One of the treasures of my digital movie collection is Helvetica, Gary Hustwit’s documentary about the world’s most ubiquitous (and my second least favourite) typeface. So when, a few years ago now, I saw the publicity for a Kickstarter campaign to fund a documentary about Dieter Rams, the influential product designer, I signed up.
Last week, I finally got a secret code that enabled me to watch it.
Rams was born Weisbaden, Germany in 1932, and studied architecture in the period of post-war reconstruction. You can see in his work and the others he worked with the influence of Bauhaus: that no-frills, clean lines philosophy that still has such a hold over our modern world. In 1955, he was recruited by Braun, the German consumer electronics company, and he remained their chief design officer from 1961 to 1995, when the company was sold (to his chagrin) to Gillette.
All I really knew about Rams when I signed up was that he was a key influence for Jonathan Ive; there’s a clear line between the Braun T3 radio and the original iPod. His designs for record players, music systems and radios still take your breath away. Braun were a but like Philips: not just music systems but mixers and shavers. And Rams wasn’t solely responsible for many of their iconic designs: he had a talented team around him, but he nevertheless became the public face of their design philosophy.
And of course, philosophy is why we came. At the beginning of the documentary, Rams is shown fielding questions from aspirational designers and others, one of whom seems asks him about automotive design. Rams shrugs off the question: no particular interest: all the car industry ever wanted was to make things go faster and we don’t need cars to go faster. “What about Tesla?” he’s asked. “Aren’t they trying interesting things?”
Tesla is something of a shibboleth for me. If you’re the kind of person who thinks Teslas are cool, you go down in my estimation. Their huge, shitty, expensive cars are just another way that the rich have of shitting on the poor, and they’re a perfect example of making something that can go unnecessarily fast, solving problems that aren’t the problems our society needs to solve.
Once again, Rams shrugged off the question. Tesla isn’t doing interesting things, he said. We need to be thinking about what transportation needs to be. What will transport look like in 50 years?
As well as consumer electronics, Rams applied his architectural training to home furnishings, and you can find designs he created in 1960 still for sale by furniture company Vitsoe. Hand crafted, modular furniture that you can keep adding to. You can start with a single (astonishingly expensive) chair and then add another to make a sofa when you can afford it. Or a small shelf unit that can grow with your requirements. I like this kind of modern stuff, but it’s not going to be to everyone’s taste.
What I found interesting about the film was that, while Rams’ influence on Jony Ive was mentioned early on, Ive himself doesn’t appear, and Rams makes no comment on Apple’s work. But there is an implied criticism made of excessive consumerism, the inherent wastefulness of insisting on new designs every year, and the ways in which the digital is taking over. He speaks of how sad it is that people walk around with their faces pressed to their screens these days. In not so many words, then, Apple and Jony Ive get short shrift.
While I’d have liked the film to have dwelled more on some of the Braun designs (the lovely watches didn’t even get a mention), it is (probably rightly) more interested in the man himself and his principles, and his slightly grumpy take on the modern world he helped to create.