Interview with Dieter Rams 02.12.09

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The Design Museum in London has just opened a Dieter Rams retrospective. We caught up with the German designer before the opening.

Justin McGuirk: I’m curious to hear what’s on your mind as you see all your work laid out in this retrospective. One thing I’m interested in is nostalgia, because I think there’s a sense of nostalgia for the time these products date from, the 50s, 60s and 70s. In those days design was very much about progress and improving life and these days we are less comfortable with design, for all kind of reasons – because of the environment, because of our perception of consumerism. How do you see design today?

Dieter Rams: You know I am trained as an architect, and I was also trained in landscape design and so on. But then I met the brothers Braun and as I saw that what they had in mind was to change their whole production – along the lines of the famous school in Ulm, the Bauhaus successor. So I changed my mind and became more concentrated on design. Without these famous entrepreneurs, the brothers Braun, I never would have become a designer. And today, if I had to start again, I would never … it’s enough products. My credo today is “less but better” and there is a lot of products we really don’t need any more because there are too many. There are still a lot of things to do in the field of design, but it is not spectacularly to improve products, to make them for example more self-explanatory, which is a very important thing – especially with the new technologies. Who can operate these terrible televisions? They look great, yes! Dominate the whole room, because they get larger and larger, but you operate these things … it’s still a problem. There are a lot of things to do but they are not spectacular things. If you look at some of the architects and especially designers, they are more looking on spectacular things than to improve things.

JM: You said that you probably wouldn’t be a designer today and yet there are still many things to design and to improve. Is it because you find it difficult to be optimistic about the design “project” in the way you could in the 60s?

DR: As a designer you have to be an optimist, otherwise we should end. I’m now 79 and as you become older you are not any more such an optimist as when you are young. And don’t forget the years around the end of the 50s beginning of the 60s – there was a movement at this time to make things in another way, yes? To forget the war and all these terrible things – so, especially in Germany, we had to build cities in another way, so it was a movement to make things better and today we have lost this movement to make things better. And I am a little bit [shrugs] about our behaviour and our thinking about the future. And the future is in danger. If we don’t find new ways, new structures for education to start with, then I’m not sure if in 20 or 50 years we still can say that this planet is our home.

JM: Given the huge challenges we face, it seems like the project is greater now than it was in the post-war period – it’s more all-consuming. When we need it more than ever, perhaps we’re anxious about what design can really achieve.

DR: It’s also not only an objective of designers or of future designers or architects. It’s also an objective of politics – it’s a future opportunity for politics to change our behaviour, and also education has to be changed. Worldwide, I would say, design is maybe in a few places? It’s similar to when we started in the 50s, we only had a few examples worldwide of companies who really took design seriously. It was Olivetti at this time, this famous entrepreneur Adriano Olivetti, and Herman Miller and maybe Knoll in the furniture field, but only few! Today if you look around, still only a few worldwide.

JM: Which is interesting because politicians talk about design more and more… not that they know what they’re talking about.

DR: I hope so, I hope so but I’m missing … I can only say this from my point of view but in Germany in the beginning, our president, Theodor Heuss, he was a member of a werkbund. Or the minister of the economy, [Ludwig] Erhard, he was the moving political power behind getting architects like [Sep] Ruf and [Egon] Eiermann to design the German pavilion at the world expo in Brussels [in 1958], which was the first identity that Germany could give to the world. And I’m missing these personalities today, I’m also missing … the only entrepreneur is maybe Steve Jobs from Apple. There are some smaller companies that still have very good entrepreneurs, but smaller ones like Erco in Germany or Vitsoe. But as for a large voice in the world, you can forget it, there’s nothing. So I’m a little bit afraid how our everyday culture will look in 50 years. I don’t know.

JM: I was going to ask you who you look at these days, who you’re interested in. Apple is a very obvious reference.

