The most influential designer of the twentieth century is finally getting his due

Gary Hustwit's documentary "Rams" reveals how industrial designer Dieter Rams defined midcentury design

By Keith A. Spencer

Senior Editor

Published December 16, 2018 10:00AM (EST)

Dieter Rams in "Rams" (Gary Hustwit)
Dieter Rams in "Rams" (Gary Hustwit)

Dieter Rams may not be a household name, but the appliances and devices he helped design during his time at Braun — blenders, radios, wall clocks, alarms, chairs and calculators — were ubiquitous across middle-class homes in the Western world. Unlike other famous industrial designers, few have heard of Rams: famously media-shy, iconic 21st century industrial designers like Apple's Jony Ive frequently cite Rams as inspirational, yet he lacks the notoriety of his famous admirers.

Now, filmmaker and producer Gary Hustwit has a new, just-released documentary, "Rams," that sheds more light on the illustrious history of Mr. Rams. The documentary is part-interview, part-retrospective on how industrial design has changed in the past century — and how Rams had a starring role in that shift.

Filmmaker Gary Hustwit is not a designer, but he has introduced more people to the history of design and its figureheads than perhaps anyone. Hustwit's first film, “Helvetica,” a documentary about the typeface, premiered in 2009 to critical acclaim. That film formed the beginning of what he calls the "Design Trilogy," a sequence of films directed by him that included "Objectified" (2009) and Urbanized (2011).

Hustwit says that it took him months to convince Rams to star in this documentary about a singular personality. Salon editor Keith A. Spencer sat down with Hustwit to talk about the history of design, how the influence of Dieter Rams resonates today, and how planned obsolescence has taken us away from the fundamental design principles Rams laid down half a century ago. This interview has been condensed and edited for print.

Keith A. Spencer: Probably almost everyone in America has touched or seen something that Dieter Rams has designed, but few know his name. What are some of the products that he helped design, or things that he helped design that we might recognize?

Gary Hustwit: Well, he was the design director at Braun, the German consumer products company, from the early 1960s till the mid '90s. So, he was responsible for the design, or the design team, that made all the Braun coffee makers, and razors, and radios, and alarm clocks, and watches. I mean, over 500 different products. I remember being a kid in California and my mom had the Braun juicer, the orange juicer that you pushed down on.

I think my parents had that too.

Yeah, it's just these common utilitarian products that a lot of us had that really shaped how a lot of modern products look and function. They were very simple, you didn't really need a user manual to operate them, they were clear in terms of the design and in the way you interacted [with them].

Then Gillette bought Braun in the 1970s, and so then Gillette started also using Braun's design team to help design products. So things that Gillette, and then Procter & Gamble — the subsequent parent company — made [included] the Oral-B toothbrush, Dieter and his team were involved in the design of that.

So, chances are, even if you don't know it, at some point this week you've encountered something that was either designed by Rams or inspired by [him]. I mean, Apple is the perfect example of a company that has talked about the influence that Dieter had on the design of the iPod, and the iPhone and the iMac. You can look at a lot of their design and see the influences that came from Dieter, what his team was doing at Braun in the '50s and '60s.

So, essentially, Dieter Rams at Braun was to modernist design what Apple is to post-modern design? Like, they were making these very clean, minimalist-type products for a mass consumer audience?

Well, yeah. I mean, I think that when they started, it wasn't probably a mass audience. This is like post-World War II, Germany in the mid '50s — and stuff didn't look like clean, and white.

In the postwar [w]reckage of Germany and Europe, there was this sense among the younger generation — and Rams was 13 when the war ended — of rebuilding and kinda sweeping away all the chaos [of] their parents' generation. This idea of trying to make democratic, honest products that [d]idn't look like this stuff from the '40s and '30s. And trying to kind of bring Germany into this modern design world.

It's like when Braun first started making radios, and other products, [with] this new post-war design. They would photograph them with an Eames chair, and a Herman Miller table, and they were basically kind of part of … this new way of living that the young generation, then, in the '50s wanted — this new way of life. They didn't want had come before. So this is all kinda tied in with that.

