11 Observations from Gary Hustwit’s Rams

Some thoughts after attending the UK premier in the Barbican.

1. Flight the fear

In times when fearmongering is abused for political power, architects, designers and planners must fight back. They have the skills (and responsibility) to reduce fear by making our built environment inclusive, inviting and empowering.

2. Superficial likeness

Apple’s visual aesthetics are rooted in Dieter Rams, which Dieter sees as a compliment. However, the similarities are mostly superficial, as Apple seems disinterested in Dieter’s rally for product longevity.

This was subtly hinted in the film. During Dieter’s lecture about robust design, the camera pans to a student, taking notes on an iPhone with a shattered screen. The recent Apple’s admittance of slowing down its older phones does not help to distance the company from the planned obsolescence label.

 Braun Pocket Radio T3 by Dieter Rams and Ulm Hochschule für Gestaltung, 1958

Braun Pocket Radio T3 by Dieter Rams and Ulm Hochschule für Gestaltung, 1958

Alternatively, the film shows Dieter’s home in Kronberg, which feels like a shrine to the designer. Except for a few Arne Jacobsen pieces, most daily used items—from a juice presser, to a shelving unit—are designed by Dieter. 50 years later they are still in full working condition, serving their owner without the need for a weekly update.

Admittedly, today the change in technology is more rapid, making longevity a difficult goal to obtain. However, when compared to Rams’ designs that can last generations, Apple’s approach seems starkly different.

3. Jonathan Ive and Dieter Rams

Even considering the differences, Apple played a critical role in preserving Rams' legacy. Apple amplified his ideas for the next generation, saving him from a quiet resignation into irrelevance.

Credit for this goes to Jonathan Ive, Apple’s Chief Design Officer. On numerous occasions, he quoted Rams as his core influence, and he also wrote the foreword to the main catalogue on Dieter’s work Dieter Rams: As Little Design as Possible.

The similarities between the two designers do not end with similar work ethics, design style and disdain for instruction manuals. They both were made design leads in their 20s. Quickly, they revolutionalised their fields and as a result influenced the lives of many of us. However, both are very shy and absent from the spotlight (Dieter attends one key event per year.)

4. Lack of women

Women are close to absent from the film. An exception is Rams’s wife Ingeborg, who, however, maintains a silent appearance. Gary Hustwit said that it took him almost a decade to build trust with the family to film them together in their home. The view in the auditorium was more promising. About a third of attendees were women.

5. Importance of music

Brian Eno’s soundtrack for the film is unintrusive but helps to make sense of the narrative.

Music plays another important role in the story. It was an essential driving force during Ram’s time at Braun. Many of the staff were audiophiles who simply wanted better speakers and as a result, pushed for better products.

Judging from Dieter’s music collection, that time was when his interest in new music stopped. Most of his records are pre-1965 cool jazz with Miles Davis and Ella Fitzgerald playing first fiddle.

6. Link to Japan

In the film, we often see Dieter in his Japanese-inspired garden. That is no accident, as there is a strong connection between Japan and Dieter Rams. Japanese craft was a significant inspiration for the Bauhaus, which inspired Dieter during his study years. When at Braun, Rams frequently visited Japan and was greatly influenced by Japanese design sensibility. In the film, Naoto Fukasawa pays respect to Dieter and his major influence on the current crop of Japanese designers.

7. Design for senses

Dieter is very much an analogue person. Tactility for him is key to good design. And while his designs might look sterile, they are designed for interaction.

The importance of materials is evident from the very start of his career. His fourth product designed at Braun was SK 4/10 radio-phonograph (1956, colb. Hans Gugelot). Plastics were starting to infiltrate the product design world at that time, and Dieter chose transparent acrylic for the lid. This allowed to combine all controls on the top surface, leave the sides uncluttered and make the device instantly legible. Snow White's Coffin, as the device was known, had white metal casing and birch sides.

 Braun Radio-Phonograph SK 4 by Dieter Rams, Hans Gugelot, 1956

Braun Radio-Phonograph SK 4 by Dieter Rams, Hans Gugelot, 1956

A similar approach to material honesty was taken over by Vitsœ for the design of their new factory in Leamington Spa (arch. Martin Francis). The company had a strict no brush policy, leaving all finishes unpainted and honest. This made the workmanship much better since everyone knew that mistakes will not be covered. This gives us a glimpse into what could have happened if Dieter would have not dropped his architectural training and moved to industrial design.

8. Collaboration

During his year at Braun, Dieter was made the face of Braun (Mr Braun) as a marketing move. However, he has always maintained that his work only happened due to the efforts of the whole team and that collaboration is the only way to a successful design.

The same approach applied in Dieter’s work in the university, where, in a nod to Bauhaus, he was trying to bring different departments together.

This collective attitude is reflected nicely in the new Vitsœ’s HQ, where a part of the manufacturing space is sublet to a dance company Motionhouse. The collaboration extends to communal daily lunch and has proven to be a very successful experiment in shared creativity.

 Vitsœ Headquarters, longitudinal section, architect Martin Francis, 2017

Vitsœ Headquarters, longitudinal section, architect Martin Francis, 2017

9. The good and the bad

The biggest laughs of the evening were reserved for the scene of Dieter roasting Frank Ghery among other designers in Vitra Museum. In the scene Dieter speaks how today people fail to critique design, opting for the safety of labelling everything as “interesting” instead.

As a result, design today is often associated with beauty. Dieter offers a sharp rebuke of this trend: “We’ve never just wanted to make something beautiful. We want to make things better. What we need is less, but better.” The film presents this approach as part of the solution to today’s global threats, such as global warming and rampant inequality.

10. To make it sustainable, make it long lasting

Much of the movie is a rebuke to today’s throwaway culture. And while the topics of sustainability and thoughtful consumerism are popular today, Dieter Rams has been championing them for half a century.

Being selective about things we make and paying attention to how well we make them is the key to sustainability. In his 1976 speech in New York City, Dieter Rams had this to say about our habits: “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.”

Similar ideas can be found in the highly influential Ernst Friedrich Schumacher’s book Small Is Beautiful, published in 1973. Dieter’s ideas were part of this post-war generation, who found cities destroyed and attempted to rebuild them with more integrity and thoughtfulness. This screening was held in Barbican, which also grew from the same ideology.

In the film, there is a sweet moment of Dieter appreciating the elegant workings of 150-year-old funiculars driven with water ballast and no engine. This ambition to tread on the planet lightly is visible in his work.

When you look at how Apple reimagined packaging and logistics to make them less wasteful, or how Vitsœ uses the same vans for over 20 years, it makes one hopeful that Dieter’s ideas survive strong to this day.

11. Carrying the torch

Dieter remained unconvinced if future generations are listening to his ideas and are ready to act on them. The sold-out Barbican hall proved that there is no lack of interest to carry the torch. This film serves as a reminder of what is at stake if we fail to do so.

Model M400 by Roger Tallon