DR: Some colleagues of mine, for example Philippe Starck, I met him in a furniture showroom in Los Angeles, and he said, “What do you think about Apple, the iPod? It’s a copy of your work!” I never feel that it’s a copy, it’s a compliment. Jonathan Ive sent me one of his products and I think it’s so similar to what I tried in the beginning with the brothers Braun what he now is doing with Steve Jobs – it must be a wonderful combination. Without this combination, we as designers … we cannot do it alone, we need entrepreneurs, working together with good engineers.

JM: When you see all your work laid out in one room like this, is there anything that you feel particularly proud of?

DR: I feel more proud that it was possible. In the beginning it was not easy because, for example, I have to work very closely together with the engineers, especially at Braun and at this time even the engineers didn’t believe that somebody should buy these things. And in the beginning it was not a great success, it was a relatively small business. The only thing that I could say I’m proud of working at Braun, the company … it was not well known at this time – even in Germany, not well known. But through the design and through all the works, the company started to win prizes, many from Great Britain and also the Compasso d’Oro from Italy. And the work went into the Museum of Modern Art, and that was very important for the company, the company, which through the help of design became worldwide known. It was not worldwide before. But it was a really difficult route to tread in those early days.

JM: What changed Braun’s mind would you say? Was there one thing that made them suddenly realise?

DR: For example, the engineers, they couldn’t see these things in their private home – they thought it was a little bit kitsch. Especially in the field of furniture, people were often coming to my private home and said it’s cold … the furniture is good for a hospital or maybe an office but not in my private home! People need education, if they are educated that less is better, and to make your thinking clearer, then it leads automatically to better products and better furniture.

Mark Adams (managing director of Vitsoe): Dieter, you were saying last night that what was very important to changing the minds internally at Braun in particular was a series of awards, of which two actually came from the UK. One was presented by Lord Riley in 1960 for the TP1, the first portable record player, but then two years later there was another award presented by Lord Snowdon. Dieter was saying that these awards which came in a cluster over four or five years actually then started to change their attitudes so that public recognition through the awards system was actually important.

DR: Yes, suddenly you could feel that they becoming also proud of their own work and that was helping a lot. But also understanding that the engineers are important people for the development of new products and even today it’s a problem. As a good designer you have to be half-engineer, because we are not free artists. A lot of designers today present themselves as artists, and no serious engineer is going take you as a partner. If you present yourself as an artist – they are crazy people, yes? For example, the first radio I did together with Hans Gugelot from the school in Ulm. Gugelot wanted to have the cover in the same material as the base – in metal – and it makes noise, you know the metal cover, the loud speakers underneath – it makes noise. You can imagine that the engineers said “These crazy people want to have a metal cover on it … it makes noise … it’s crazy!” The decision to have no cover on it was not the right decision, and then I had the idea to have this new material, Plexiglass as the cover. Gugelot and I, we didn’t believe that it would be the cover of a record player until today … normal!

JM: Can I ask you what you think of Braun’s design today?

DR: I left the company, I left the design department in 1995, I left the company in 97 so it’s a long time now … so I have no idea what they do.

JM: You’re not following what they do?

DR: No idea what they do. The only thing I know, and that is enough, is that since I left the company … I had no bad experiences with the people of Gillette who shows wanted me to design, with my colleagues in the design department, a lot of things for their subsidiaries, for Oral-B toothbrushes, for Jafra cosmetics, and even razors I designed for Gillette. So that was because the chairman of Gillette wanted something of our designs. But American companies are terrible companies because they are changing their executive people every two years or every three years and it’s now constant. But I had personally not a bad connection to the headquarters in Boston, during my time. It was changing starting in 1993 or 94 and then it became more and more difficult because then Gillette is bought by Procter & Gamble. So a lot of things have changed. In my time design was a very important thing across the whole company, but now it’s not.

Dieter Rams – Less and More is on at the Design Museum, London until 14 March 2010

image SK 2 Radio for Braun, 1955

image 606 Universal Shelving system for Vitsoe, 1960

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