A designer is a critic who makes a proposal ”. This is how the German Dieter Rams (Wiesbaden, 88 years old) defined his work 40 years ago. At that time Gillette hired the Braun design team, which he led, to come up with the best razor ever. Rams used a mix of metal and plastic to make sure the handle didn’t slip. The tiltable and replaceable head served to speed up the shave and to make the product last over time. Gillette invested $ 200 million to advertise the simple but ingenious invention during the 1989 Super Bowl. It took just a few months to sell 21 million razors – the most purchased in history. The product responded to the ad. Also the price. Historian Klaus Klemp has devoted himself to bringing together the 60 years of Rams production in a rationale catalog. The complete work of the designer who inspired Steve Jobs. And the Phaidon publishing house just published it. There are all the products, that’s why there is the past and also the future. Rams was Braun and Braun was Rams – although he occasionally designed for other companies. Together they built a brand that championed honesty in products. And together they inspire many current firms.
What is an honest design? For Rams, simplicity is the ultimate sophistication. And that was, precisely, the idea Steve Jobs wrote down in the first brochure Apple published. Walter Isaacson tells it in his biography: “It’s about controlling complexity, not ignoring it.” Leaving everything in sight and making it understandable is in Apple’s DNA. A principle that was already in Rams, who today is flattered to be an inspiration, although he has never had a computer.
Isaacson tells in his biography of the founder of Apple that he called a contest to choose a designer who would represent for Apple what Rams had meant for Braun. Jonathan Ive took note: he openly relied on a transistor that Rams had designed with the team he led in 1958 to draw the Ipod. For the rest, it was proposed to reduce as far as possible. His goal approached Rams physically and intellectually: not to follow fashions so as not to go out of style. The difference is that Braun’s products lasted in time and Apple’s technology does not respond the same to that idea of permanence.
Dieter Rams was the lifeblood of the Braun company for 40 years. One of its most famous products, the Braun Citromatic juicer, is the son of Braun Española, the company that was born when the German company acquired the Barcelona brand Pimer in 1972. That is why this product bears, in addition to Rams, the signature of Gabriel Lluelles, the designer of Pimer. In 40 years of working for Braun, Rams was allowed to create shelves, chairs or tables for other manufacturers such as Niles Vitsoe and Otto Zapf. All that work is finally cataloged.
The German collected his ideas in 2008 in a decalogue that also supposes an idea of the world. In it he defines the best design as: useful – capable of considering functional, ecological and psychological reasons -, aesthetic – well done is beautiful -, innovative – it is not worth solving what has already been solved -, understandable – easy to use – and honest – or it tries to falsify the value or innovation of the product, nor does it try to manipulate the consumer by promises of hyperbolic utility. For Rams, the best design is also discreet because sobriety facilitates well-being. It is, of course, durable: it remains physically and functionally and is also timeless. That is why it respects the environment by conserving resources and minimizing pollution. For the historic German designer, less but better means better made, more precise, more essential, more beautiful and more functional.
Today, the author of scales, record players, clocks, razors, blenders or radios – 514 designs for Braun – spends his days tending the Japanese garden of his home in Kronberg. Although he temporarily dropped out of school to learn to be a carpenter like his grandfather, Rams is an architect by training. He worked for Skidmore, Owings and Merrill for a year, but the only building he has ever built is the house he has shared with his wife, photographer Ingeborg Rams, for 60 years. In that white house, located to the north of the city of Frankfurt, right where the largest Braun factory is located, the protagonist is the garden that he takes care of with great care and the pool where, still today, he swims every morning. The interior is also white for a reason: according to Otl Aicher, his teacher at the Ulm School who replaced the legendary Bauhaus in Germany, the decoration is the things, the books, the photographs and the plants of the marriage. And among those things are its appliances, its shelves and its seats, which accumulate decades of use and are irreducible modernity. From that durability over time, it is understood that Dieter Rams is today considered a precursor in the defense of sustainability.
“Only through collaboration and dialogue can the world be healthy and wise,” he says in Klaus Klemp’s book. He says that any nationalism scares him. “The goal is to unite, not disunite.” And he assures that designing is not only shaping, it is also defining people’s lives, building how we will live with each other. “Design can promote union or destroy it.”
That is why Rams, who has dedicated decades and decades to making objects that last physically and visually, invites new designers to consider whether what they are projecting is really necessary or if something already exists that fulfills that function. It also makes consumers think: “The important thing is to know why we make and buy objects. Does it enrich our life or does it just appeal to status? Is it repairable? Long lasting? It’s easy to use? Will I be able to dominate it or will it dominate me? That last question is key. And in 60 years of professional life, the recipe that has never failed Rams has always been his mantra: “Less, but better.” Also applicable to production: “With fewer resources and more garbage, where is the planet going?” It cannot be that only catastrophes make us change, he laments. “The we must go ahead of the me. Perhaps the greatest responsibility of design is to illuminate the chaos we live in today. “