Dieter Rams is attempting to cross a busy London street. All around the snowy-haired, octogenarian product designer, Londoners scurry and jostle while Rams looks about him, perplexed and evidently alarmed at what he observes. People are staring at their tablets and “no longer looking each other in the eye,” he notes, even when they are crossing the busy road. Oblivious to one another and the surrounding dangers of the street, they exist in their little bubbles.
The footage is a key sequence in Rams, Gary Hustwit’s feature-length documentary about the designer. Having spent over half a century observing people and the objects they interact with, Rams is worried about our future. And he’s worried it may be partly his fault.
With his previous films, Objectified, Urbanized and Helvetica, Hustwit has carved out a niche as the world’s leading design documentarian. He first approached Rams about making a film some four years ago but received a firm rebuff. “He flat out did not want to do it,” Hustwit says. “He just felt he was done talking to the media or doing interviews, saying the same things over and over and that there were enough books out there that covered his career. But my argument was that a documentary is going to reach a different audience and has the potential to reach beyond the design world…. The [opportunity to pass] his ideas and philosophy on to a next generation of designers and consumers was what attracted him to agree to the project.”
Hustwit is referring specifically to Rams’ celebrated ten principles of ‘good design’ which he formulated in the 1970s with the product design team that he headed up at Braun. Concerned at the rise of unsustainable consumerism and his team’s role in fuelling it, Rams famously asked himself ‘is my design good design?’. In response, he formulated his philosophy, calling on design to be unobtrusive, honest, long-lasting and sustainable, culminating in the oft-quoted principle of “less, but better”.
It was the renewed timeliness of this approach, Hustwit says, that made him want to make a film about Rams. “Of course the designs he did for Braun in the 1950s and 60s are amazing, but if it had just been about that I wouldn’t have been interested in making a full-length film,” he says. “His ideas are what matter to me and what matter to our current age.”
“The economies of the world are based on the continual purchase of new consumer goods – I think we’re at the point where we need a correction. Rams’ idea of less but better is not about ending capitalism but about consumers being more critical of the things they buy [and how long they last],” Hustwit says.
The film opens with Rams echoing his familiar call for restraint to a room of students and young designers in his native Germany, before it follows him variously to the opening of the Less and More exhibition of his work in Frankfurt, a visit to the new Vitsœ factory in Leamington Spa (having resigned from Braun in 1995 following its takeover by Gillette, Rams continues a relationship with the Danish furniture maker that dates from 1959), and an exhibition at the Vitra campus in Weil-am-Rhein.
Rams at home in his garden
But some of the film’s most memorable scenes depict Rams at home with his wife, the photographer Ingeborg Rams. Driving – naturally – a silver Porsche 911, he arrives at his perfectly-designed modernist home with its immaculate Japanese-inspired garden (imagine how funny it would be if he lived in some Versace-esque baroque mansion). There, in rooms that appear virtually unchanged since the 1973 archive footage also included in the film, Rams is surrounded by the still-working Braun products he and his team designed half a century ago, a living embodiment of his philosophy.
“We think of it as a museum – and it is listed now – but for him it’s just home,” Hustwit says. “I think he’s tired of media intrusion – people coming in, moving things around, bringing in lights. When I interviewed him for Objectified, it was just me and a cinematographer and we shot with just the available light. He still talks about it ten years later – ‘they didn’t move anything!’ It was probably why he allowed me to do this film – he knew I wouldn’t wreck his house!”
The perfectly-curated world that Rams has created for himself will no doubt be hugely seductive for many of the designers watching the film. But to others it may appear too sterile, too controlled, too male – the epitome of the designer’s urge to impose order on a messy world. Such concerns are echoed in the film by Sophie Lovell, author of Dieter Rams: As Little Design As Possible, in which she reveals that she had found Rams’ designs somewhat clinical – until she saw them in use at his home.
Dieter Rams at home with a Braun T1000 radio which he designed in 1964
“[The designs are] about fading into the background – these things shouldn’t be calling attention to themselves,” Hustwit says. “When you see a black Vitsœ side table [at Rams’ house] with a bowl of flowers and some Japanese bamboo stems laying on it, it makes perfect sense. They are holders for the things they love – you don’t have to love your bookshelf but you probably love your books. This clean, clinical quality to some of the work is so that it doesn’t get in the way of the vivid, beautiful parts of your life.”
There’s a great sense of tranquillity to the scenes of the Rams’ at home, but, the film reveals, he was less comfortable acting as the front man for Braun, particularly as much of the design work was a team effort. “They did push him out front,” Hustwit says. “He was the image of what Braun was trying to project – he drove a Porsche, he was the new Germany, it makes a lot of sense.”
Originally recruited by Braun in 1955 as an architect and interior designer, Rams became the consumer electronics firm’s Chief Design Officer in 1961. With his team he created an array of products, from hi-fis to hairdryers, whose elegant simplicity and technical innovation became much-copied – not least by Japanese electronics firms. The latter completed a kind of feedback loop of influence as Rams himself had been much affected by his travels to Japan.
Rams at work on designs for Braun in the 1970s. Photograph: Abisag Tüllman
In more contemporary terms, Rams is often cited as a major influence on Apple and Jonathan Ive. But those looking for the film to stoke some kind of controversy on that front will be disappointed: Apple is barely mentioned. “I didn’t push him to talk about it,” Hustwit says. “He acknowledges it as a compliment. I think he sees it as an evolution – much as what they were doing at Braun was an evolution of the Bauhaus. As another link in the chain.”
Rather than any lasting stylistic impact, Rams seems more concerned about his complicity in stoking the fires of today’s consumerism. “I think he’s very proud of the work they did [at Braun] but he does see it as a stepping stone to the throwaway consumerism we have now,” Hustwit says. But he does point out that there is a crucial difference “between what they were trying to do in the early days of Braun and the ideology of manufacturing now. Yes, Braun was making a lot of injection-moulded plastic devices, but they were designed to last a lifetime. I still have the juicer we had when I was a teenager and it works great. It was designed to be repaired – that ideology of longlasting, democratic, honest products still exists in the more artisanal, bespoke realm but in mass production, we’re not seeing it anymore.”
Rams offering some forthright views on furniture at the Vitra Schaudepot
What does Hustwit hope the impact of the film will be? “Dieter talks about the ten principles as something the Braun team came up with as their own guidelines. My takeaway is that we should all have some principles of our own, about how we want to work, who we want to work with. It’s hard to make a critical judgement about another person’s practice if you don’t have your own ideals spelled out. For me, the message of the film is to have your own set of principles – not to follow Dieter’s.
“In some ways,” Hustwit continues, “Dieter’s calling out the design industry at a time when digital technology has completely taken over our daily existence. I’m hoping it’s a palate-cleanser, a chance to look at how we’re living now and what direction we want to go from here.”
Rams will have its UK premiere at The Barbican, London on November 5. See barbican.org.uk for details. For more on Rams and Gary Hustwit’s other films, see hustwit.com
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