Dieter Rams: making systems and making sense

The staging of the Rams retrospective at SFMOMA positions the designer as more than just a trend-setting functionalist and perhaps something more visionary: a systems thinker.


Design / John Alderman

The sixth staging of Less and More: the Design Ethos of Dieter Rams is currently on view at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. First mounted in Osaka in 2008, the broad, dense overview assembles a collection of products designed by Rams and his colleagues for Braun and Vitsoe, as well as representative pieces by other designers meant to highlight the legacy of his influence with products by Apple, Bang & Olafsun, and other contemporary manufacturers.

Rams' work for Braun needs little introduction, and neither, really, does the man himself, since he's become an icon to a growing set that identifies with design, whether for reasons of style, commerce, or a notion of "design thinking." The rise in general interest, and spotlights like the film Objectified, make it hard to approach Rams' appliances and electronics without seeing them through the popular narrative: how newly affluent post-World War II Germany set the stage for thoughtful and experimental, yet approachable and useful, product design, and gave rise to a singularly inspiring body of work, that Jonathan Ives at Apple took as a starting point, and used to fuel the rise of the computer and electronics maker to its position as technological, and cultural, powerhouse. It's a convincing story, especially as Rams himself lauds the work of Apple, a company that has risen to one of the world's most valued and respected.

With this setting in mind, curator Joseph Becker staged the San Francisco incarnation of the exhibit to engage the audience in Ives' backyard, and to gently provoke it to live up to a potential that he feels Rams work anticipates. Part of Becker's approach included expanding the legacy section—as much to turn up the challenge to designers as to demonstrate that Rams' achievements inspired others.

Top: Dieter Rams, Braun phonosuper (SK 4), 1956; design: Hans Gugelot and Dieter Rams.
Above: Dieter Rams, Braun clock radio (ABR 21 signal radio), 1978; design: Dieter Rams and Dietrich Lubs. Photos by Koichi Okuwaki.

"I thought it was really important to bring the entire body of work past Dieter Rams," said Becker, "to show his influence on contemporary designers so that a new generation could see and relate to this philosophical aspect of his work, see if their own work stacks up, and see if what they're doing is good design." There is also, in the work, and the audience, a sense of technology's influence, a strong force that seems a little less examined, or at least less fully articulated. When the line of influence extends into digital space, for instance, it's harder for a physical exhibit to follow.

Having trained as an architect, Becker took a hands-on approach to the the show, and details like signage are well considered, used as much to confront viewers as to impart facts. Provocations like, "Question everything generally thought to be obvious" hover over the tables of neat, dense assemblages of products, while a whole wall of the legacy section is taken up with the text of Rams "10 Principles of Good Design" and accompanying commentary. Becker describes these principles as, "digestible tidbits of the philosophy that you can take," and in context of the representative examples of Rams' influence—whether Leon Ransmeier's discreet humidifier; Teenage Electronics' spare yet friendly synthesizer, or Naoto Fukasawa's portable television set—it is also clearly meant to function as a set of measures to hold them up against.

Joseph Becker, curator of Less and More: the Design Ethos of Dieter Rams at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

"There's this guise of minimalism that could persuade you in the wrong direction," Becker said, when asked about design that might signal, falsely, its adherence to principles like those of Rams. "I like to think of the exhibition as a little post-object in a way where the philosophy might trump the objects on the tables. Obviously the objects are there to be looked at and investigated, but the ideas behind them might be of much more importance." This aim parallels Rams' own efforts against the "domination of things." "Space does not exist for objects," he once proclaimed, "space exists for people." The approach works, at least as a point of tension to draw some energy away from the obvious presence of many things, on display.

There are a couple important differences in SFMOMA's staging of the exhibition. Size constraints forced a reduction from 400 pieces to 200. The San Francisco run also starts uniquely with Rams' furniture designs for Vitsoe, including shelving and seating systems. While this is some of his least famous work, unlike most other pieces, it is still in production.

Aside from a reminder of lesser-known, key work, starting with the furniture highlights the significance of Rams designing products as systems that could withstand change. It was an important approach to the time. The 606 Universal Shelving System, and the 620 Chair Program, Rams' modular approaches to storage and seating, were, for instance, early 1960s contemporaries of the innovative IBM System/360. A modular approach to computing, System/360 introduced the idea of a single operating system that ran across a line of computers, an innovation that allowed buyers to adjust and scale with much less disruption. This forerunner of Apple's operating system may just be an example of the zeitgeist. The fact that a systems approach is more deeply necessary in the massively complex world of computing than the stable realm of furniture is perhaps a reason that the legacy of Rams work seems even more potent in Apple's hands than Ikea's.

The fact that a systems approach is more deeply necessary in the massively complex world of computing than the stable realm of furniture is perhaps a reason that the legacy of Rams work seems even more potent in Apple's hands than Ikea's.

Dieter Rams, Braun coffee machine (KF 20 Aromaster), 1972; detail, design: Florian Seiffert, photo by Koichi Okuwaki.

Considering Rams' innovative use of systems does something to resolve a point of criticism about the way his work is championed by designers in high tech fields that seem unable to build products to last. Opposite of the notion of buying furniture for a lifetime, investing in pricy materials for objects that Moore's law will render obsolete in a few years seems wasteful. In this environment, what can be designed to last are interfaces themselves, or more importantly the general interface vocabulary, so that the mental investment in how a system works is not in vain, even if its physical pieces are discarded regularly. Mental effort here is the better investment. The familiarity stays, and so little thought is required to jump in and work, play, or communicate that we experience that system as simply how the world works: "Don't Make Me Think," as the title of a popular book on Web design puts it. Across his body of work, Rams paid attention to developing interfaces that would instantly feel comfortable, using color sparingly, but always in the same way from piece to piece.

It's smart to group Rams with Ives, but that popular story should include all the others who have contributed to the thread rationalizing interface, and why designers of virtual goods must pick up the torch as much as any. Being able to use less effort to fluently make sense of vast amounts information is a key task of our time. As operating systems let us reliably and meaningfully interact with millions of tiny switches, interface design systems facilitate our growing and intimate relationships with the the rest of the world.

Dieter Rams, Braun television (FS 80), 1964; detail, design: Dieter Rams, photo by Koichi Okuwaki.

A key task for designers these days, Becker says, is self-examination: "What's the impact? Are you designing for the market? Are you designing for the future? Are you designing for a lasting relationship? Do you want your users to really fall in love with what you are doing, or fall in love with just being able to do more with it that they could previously. I don't think there's any one thing that you have to take away other than, have you thought about it enough? Is what you're doing rigorous enough? It's hard in this moment."

The effort of making things simple, of making things understandable, removing complexity and chaos, of course that caries multiple agendas. Making sense of the world for others is directing them, and potentially even misleading them. Setting the standard for what becomes normal and intuitive, ostensibly for an object's users, but obviously at the behest of corporations, is a position of responsibility. Rams's standards are a starting point; his toolset of forms have become adapted into a working vocabulary in many important efforts. Where that vocabulary goes from here and how it's used is key.
John Alderman

Installation view of Less and More: the Design Ethos of Dieter Rams on view at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

Less and More: The Design Ethos of Dieter Rams
27 August, 2011–20 February, 2012
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
151 Third Street, San Francisco, Calif.

Dieter Rams, Braun hair dryer (HLD 4), 1970; design: Dieter Rams, photo by Koichi Okuwaki.

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