You've been very interested in design and filmmaking, making documentaries about design. Previously you had made what you called the “design trilogy.” But this film is also about design, so I'm wondering if you are amending that to be a quadrilogy now? Or is [this] a separate film from the previous “Helvetica,” “Objectified,” and “Urbanized” trilogy?

Those films were kind of fanatically linked and also kind of formally linked. They were almost collages of different people and different ideas. Whereas this is much more an exploration of one person. Everything I do builds on something that I've done before, so there are definitely [similarities] — in terms of the filmmaking and the visual aesthetic and the sound. There are things that connect it to those films, but I wasn't trying to make, like, “Objectified 2.”

Even though the two films [“Rams” and “Objectified”] definitely share a lot of questions and ideas and topics, it's a different type of film, since it's one person, Dieter. But also, [with] the construction of it, I was trying for simplicity. I mean, Rams' whole thing is about simplifying technology and simplifying our lives, so I wanted the film to be as simple as possible.

It's really hard to make a simple film, or a simple design, period, that accomplishes all the things you want. But that was my goal, to make a simple, simple film. I don't think I achieved that, but it was something I strove for. The Design Trilogy films were not that. They were just kind of all over the place and these surveys of design, different design, disciplines and how those things affected our lives.

Is Dieter Rams a celebrity in Germany the way that, say, Apple’s Jony Ive is a design celebrity in the Western world?

No, I don't think people knew who industrial designers were [back then]. [Dieter] just wanted to be back in the workshop making things and working with his team, so he wasn't out there pushing his own image. People know the products but, I think, even in Germany people don't really know him by name. Partly because he's just a private person, he doesn't do a lot of interviews. It took me months to convince him to do the film, 'cause he'd already turned down so many offers to do a documentary about him.

You must know him a little bit now, what was it like, that filmmaking process once you finally got him to talk to you or interview him? Did you travel to Germany, then?

[It was] in 2015 when he agreed to do the film. That year, I went over [to Frankfurt] for week long trips, where we'd do these long conversations and try to get his full story. At that point, I didn't really know what the structure of the film was going to be, I just wanted to do a lot of conversations, film with him and try to follow him around to any kind of events or things he was doing. I just trusted that, at some point, structure of the film or the theme would emerge.

I think that's been my process with all the films. I don't have some strategy or brief that I'm going in with. They're explorations — I want go, I want to use documentary film to explore the subjects and I get to learn about them and I get to meet these people and then the byproduct of that, those conversations and the exploration, is the movie.

I wanted to ask you about the 10 design principles that he articulates in the movie. That felt like one of the film’s climactic moments — there’s this visual explication of Dieter Rams' Ten Design Principles with his voiceover and with typography going across, elucidating each one. I hadn't heard of his design principles before I watched it, but they're very clean and simple, even the way they're articulated.

In the mid '70s to mid '80s [Dieter Rams] came up with these 10 principles. They're these basic guidelines to his philosophies of design and his team at Braun, their philosophies. He says that they weren't meant to be these commandments — they were just, as he says, friendly suggestions.

But, since the '80s they have been taught like they are these immutable laws of design. They’re fairly open ended. Some of them are like, 'good design is honest' and 'good design is aesthetic' and he expands on each of these, the principles, in text.

I know you've said in other interviews that you're not a designer – you didn't study design but now you've become on of the preeminent documentarians who does documentaries about design. What was the genesis of your interest in design?

It was sort of by accident. I mean, I didn't go to film school, I didn't really have any desire to be a filmmaker until I made “Helvetica”, and that was really just a case of me — as an appreciator of design and somebody who was interested in it —wanting to see a movie about typography and graphic design and there was just nothing out there.

