Dieter Rams and the Relevance of Functionalism

Amar Chadgar
May 18, 2015 · 15 min read

A look into one of the most influential designers and a few case studies to see how functionalist design has withstood the test of time.

From the creation of his first product in 1955 for Braun, Dieter Rams, one of the most popular industrial designers, has lead and laid guidelines for the Functionalist design movement. Functionalist design is a design movement in which the form of the object is driven by the purpose of the object and not by its aesthetics. His design philosophy has been about achieving purity in design through reduction and restrain. Within the rapidly changing art world, Functionalist design and the works of Dieter Rams have remained immune to change. Through a career spanning five decades as an Industrial Designer, Dieter Rams, by removing fashion trends and avoiding obsolescence, has created a new form of timeless art expression. Dieter Rams’ designs have proved to be timeless and his work has greatly influenced modern design as it is today.

Brief Bio

A product of World War II, Rams was born on the 20th of May 1932 in Wiesbaden, Germany. His teenage years were spent in a Germany that, just out of war, was filled with hope of a better future to be brought by technology. He spent his childhood moving around from place to place, shuttled between his separated mother and father. Technological and Design influences came early in Dieter Rams’ life as his father was an electrical engineer and his grandfather was a master joiner, whom he often shadowed working in his workshop. At a young age he learned simple furniture making under the guidance of his grandfather, who instilled in him the power of honest and straightforward design. Recognizing his talent, his father signed him up to the Wiesbaden School of Art (a young art and design college) in 1947 to study Architecture and Interior decoration at age of fifteen.

After two semesters at Wiesbaden School of Art, Rams attended a three year practical apprenticeship as a carpenter, after which he went back to complete four more semesters at Wiesbaden School of Art. By this time Wiesbaden School of Art had moved into a building of its own and now was headed by popular thinkers from the new German Modernist and the Bauhaus movement. These four semesters proved to be pivotal in shaping Rams’ design philosophy as he was exposed to the German Modernist ideologies of functionalism, mass-production and multi-disciplinary approach developed and nurtured in Bauhaus and Ulm School of Design. After graduating in 1956 he worked for Frankfurt based architect Otto Apel, where he encountered another wave of Modernism reintroduced from the United States.

In 1955 Rams joined Braun. Braun, founded by Max Braun and now run by his sons, Erwin and Arthur was a consumer product company that produced household products like shavers, radios and phonographs. Braun was an atypical company for its time due to its newfound direction in contemporary design. Erwin Braun, influenced by the new wave of objective design, brought in design thinkers of the new design movement (ex-Bauhaus members and Ulm School of Design lecturers) and initiated collaboration between Braun and Ulm School of Design in 1950. This design era of Braun further bolstered the Functionalist philosophy of Rams who was initially hired to design Braun’s office space and exhibitions to conform to the company’s new design vision but quickly turned to product design. Rams started collaborating with designers from Ulm School of Design on new products that went on to define his signature style. He was appointed Chief Design Officer at Braun in 1955 and stayed there till 1995. During his forty-year career at Braun he went on to champion the Functionalist design movement and produced more than 500 products iconic products for them. Braun in the early 60s went from being a local supplier to a global producer. ‘Made in Germany’ was replaced by ‘Designed in Germany’.

Case Study

Braun T3 Pocket Radio

One of the earliest examples of Dieter Rams’ iconic works is the Braun T3 Pocket Radio from 1958 for which he collaborated with Ulm School of Design. The T3 is a little pocket radio made out of plastic which measures three and a quarter inches by six inches by one and half inches. Intended to be portable, its dimensions were made to fit inside the pockets of the owner. The rectangular device restricted to one color, white, is bereft of any color other than tiny red markings. Every alteration to the white rectangle has a purpose. The front face of the radio is spatially divided into two parts. The right part is allocated to a circular dial tuner that has a black arrow painted on end and two raised ridges on the other that form an invisible triangle with the arrow. Around the dial are alternating black and red markings indicating radio frequencies in medium wave and long wave respectively. As the dial is rotated, the arrow points to the frequency of the radio station selected and the ridges help provide a grip to rotate the dial. The left part of the front face has holes arranged into eleven rows and columns, forming a square grid of holes protecting and hiding the built-in speaker. The left face is shared by a ridged wheel to control the volume and an output port to connect to the Braun TP1 phonograph. The volume wheel when rolled all the way down clicks to switch the device off and serves as the power button for the device. The back face has a switch in the top right corner to switch between long wave and medium wave with markings around the switch to indicate modes. The right face of the device is left bare. There is no label or logo indicating the maker of the device, the model number or any further instructions to use the device. Instead the inputs required from the user are communicated through the design of the device. There are no explicit instructions on how to use the tuner but the frequency markings and the ridges on the dial invite the user to touch and interact with the device and discover what they do if they do not already know. Similarly, the device combines a power button into the volume wheel to reduce clutter and the ridges on the volume wheel and its shape and location reveal their function to the user. The T3 is designed to step back and let the sound that it produces be the star of the user’s attention. The T3 is one of the primary exemplars of Functionalist design. The influences of the philosophies of Ulm School of Design and Braun’s nascent design principles are immediately apparent in this Dieter Rams piece.

