So even if you can’t afford one of Rams’s products, there’s a chance it inspired something that’s in your house right now. Catch some of the designs featured in Dieter Rams: Modular World in the slide show above.


[All Images: courtesy Vitra Design Museum]

About the author

Diana Budds is a New York–based writer covering design and the built environment.