I think a lot of my creative process has been that same kind of impulse like, “why doesn't this exist?” I really wanna watch or see or read or go to this thing and it doesn't exist. I find, in those cases, you just have to sort of roll up your sleeves and do it. If no one else is gonna do it and it's kind of an obsession, you can't wait around for somebody else to do it and screw it up. So, I just feel like well, I didn't know how to make films but I really wanted to watch a movie about fonts. So I thought, I'll teach myself how to be a filmmaker and just make the documentary.

I had been a fan of typography, I guess, from when I bought my first Macintosh in the late '80s and just started messing around with DIY graphic design. I was working with record labels and I had an independent press, publishing books, so we were always using fonts and graphic design for the projects we were doing. But I wasn't a professional designer. It was something that I really liked, and I just couldn't believe there wasn't a film about it.

Then, the next film was just the same. I was like “wow, why isn't there a film about product design, industrial design?” I like all these gadgets and all these designers who make this stuff but I also wanted to question “what's our relationship to them?” As the users of these things, we surround ourselves with all these objects. Who makes them? Why do we have them? What this idea of expressing our identity through the stuff we have in our home? So, that was where the kind of questions that we explored in “Objectified.”

Then “Urbanized” was the same thing but about cities. Every day, from the point you wake up to the point you go to sleep, your life is dictated by the design of your city. How you get to work, where you go to work, what you do after work. How you relax, how you have recreation, your health. All this stuff is all woven into your environment, and as more and more people are moving to cities and there are more people living in urban areas than suburban areas now, it's just gonna be more and more of a factor, so I wanted to look at that.

So [my films] are always about stuff that I'm interested in or stuff that I think there should be a film about but it doesn't exist. Then, depending on my level of obsession, I make the project… and Dieter [Rams] was that case, too.

I really wanted to watch a film about Dieter Rams, I couldn't believe there wasn't one. [Apparently] there wasn't one because he didn't want to do one. That was the challenge with him was just getting him to see that a film could do something different than books could, or it could reach a different audience or a bigger audience than he had reached before. I think it's really important for him now, at this point of his career, to get his ideas and his philosophies to the next generation. So, that's ultimately why, I think, he agreed to do it.

You've spent years making these documentaries and you've interviewed a lot of designers over the years. Do you feel like we're in a historical moment where design is very interesting and innovative, or do you feel like we've sort of stagnated since the mid century? One thing that really struck me about “Rams” was the products that Braun made, in some ways, they were almost identical to the appliances we have nowadays but more durable.

It's complicated. Again, [Braun] were designing things to last your lifetime, even if it was a coffee grinder. They made that coffee grinder to outlive you, and if it did break it was designed to be repaired and there was an infrastructure to repair it.

Now, that doesn't exist. If something breaks, if a household appliance breaks or even the button falls off or something it's like, “I can get [a new] one for 20 bucks.” So the philosophy from consumers and manufacturers and designers has totally shifted. That's something I think Dieter is horrified at, but also feels, partly, he had a role in. I’d say the digital side of our lives is probably even more problematic, in terms of design.

I think it's one of the reasons Dieter does not have a computer and doesn't do social media and doesn't have email. He's all about simplifying. He spent his whole career thinking about how to simplify our lives with these objects and also simplify his life. So, while digital technology has an amazing amount of capabilities that it enables us to do — like, have this interview right now and have people watching it —  has it simplified our lives? That's, I think, the question for me. Again, it's enabled us to do a lot but it has definitely not simplified our lives.

So I think that's a bigger challenge, in terms of design — how [do we] use digital technology and the web and social media in a way that does make our lives better but doesn't take over our lives or influence our lives in a negative way? I think, in the next 10 years, that's the question.

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Gary Hustwit’s new documentary about Dieter Rams, entitled “Rams,” is currently playing in theaters around the world or on-demand from Vimeo.



By Keith A. Spencer

Keith A. Spencer is a social critic and author. Previously a senior editor at Salon, he writes about capitalism, science, labor and culture, and published a book on how Silicon Valley is destroying the world. Keep up with his writing on TwitterFacebook, or Substack.

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