What is also immediately apparent are the parallels that can be drawn between the act of reduction seen in Dieter Rams’ work and the works of Cubists and Bauhaus artists that sought to break down the clutter and represent subjects with the bare essentials. The T3 also influenced several designs to come in the future. Apple’s first generation iPod designed by Jonathan Ive — who has mentioned Dieter Rams to be one of his major influences — bares a striking resemblance to the T3 with a circle and a rectangle taking the space on the front face of a white rectangle, avoiding any kind of distraction to the user.

Case study

Braun ET 66 Calculator

Another product designed by Dieter Rams that has shown direct influence on modern design is the Braun ET 66 Calculator from 1987. An organic evolution from its predecessors, The ET 66 lost the led display and sliding buttons of the ET 22 (1976) and the bulk of ET 44 (1978). Like many other products designed by Dieter Rams the ET 66 aims to remove the unnecessary and put the essential in the spotlight. The black rectangle of the main unit slides into a protective shell for storage and sports rounded corners on the bottom of the device while the sides of the device gradually curve into the back. The front face of the device holds twenty five input buttons, an off button, an on button, a liquid crystal eight digit display popping out of the recess of the face and the Braun logo on the top right corner. The back of the ET 66 is covered in ridges to provide better grip to hold and has a hatch on the top to access batteries. As with all his products, the colors used are restricted to the function they are meant to communicate. Two tiny buttons below the screen, one red and one green, are the off and on buttons. The buttons, rounded, convex and glossy, invite the user to touch and interact. The colors of these buttons hold significance with the black buttons denoting numerical inputs, brown buttons indicating operations, dark green buttons indicating modes of operation and the single yellow button that stands apart from the rest indicating the most used operation: displaying the result.

The ET 66 was released at the same time as the first Apple computers during the late 80s. The general mistrust of technology that was evident during the cold war was ending with it. Computer technology was on the rise and the abundant and flashy “me” generation was coming to a close. The ET 66 released during this time served as a representative of accessible, useful, trustable devices with a subdued appearance. The dark color of ET 66 with neutral input buttons was a far cry from the art and design that was coming out of the 80s. Despite these contrasting features, it saw huge popularity because it aimed to push its design to the background, refused to call attention on its appearance and let the functionality take over. The design language of ET 66 seemed to have caused quite an impression on young designers because when Apple released their iPhone in 2007, the calculator application that came installed with the device borrowed its appearance from the ET 66. The buttons of the calculator application had the same color coded rounded appearance of the ET66. Now back in public consciousness because of the calculator application, the ET 66, twenty years after it was first released, has been brought back into production due to high demand.

Case study

Vitsoe 606 Shelving System

In 1959, while Braun flourished, Dieter Rams was given the green light by Braun to work with a furniture design firm. Rams’ fellow designer Otto Zapf had introduced him to a furniture salesman called Niels Wiese Vitsoe. Starting a company called Vitsoe+Zapf (Later changed to Vitsoe in 1969 when Otto Zapf left the company), the new company was to exclusively produce furniture designed by Dieter Rams. It is impossible to talk about the timelessness of Dieter Rams’ Functionalist designs and not discuss the Vitsoe 606 Shelving System. In 1960, Rams worked with Vitsoe to produce a modular shelving solution for modern homes. The idea was to reduce storage systems into basic elements that could then be mixed and matched by the customer to produce custom scalable storage. As the future managing director pointed out in an interview in 2012, “They wanted their furniture to last longer. They wanted to avoid built-in obsolescence. They would not pander to fashion. Their furniture would be discrete, and it would be adaptable. So that you as the customer could: start with less, add to it, rearrange it, repair it, take it with you when you move and most importantly reuse it.” Vitsoe would sell customers the shelving systems in preset configurations that would be put together by the customer and the customers had the freedom to buy more configurations and add on to the current configurations. The 606 is meant to disappear into the walls and put the objects it holds at the center stage. The system consists of vertical posts that hold panels, cabinets, shelves and desks. The vertical posts are attached to the wall, supported off the ground resting, against the wall, or attached the ceiling and floor. The panels, cabinets, shelves and desks are fixed between two vertical posts. The width is restricted to either 65.5cm or 90cm and the increments of the attachments to the post by 7cm. This system, like Legos, gives the customer absolute freedom to configure their space however they desire. Because the system is based on a grid system, the final design carries the same design aesthetic despite being unique.

