Ahead of his time

There are more than 30 years between the designs produced by the legendary Dieter Rams and the release of Apple’s all-conquering products. Originality sometimes needs time to succeed.

Our first reaction to originality is usually irritation. It changes our perspective on how the world and the things within it work, and it creates objects, images or machines which fit in this new dimension. And because of this, original ideas often end up in museums – places where we still think originality is best kept. However, at a later date some of these novel ideas still manage to make the leap into our living rooms or offices. These are the truly revolutionary, original ideas. They have that rare fortune of being allowed out into the world after their time in quarantine.

This rough description pretty accurately tracks the evolution of the ideas created by German industrial designer Dieter Rams between the 1950s and 1980s into the Apple products of the modern age. Even though French designer Philippe Starck claimed that the devices from Cupertino were straight plagiarism, is that really the case? “Seller of souls” is what “Plagiarius” means in Latin. Rams isn’t quite as damning. Indeed, he sees any similarities as a compliment.

Originality is a pioneer. It blazes the trail for settlers who come later and successfully plant crops, while pioneers are much more occupied with fighting for survival – or, in Rams’ case, being celebrated at exhibition openings by curators and designers. The fact that Rams’ designs were recognised in the MoMA in the 1960s gave the Braun brand a certain mythos, though huge commercial success proved harder to come by. In 1956, only a select few were impressed by the design for Braun’s radio-phono system SK 4, which Rams conceived with Hans Gugelot. Nowadays it’s considered a timeless, minimalist icon.

As a designer, Rams wants as little design and as much intuitive clarity as possible: “Design has to be self-explanatory. Design is considerably influenced by the need to explain things without the user having to read a whole instruction manual first.” The starting point for his work was “creating order, eliminating chaos, focusing on the important things.” That means first delving deep and only then taking care of the surface aesthetic: It demands thinking a product all the way through so that no unresolved questions are left for the user to solve.

It isn’t only Steve Jobs who appreciated this approach. He made the Think Different! essence within Rams’ radios, clocks, lighters, juicers or shelves into the core of his corporate philosophy and therefore the basis of the global success of Apple. Jonathan Ive, Chief Design Officer at Apple, wrote a personal letter to Rams explaining how much his work has influenced him. On Ive’s invitation, Rams visited Apple HQ in Silicon Valley: “I couldn’t resist saying: I’m feeling at home”. Just like Ive at Apple, Rams wasn’t only lead designer at Braun, he was also a member of the management, as this was the only way to ensure that his approach permeated all levels of the company.

Apple understands Rams’ system right down to its small details and has projected it into its own world. But why has it been so commercially successful at Apple? Likely because the approach was matched with a level of technical progress which was so complex and completely different to everything that came before it, that we perceived the intuitive use as an incredible advantage. And because the original stripped-back design which goes along with it doesn’t irritate us as much as it did in 1956.

The images that the photographer Ramak Fazel took of Dieter Rams’ house show how much his attitude towards design has also migrated into his private world. They offer an insight into how Rams wishes the entire world to be: Tidy, clear and oriented towards our requirements. It shows how Rams lives with things which he designed himself, how up-to-date they appear despite being built in the sixties and seventies.

Dieter Rams, 85, is an icon of industrial design. He was responsible for product design at Braun from 1955 to 1997. His designs still influence creative minds worldwide to this day. On 25 May of this year he celebrated his 85th Birthday.

Ramak Fazel, 52, is a photographer living in Los Angeles. ramakfazel.com

Dieter Rams, As little design as possible, with a foreword by Jonathan Ive, Phaidon 2013