“To use design to impress, to polish things up, to make them chic, is no design at all. This is packaging.” These words were spoken by the acclaimed industrial designer, Dieter Rams, during a speech he gave in New York in 1976, entitled ‘Design by Vitsœ’. The fact that such a dictate remains relevant is testament to Rams’ utter belief in good design. In that same speech, he proclaimed: “I imagine our current situation will cause future generations to shudder at the thoughtlessness in the way in which we today fill our homes, our cities and our landscape with a chaos of assorted junk. What a fatalistic apathy we have towards the effect of such things. What atrocities we have to tolerate. Yet we are only half aware of them.”
Of course those very future generations of which Rams spoke are now present day societies, where thoughtlessness and rampant consumerism are aided by disposable design and impacted by planned obsolescence, trends and a throwaway culture. Dieter Rams has always been concerned with the urban environment, long before it was considered cool. “Everything interacts and is dependent on other things” he proclaimed in 1976. “We must think more thoroughly about what we are doing, how we are doing it and why we are doing it.”
Dieter Rams was born on 20th May 1932 in Wiesbaden, Germany. His grandfather, a carpenter, was a strong influence on the young Dieter and in the late 1940s Rams became an apprentice carpenter. An adjunct to this, he trained as an architect and joined an architect’s office in Frankfurt in 1951. In 1955, Rams was employed as an architect and interior designer by Braun, the German electrical products company. Braun was at that time repositioning itself to take advantage of a post-war expansion in the consumer electronics market. A new generation of consumers were appreciating technology as a symbol of progress, exciting and fresh, and no longer something to be masked behind wooden cabinets and boxes.
Wishing to capture the public’s imagination, Braun asked the Ulm School of Design to advise on its product design. Whilst Rams had been employed by Braun to modernise the company’s interiors, he was becoming increasingly interested in product design. A mentee of several Ulm luminaries, Rams worked on the SK4 radiogram in 1956, adding its clear perspex lid and went on to work on further audio designs. He was appointed head of design at Braun in 1961, a position he maintained until 1995.
During his first year at Braun, Rams asked Erwin Braun (the son of Braun’s founder) if he could design furniture for Niels Vitsœ and Otto Zapf. Braun’s instinctive answer was “Yes. It will help the market for our radios” (Source: Vitsœ). Rams had been introduced to Niels Vitsœ by designer Otto Zapf. The company, Vitsœ+Zapt, was formed in 1959 (and later renamed Vitsœ in 1969 when Zapt left), as a way of realising Rams’ furniture concepts. The 606 Universal Shelving System was designed by Rams in 1960 and has been made by Vitsœ ever since.
During his 1976 New York speech, Rams said: “We make the effort to produce products like this [the 606 Universal Shelving System] for the intelligent and responsible users – not consumers – who consciously select products that they can really use.” As such, the system is a timeless one where new additions are always possible.
Another product designed by Rams for Vitsœ was 1962’s 620 Chair Programme.
Described as “a kit of parts,” an arm on the chair can be removed allowing the addition of further chairs in order to make a sofa, as long as the user needs.
In the late 1970s, Dieter Rams was growing increasingly concerned about the state of the world around him, asking of himself: is my design good design? Using his experience as a designer, Rams expressed ten principles that he believed were an important measure of good design. Sometimes referred to as the ‘ten commandments’, they are:
Good design is innovative
Good design makes a product useful
Good design is aesthetic
Good design makes a product understandable
Good design is unobtrusive
Good design is honest
Good design is long-lasting
Good design is thorough down to the last detail
Good design is environmentally-friendly
Good design is as little design as possible
With the enduring Vitsœ+Rams relationship, Vitsœ’s Managing Director, Mark Adams, shares some of his own insights on Dieter Rams:
Q: If you were to describe Dieter Rams what would you say about him?
MA: Based on working with Dieter Rams for 27 years, I have come to observe that there is an eleventh principle for good design: single-mindedness. Dieter is single-minded; Dieter is resolute.
Q: To what extent are Dieter Rams and Vitsœ one and the same?
MA: In no way are Vitsœ and Rams one and the same. Vitsœ’s purpose is to allow more people to live better with less that lasts longer. So far, Rams’ furniture designs have allowed Vitsœ to fulfil (we hope) that purpose. The exciting challenge for Vitsœ is to move beyond Rams.
Q: How much does Dieter’s thinking continue to shape and inspire the future direction of Vitsœ?
MA: Vitsœ continues to work closely with Rams, 56 years after he and Niels Vitsœ first met. Rams’ wisdom and insight are invaluable. Rams is excited to see how Vitsœ will move beyond his designs.
Q: Are there new Dieter products in the pipeline?
MA: Yes. But Vitsœ concentrates on better rather than new. Dieter Rams adores seeing how his furniture designs can be improved by new materials and better production techniques. Watch this space.
Q: What sets Vitsœ apart from other furniture companies?
MA: A single-minded, long-term commitment to allowing more people to live better with less that lasts longer. At Vitsœ we genuinely encourage customers to buy less and never to throw away. Such an attitude only works if the commitment is forever. Vitsœ customers often say we sell the cheapest shelving system there is – it is a fact that after only a few years of ownership, any change in life circumstances can always be accommodated.
Q: What do you consider Dieter Rams’ legacy to be?
MA: To remind a short-term, careless, extravagant world of the value of long-term, thorough, modest thinking. The value accrues not only for our individual body and soul but also at a planetary level for the sake of all of our futures.
Dieter Rams is unwavering in his ideals regarding good design; both this and a lifetime of product development has ensured his legacy will live on. A man with many accolades, Rams recently collected a Lifetime Achievement Medal from the London Design Festival. This award honours an individual “who has made significant and fundamental contributions to the design industry over their career.”
Speaking at the ceremony on 18th September 2013, the 81 year old designer observed that: “The power of simplicity can only unfold with the understanding of how to command complexity with captivating ease” (Source: tweet from Vitsœ on 19th September 2013 at 10.44).
In summary, to once more quote Dieter Rams’ 1976 New York speech, this insightful and rational designer made the perfect point that: “You cannot understand good design if you do not understand people; design is made for people.”
Gerard McGuickin is a freelance design writer and a blogger for his online zine, Walnut Grey Design. He writes intelligently about ‘good design’ from the viewpoint of interiors, architecture, objects and lifestyle. Gerard has a specialist interest in modern contemporary Nordic and British design.