The 606 was designed at a time when Germany was recovering from war. As Rams explains in an interview during the 50th anniversary of the 606, “In Germany after the war, homes were smaller — everything was smaller. The old German furniture was large and ornate. I simply wanted to make more space to fit more people.” As with most of his designs, Dieter Rams had set out to design a storage system whose aesthetics would follow its function. The whole aesthetic was kept down to sober colors and materials. The 606 came in off-white, black, silver and sometimes in beech colors. The only materials used were aluminium, steel and fiberboard. As much as the 606 seems industrial and utilitarian when described, the finished product looks like a minimalist artwork. The 606 when seen from the front seems strikingly similar to Donald Judd’s Untitled (S. # 167–176) from 1988. The 606’s interplay of rectangles and gaps created by metal-wood joins can be compared to the blue and white rectangles of Judd’s work with thick slotted borders. In 1985 Mark Adams was brought on board to establish and run Vitsoe in London where it still exists, produces and sells Dieter Rams’ iconic 606 Shelving system.

Case study

Braun HLD 4

Another product that Dieter Rams worked on that looks aesthetically similar to Judd’s stacked repeating rectangles is the Braun HLD 4. The HLD 4 is a rectangular form-factor hair dryer whose front face consists of symmetrically aligned grills to vent hot air and a tactile switch for turning the system on and off. The back of the HLD 4 is shaped to comfortably support the user’s hands and the sides of the device curve up to the top and the bottom of the device. There are no other prominent features on the device. The HLD 4 was the only Braun hair dryer that Rams worked on. The previous and later versions were designed by Reinhold Weiss. With this device, Rams was looking to streamline the look of the product with the company’s brand. Like the HLD 2/20/21/23/231 earlier, the HLD 4 disregarded the standardized teardrop shaped designs of the competitors form factors and adopted a cleaner, refined look. Rams even removed the bulge in the back and incorporated a smaller motor with no handles as the device was meant to be used by men with short hair. The HLD 4 came in bright colors (red, orange and blue), which were inspired by Pop Art and used high glossy plastic sheen that set a trend for future devices. With the HLD 4, Rams showed that functionalism had its playful side as well. Even though it didn’t impact the design of hair dryers of the future, the form factor, the use of colors, and the act of reduction based on the context of use inspired a huge range of appliance design of the 70s and later. The HLD 4 may be technologically obsolete but is highly collectible because of its design.

The timelessness of Dieter Rams’ work is evident in the fact that his work has influenced many artists from different art movements along four decades of his career. Richard Hamilton, a pioneer of the Pop Art movement has cited him as one of his inspirations saying, “My admiration for [Dieter Rams’ work] is intense and I have for years been uniquely attracted towards his design sensibility. So much so that his consumer products have come to occupy a place in my heart and consciousness that the Mont Sainte-Victoire did in Cézanne’s.” Donald Judd, one of the early leaders of the Minimalist movement when speaking about his own furniture, has “lauded Rams’ appliances for Braun.” Dieter Rams seems to have been successful in dodging obsolescence but ironically, in his effort to discard trends and style, he has created a new aesthetic. This has become obvious in the recent exhibition, “Less is More” held by Museum of Modern Art from the August 27, 2011 to February 20, 2012, showcasing most of Dieter Rams’ work over the years as modern art. The influence of his work is apparent in designs by Apple’s industrial designer, Jony Ive. Although a product designer himself, his principles have influenced a new era of software interface designers and graphic designers.

During his career, Dieter Rams as a way to gauge his own work set ten principles of good design. According to him,

1. Good Design Is Innovative — The possibilities for innovation are not, by any means, exhausted. Technological development is always offering new opportunities for innovative design. But innovative design always develops in tandem with innovative technology, and can never be an end in itself.

2. Good Design Makes a Product Useful — A product is bought to be used. It has to satisfy certain criteria, not only functional but also psychological and aesthetic. Good design emphasizes the usefulness of a product while disregarding anything that could possibly detract from it.

3. Good Design Is Aesthetic — The aesthetic quality of a product is integral to its usefulness because products are used every day and have an effect on people and their well-being. Only well-executed objects can be beautiful.

