Vitsoe's 606 Universal Shelving System by Dieter Rams 19.08.11

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Dieter Rams’ 1959 modular shelving system has grown old gracefully, living up to the German designer’s high ideals of enduring simplicity, harmony and flexibility.

If you only ever bought one set of shelves in your life, what requirements would they need to fulfil? Practically, they would need to be strong and well built. You would need to be able to dismantle them and reinstall them easily in different spaces. You should be able to repair them or replace elements if they got damaged. Aesthetically, they would need to look good but in an unshowy way; it is your books that are on display here, not the shelves. And they would need to be neutral enough to fit with changes in colour scheme or architectural style. In other words, you should be able to get on with your life and your shelves should get on with being shelves.

Vitsoe's 606 Universal Shelving System, designed in 1959 by Dieter Rams, the subject of a new monograph by Phaidon (As Little Design as Possible), is just such a piece of classic furniture. It's a plain-looking, wall-mounted assembly of beautifully engineered and proportioned powder-coated steel and lacquered plywood components hung on extruded aluminium E-profile tracks. It is extraordinary in its ordinariness yet it fulfils all the requirements outlined above. The designer Jasper Morrison has called it "the endgame of shelving systems"; it does its job so perfectly that "there is no point in trying to design another".

Rams was 27 when he designed the RZ 60 (later known as the 606) shelving system. Four years earlier in 1955 he had joined the German electrical appliances manufacturer Braun as an interior architect just as it was in the process of revolutionising domestic-appliance design. Rams was rapidly pulled into the product design team alongside older, former Bauhaus disciples and Ulm School founders including Fritz Eichler, Otl Aicher, Herbert Hirche and Hans Gugelot. Within months he was designing record players, radios, flashguns and razors. By 1961 he was 
head of design for the whole company, but he wanted more.

In 1959 Rams formed a small start-up in his spare time with a young physics student called Otto Zapf (they were later joined by Niels Wiese Vitsoe) with the aim of designing and manufacturing innovative furniture systems. Rams wanted to design a living environment according to a set of principles that allowed for freedom of expression. This meant making a new kind of furniture that was above all "simple", as a "liberation from the dominance of things". He wanted his furniture to be free from the superfluous, from representation and from fashion; to be quiet in form and colour; harmonious and well thought through, right down to the last detail; to be flexible in function as well as high quality in terms of materials and construction.

These were high ideals, but Rams achieved them with a system design that is a paragon of refined "simplicity" in the best sense of the word. Later he added a whole range of elements that slotted into the system: cabinets with sliding doors or drop-down flaps, desk and table modules, as well as LP racks and holders for the Braun Audio 2 stereo-system components. By 1980 the Vitsoe catalogue listed more than 150 different positions for the 606.

The 606 is not a cheap system, but it is economical if you buy into the idea of "living better with less that lasts longer", according to Rams' own principles of good design. It's not sexy or loud but it is reliable and restful on the eye. It's furniture for grown-ups and to grow old with in a contented, long-lasting marriage between user and object.

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Words

Sophie Lovell

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It's not sexy or loud but it is reliable and restful on the eye

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