“We should surround ourselves with less things, with better things. Free ourselves from the ballast of too many things. This allows us more space for real life.”
In introducing the Philadelphia Museum of Art's overview of his remarkable body of work, Dieter Rams asked us to view the exhibition as a proposal to reflect: Can we not get along with less things? Throughout his career, the legendary German designer championed his philosophy of “as little design as possible” that manifested itself in simplicity and usability but also often as an intentional minimalism. His 1960 Vitsœ Universal Shelving System was designed to disappear, to be a blank canvas; this was as with everything a fight against what was going on at the time. “We had to teach people that it's better to live with things that recede into the background”, Rams explains.
Now 86, and benefitting from the wisdom of singular experience and modern science, his belief that we must distance ourselves from a culture of excess and waste has taken on an added incentive in its increasingly appreciated ecological consequences: We cannot continue with more people consuming more things and more resources. To produce and own things that are well designed and durable is to contribute to the global good.
And “well designed and durable” is on display from wall to wall. Rams' 1979 compact speaker made of aluminum and injection molded plastic has scarcely been improved upon in 40 years. A 1978 Signal radio / clock for Braun looks utterly modern—in part because its clean lines and utilitarian design are free from any dating design trends, but in no small measure because Rams largely designed our concept of what modernity should look like.
Rams offered some fascinating insight into the journey his designs and work can take. An enthusiast of spring skiing during a time when ski boots were made with soft materials, he wondered if the boots could combine soft and hard construction, which lead to the first injection molded prototypes being made for him. This concept made its way into the design of his iconic Braun shavers, which could now be not slippery but satisfyingly tactile. Other small scale personal items, like watch bands, would follow. And just when the design world imagined his œvre limited to no-nonsense Teutonic forms in monochrome, he surprised and delighted everyone with his mastery of warm colours and sensual curves.
An essential experience for anyone who appreciates design, Dieter Rams: Principled Design is on display at the Perelman Building of the Philadelphia Museum of Art through April 14, 2019.
Philed by Thomas Mark Anthony