“Only well-executed objects can be beautiful.”

Principle of Design #3: Good design is aesthetic

The aesthetic quality of a product is integral to its usefulness because products we use every day affect our person and our well-being. But only well-executed objects can be beautiful.

– Dieter Rams

The SF Museum of Modern Art is currently hosting the “Less and More” traveling exhibit on the work of Dieter Rams, an industrial designer best known for his 30 year stint as head of design at Braun, a German consumer products powerhouse. Rams was a proponent of functionalist design — a theory, as you might guess, of function over form. Or, as suggested above, that a product’s true beauty lies in its utility. This manifested in clean lines, minimal markings, and intuitive usage. Color and placement were communication devices — an all-black stereo with a recognizable green “on” button, or portable radio controls moved from the front of the case to the top, so that the radio could be operated while standing on a table or lying flat on the car dash — and shape stemmed from ergonomics — hair dryers with angled handles for a more comfortable grip.

Under Rams’ direction, Braun made everything from electric shavers and video cameras to coffee makers and record players. The modular 606 Universal Shelving System he designed in 1960 for Vitsoe is still in production today. But it is his influence on later designers — namely Jonathan Ives of Apple — that’s getting Rams press these days. “What Dieter Rams and his team at Braun did was to produce hundreds of wonderfully conceived and designed objects,” Ives has said. “Surfaces that were without apology, bold, pure, perfectly-proportioned, coherent and effortless. No part appeared to be either hidden or celebrated, just perfectly considered and completely appropriate in the hierarchy of the product’s details and features. At a glance, you knew exactly what it was and exactly how to use it.” [as quoted in The Telegraph in June]

No one can claim Rams is the sole inspiration for Apple’s sleek designs, but it is interesting to see theories passed down from one generation to another in very tangible ways when the products are so different.

Forget the disposable cameras I was raving about last post — I want one of these! Can’t decide if I prefer the cheap toy finish of the wooden version or the retro nerdiness of the metal.

This is a sketch from when Rams was pretty young — still in school or just graduated, I don’t remember exactly. You can see across the back wall the initial musings that would become the Vitsoe shelves. I wouldn’t mind working in that office, although in person the brushed aluminum shelving made it feel like I had stepped into a lifeless Ikea showroom.

For more pretty studio shots of Rams’ products for Braun, this slideshow has a good selection. And the complete list of his Ten Principles of Design — including a nod towards sustainability before it had become a buzz word and his seemingly contradicting insistence that good design is less design — can be found at Vitsoe.

I am not going to try to distill Rams’ career or legacy into a small box to hand to you here — I can’t pretend to be well-versed enough in design standards to judge — however I will allow myself subjective appraisal: I found some of his products dull and unnecessarily plain, and others appealing with an understated elegance. Probably the best takeaway was the Principles — on first glance, they too might seem too obvious to be interesting, but unlike consumer products that fade from futuristic to antique over time, basic guidelines can weather changing fads. The same “good” applies to a coat hanger as well as an iPhone, no matter the era.

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1 comment

  1. The first thing I notice about Braun products is the design. Now I know about the designer behind that distinctive look. Thanks!

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