4. Good Design Makes A Product Understandable — It clarifies the product’s structure. Better still, it can make the product clearly express its function by making use of the user’s intuition. At best, it is self-explanatory.

5. Good Design Is Unobtrusive — Products fulfilling a purpose are like tools. They are neither decorative objects nor works of art. Their design should therefore be both neutral and restrained, to leave room for the user’s self-expression.

6. Good Design Is Honest — It does not make a product more innovative, powerful or valuable than it really is. It does not attempt to manipulate the consumer with promises that cannot be kept

7. Good Design Is Long-lasting — It avoids being fashionable and therefor never appears antiquated. Unlike fashionable design, it lasts many years — even in today’s throwaway society.

8. Good Design Is Thorough Down to the Last Detail — Nothing must be arbitrary or left to chance. Care and accuracy in the design process show respect towards th consumer.

9. Good Design Is Environmentally Friendly — Design makes an important contribution to the preservation of the environment. It conserves resources and minimizes physical and visual pollution throughout the lifecycle of the product.

10. Good Design Is as Little Design as Possible — Less, but better — because it concentrates on the essential aspects, and the products are not burdened with non-essentials. Back to purity, back to simplicity.

These ten principles have proved to be highly influential to modern designers and have acted as guidelines for various fields from Graphic Design, Furniture Design, Interaction Design to Industrial Design.

Dieter Rams’ education and the people he came in contact with at the beginning of his career greatly helped in the formation of his design ideology. He was influenced by and has lead the Functionalist movement through four decades of ever-changing art trends and movements. His products that have not fallen prey to technological irrelevance are still in production and those that have fallen prey are now sought after collectibles. By closely observing his products it is easy to see how each of them affected and inspired other art movements along the years and also generations of designers to come who have adopted his ideology to continue in his footsteps. Dieter Rams through his effort to practice Functionalist design has created timeless designs that have beaten trends and obsolescence and has thus had a profound effect on modern design.

Links

“30 Minutes With Dieter Rams,” Dwell, http://www.dwell.com/interviews/article/30-minutes-dieter-rams

“Canoe: Braun ET 66 Calculator,” Canoe: Braun ET 66 Calculator, https://www.canoeonline.net/shop/inspect/braun-et-66-calculator

“MINIMALISM: AN OPTIMAL AESTHETIC FOR THE SUSTAINABLE DESIGN.” ACTA TECHNICA NAPOCENSIS-Series: APPLIED MATHEMATICS, MECHANICS, and ENGINEERING 56. no. 1 (2013).

“Donald Judd. A good chair is a good chair | PRESS,” The International Design Museum, http://www.die-neue-sammlung.de/press/?page_id=3739&lang=en

“European Plastics News — News,” European Plastics News, http://www.europeanplasticsnews.com/subscriber/headlines2.html?cat=17&id=4703

“Jony Ives’ (No Longer So) Secret Design Weapon,” Forbes, http://www.forbes.com/sites/anthonykosner/2013/11/30/jony-ives-no-longer-so-secret-design-weapon

Less and more: the design ethos of Dieter Rams. (Die Gestalten Verlag, 2011).

“Less, But Better: Dieter Rams’ Influence on Today’s UI Design,” Awwwards, http://www.awwwards.com/less-but-better-dieter-rams-s-influence-on-today-s-ui-design.html

Lovell, Sophie. Dieter rams: As little design as possible. (New York; London: Phaidon, 2011).

“Mark Adams — Recycling Is a Defeat | The Value of Eternity (english) — Youtube,” YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VJ_1EQpQ9j4.

“Own a Piece of Design History With Braun’s Re-Released ET66 Calc,” Gizmodo, http://gizmodo.com/own-a-piece-of-design-history-with-brauns-re-released-e-489305495

“Richard Hamilton’s love of Braun | Art | Agenda | Phaidon,” Phaidon, http://www.phaidon.com/agenda/art/articles/2014/february/11/richard-hamiltons-love-ofbraun/

“SFMOMA | Exhibitions + Events | Calendar | Less and More: The Design Ethos of Dieter Rams,” San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, http://www.sfmoma.org/exhib_events/exhibitions/434

“SFMOMA | SFMOMA PRESENTS LESS AND MORE: THE DESIGN ETHOS OF DIETER RAMS,” San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, http://www.sfmoma.org/about/press/press_exhibitions/releases/880

Amar Chadgar

Written by

Design interactions at @frogdesign. Collect sounds at http://soundsof.earth . Make music at @normandoors.

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