words Justin McGuirk
An exhibition in a Kyoto temple aims to present Dieter Rams as the Zen master of product design. But the mixture of clocks, lighters and religion is fatuous at best.
Is there such a thing as moral design? Can a designer’s products bespeak a philosophy of life? These are the big questions, along with: “What’s that electric razor doing in a Zen temple?”
This is what I kept asking myself at an exhibition of Dieter Rams’ work at the Kenninji Temple in Kyoto, which is not, by the way, any old temple: it is the oldest Zen temple in Japan. Founded in the 12th century by the monk who brought Zen Buddhism from China, it is a porous and somehow perfect wooden structure arranged around gardens of raked gravel and soft moss. In October, it housed a selection of juicers, coffee makers, clocks, radios, modular shelves and stubble removers – all unmistakeably Rams’ work for Braun over a 50-year career.
Now, don’t get me wrong, Rams’ contribution to industrial design is a venerable one. Not only did he define an era of timelessly simplified utilitarianism, but without him it would be impossible to imagine the reductive aesthetic of Apple’s iBooks and iPods or Muji’s CD players and almost everything else it sells. But there’s “minimal” product design and then there’s Zen Buddhism, and I think that connecting the two explicitly is about as fatuous as putting on a show of William Morris in Chartres Cathedral or of Tord Boontje in San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane.
Perhaps I’m taking this too seriously, but it seems to me that more than an aesthetic link is being made here. This exhibition is not just saying that Rams’ stripped down products suit the clutterless architecture of Zen. It is suggesting – more than suggesting – that, say, the exterior of his T4 pocket transistor radio (1959) is the perfect mirror of its interior purpose. It does not aspire to be more than it is or pretend to be less than it is – it just is.
And there are other overtones in the exhibition’s title, Less But Better (not quite as elegant as Mies’ antecedent). The implication is that – for the world’s sake and for our consciences’ – we need less things but better things. Enter Master Rams.
Along with a handful of other journalists, I was privileged enough to see the show in the company of Herr Rams, whose apotheosis into the world of religious artefacts we were witnessing. And all the evidence was that he believed the hype. Striking a pensive pose looking over a courtyard garden, hands folded over his walking stick, I thought his peace might be disturbed by the whirr of digital cameras being pointed at him, until I realised that that was precisely what this was: a pose. Then he went over to a stone basin in the garden and started sipping water picturesquely from a bamboo ladle as if to say, “Look and learn, people – look and learn.” Who knows what that water was used for?
The Zen master act was supported by a series of pictures of the Rams’ clinically modern Japonesque home, with the 73-year-old Dieter pruning a Bonsai tree in his kimono. All of which paints a picture of Rams living in a state of design nirvana – what the catalogue calls Die Welt von Dieter Rams. The man himself utters aphorisms of Zen-like paradox, such as “Good design is as little design as possible.”
But let’s look at his work again. It’s very calm – no excitement – and all looks very well engineered, as though it could last a lifetime. These are tools. No decoration is tolerated. Is it Zen, or is it good old-fashioned northern European Puritanism?
Personally, I think we in the West should stop trying to appropriate Zen. Manifest as a kind of minimalism, for most of us it is not a reflection of a state of mind or discipline but an aspirational form of consumerism reflecting, more likely, wealth and the presence of many cleaners.
What I found most redeeming here was the bizarre juxtaposition of all this Cold War-era audio and recording equipment with this temple. There was something eerie about it, as if the Stasi was listening in on the covert conversations of the monks. John le Carré meets Akira Kurosawa.
This exhibition was an Idea, and it probably should have stayed one. There was something self-satisfied and specious about displaying these products in this temple, not to mention incongruous. For Rams, no doubt, placing his own furniture in the Kenninji made for the perfect living environment, but these lighters and armchairs and record players just didn’t feel right here, in front of devotional scrolls, the air laced with incense. I don’t think design and religion make a happy cocktail.
Less But Better was at the Kenninji Temple, Kyoto, in October 2005.