By Mark Favermann
Rams is a documentary film carefully crafted to be more than a biography of a great designer.
Rams produced and directed by Gary Hustwit. Original Music by Brian Eno.
German industrial designer Dieter Rams’ career-long mantra has been “Good design is as little design as possible.” His philosophy shaped his understated — but often brilliantly elegant — household products. Though photogenic, he didn’t take the high visibility route of other star designers; he tactically downplayed claiming the godfather of industrial design mantel. By following him, and interviewing former colleagues, design historians and curators, this documentary celebrates Rams’ life and his accomplishments while he is in his 9th decade.
Though his earliest designs are now over 60 years old, Rams minimalist visual aesthetic remains unquestionably contemporary. He is dedicated to understatement; the striking but elegantly subtle. His products’ rounded edges, thoughtful detailing, and clean lines anticipate today’s Apple devices. In fact, Apple’s design director, Sir Jony Ive, credits Rams as one of his greatest influences. In turn, Rams notes that Ive’s work mirrors his own 10 Principles of Good Design.
Created by director Gary Hustwit, who previously made the much acclaimed Helvetica (2007), the documentary examines the impressive accomplishments and enduring legacy of the world’s senior industrial design practitioner, a man who deeply influenced the field of product design. His now iconic work for Braun and Vitsœ has touched the lives of millions of people. First appearing in the ’50s, Braun’s consumer products were/are beautifully designed by his design team. They are accessible and intuitive practical objects and furnishings; they have set the gold standard for grace, efficiency, and nuanced beauty. Twenty-two of Rams designs are in the Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection.
Rams design strategy has been “Less but Better.” Consumers worldwide have responded with enthusiasm. Millions have owned a Rams-designed Braun coffeemaker, shaver, calculator, or alarm clock. Oral-B toothbrushes are among Rams’ most popular objects as well. He “retired” from Braun in 1997. Vitsœ 606 furniture and shelving systems are another line of practical elegance that he has been involved with for decades.
Born in 1932, Rams was 13 when WWII ended. During the war, he lived apart from his parents with his grandparents. A highly precise carpenter, his grandfather was a major influence. Rams learned about handcraftsmanship from him, as well as the value of working with trusted others to create a product or launch a project. Early on, he realized producing objects of high quality demanded an attention to exquisite detailing as well as collaboration.
By the late ’70s, Rams codified his philosophy into “ten principles for good design.” This list of rules advocates for simplicity, honesty, and restraint. Generations of industrial design students have studied Rams and his ten principles, using them as the basis for product design practice. Of course, Rams’ philosophy extends beyond design — it also applies to lifestyle. He theorizes that life should be lived without physical distractions, visual clutter, or unnecessary possessions. Natural balance should be a matter of second nature. Though his words have been enormously influential, Rams feels these principles were never meant to be commandments — in the way that they now have become for some. He was not proselytizing an inflexible approach to design, but a thoughtful strategy.
The Braun company hired Rams, who was employed by an architectural firm, to modernize their products. He accomplished this in a spectacular way. His approach was prescient: the 1958 T3 Braun radio designed with Ulm Hochschule (a progressive German design college) inspired the look of the iPod. In 1958, nothing else resembled this radio. In 1962, Rams was appointed design director. The products created at Braun under Rams’ stewardship are remarkable for their beauty, continuity, and consistency. His early designs are as fresh today as when they were first introduced.
Now 86, Rams does not use a computer and believes that digitization is not necessarily a good thing. He questions its effects on people and empowerment of consumerism. Rams continues to shun fame; he and his wife lead a very private life with rare appearances at public events. Director Hustwit assures us that the Rams seen on camera is very close to what the man is like in daily life.
Rams has been carefully crafted to be more than a biography of a great designer. This is a documentary about how design impacts our perceptions of consumerism, materialism, and sustainability. Rams is followed as he oversees preparations of exhibitions of his work at museums, participates in occasional public appearances and talks, takes meetings with his remaining clients, and discusses other designers and their work.
Rams likes the work of some designers, Charles and Ray Eames, Ettore Sottsass, and George Nelson (mostly) among them. But he hates the clutter of Frank Gehry and denigrates Phillipe Starck as a show-off. He takes a mass appeal/popular culture approach to design, criticizing the recent tendency for making stylish design part of the definition of ‘expensive.’ The design for the masses sentiment is admirable, but dressed mostly in black, Rams drives a vintage silver Porsche himself. We see images of him cleaning his backyard pool set in a very Zen Japanese garden behind his crisp contemporary house. Compounding the disconnect is Brian Eno’s original score — it is often more irritating than it is edgy.
An urban designer and public artist, Mark Favermann has been deeply involved in branding, enhancing, and making more accessible parts of cities, sports venues, and key institutions. Also an award-winning public artist, he creates functional public art as civic design. Mark created the Looks of the 1996 Centennial Olympic Games in Atlanta, the 1999 Ryder Cup Matches in Brookline, MA, and the 2000 NCAA Final Four in Indianapolis. The designer of the renovated Coolidge Corner Theatre, he is design consultant to the Massachusetts Downtown Initiative Program. He has been a design consultant to the Red Sox since 2002. Mark is Associate Editor of Arts Fuse.