German Design Guru Discusses Peace, Purpose and Pollution | Arts | DW | 17.09.2007
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German Design Guru Discusses Peace, Purpose and Pollution

As the head designer at German electronics and household appliance manufacturer Braun from the early-1960s until 1995, Dieter Rams was one of the most influential product designers in the 20th century.

Dieter Rams portrait

Rams: "Design carries responsibility"

Rams created a functionalist language based on Ten Principles of Good Design, which he summed up in the credo "less but better." Many of the elegant, rigorous objects he created for Braun were iconic; their success helped cement Germany's reputation as a maker of sleek, well-crafted electronics and household goods.

Braun ET 44 Calculator

Observers compare the Braun ET 44 calculator to the iPhone

Even today, young designers continue to copy Rams' products and adhere to his design principles. Industry watchers of late have enjoyed pointing out similarities between Rams' creations in the 1960s and 70s, and consumer electronics created by Apple -- another company that places a strong emphasis on product design.

DW-WORLD.DE spoke with Rams, now 75, when he attended the 16th Braun Prize Awards, a biennial contest honoring young design talent.

DW-WORLD.DE: Mr. Rams, what do you think about all the claims that Apple is using your designs as inspiration for some of its most popular products, like the iPod, iPhone, or G5?

Dieter Rams: I like to take it as a compliment!

Many people consider your designs for Braun the epitome of ‘German design.' Is there still a German design language?

I have always said, there is no explicit German design. German design always wanted to be international design. Starting with Bauhaus, they called it international design. The Ulm School of Design called their style international design. In contrast to Scandinavia, where they talked about Scandinavian Design, we didn't want our design to be connected with the country.

SK-SK 2/1 radio from 1955

Even pre-Rams, Braun had a modern look. The SK-SK 2/1 radio, 1955.

And especially at Braun, from the beginning, [company founders] Erwin and Arthur Braun didn't want a particularly "German" design. We fought for it to be known as Braun design. It was supposed to be general.

Are you saying you consider yourself more European than German?

I've never seen myself as really German. I mean, Germany is my homeland, OK. But I'm neither nationalistic nor any "istic" I'm against all "isms."

We have to start thinking about how to work together -- and not only in Europe. It's hard, because each country wants to put its own interests in the foreground. But we have to hold together worldwide. Otherwise I don't see any other possibility for us to achieve a unified culture, not to mention a unified, peaceful world.

But some people say it is important for German business to play up its design reputation, as a way of standing out in the international economy. The country even funds federal and state design centers to promote the field…

Braun lighter

Lighter, designed by Rams

Of course, it is important. I was president of the German Design Council myself, for a long time. And I always fought for political support for design in Germany. … If you had this political background, then of course you could establish an identity -- the way companies have a visual identity.

Countries are, in a sense, companies. They compete against one another, they have rivalries. Sadly, we still cannot manage to find a common denominator, or even to agree on which direction we should start moving in. And I hope, very much, that it will be possible someday, through design.

World peace through design?

Design in terms of industrial design, and not where it is sort of heading now, as a lifestyle instrument. Good design has nothing to do with lifestyle.

HiFi Baustein Integral record player by Braun

Plexiglas covered hi-fis were a famous Rams innovation

I don't want to criticize living well -- I'm glad to be doing well. But "lifestyle" and "wellness" have nothing to do with our day-to-day culture. Our everyday culture should be taken more seriously. And design has -- or should have -- the responsibility of taking our culture, responsibly, out into the wider world.

The people who are in charge of doing this are product designers, together with the companies they work for, and -- although that is the part I really think is missing -- politicians. Especially if we see individual countries as businesses. Which, in effect, they are.

How much is personal contentment related to the objects that surround us?

I'm happy if I get a good night's sleep, have positive thoughts, and stay healthy. At my age you have to think about these things a bit.

Braun digital alarm clock

Braun clock designed by Dietrich Lubs

But of course, lots of things bother me, and I have overlooked a lot of them intentionally. It's funny, the psychological chaos and destruction in our world is widely recognized. It is constantly discussed, mulled over, described, written about. What never gets discussed or written about is the visual destruction of our environment.

For example, do we need windmills littering the countryside, when we don't even know if they could still be technically improved? They make a lot of noise. Or trash removal, with all the green, blue, yellow bags that litter the streets. These things are visual pollution. And we don't deal with it.

One of your famous design principles is that design should be concerned with the environment. How so?

It may sound a bit banal, but I would love to see the day when the world is a more beautiful place, when we honor the nature around us. But we are stomping on it. We are ruining our host, mother Earth. And we aren't even aware we are doing it. We're leaving it to the next generation to take care of it. And I think that's the place we need to start …

I don't know if humanity will make it, ultimately. I can only say that perhaps design -- with the few nice things that are sometimes created -- can offer a few rays of hope so that things can look better for this planet we are just visiting.

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