The Strong collection
A story of design history and day-to-day utility via a remarkable personal collection.
Words & Photography: Vitsœ
People collect for various reasons. For Tom Strong, it was an appreciation for the beauty and day-to-day utility of Dieter Rams’s electrical products that led to a passion that has lasted over 50 years, resulting in his remarkable collection of over 250 items.
Collecting is in the Strong genes. “I’ve always been a mad collector,” he explained. “It started aged 7, when my sister introduced me to stamps. I also collect Liberty fabrics, which are like a garden where the flowers don’t wilt and it doesn’t need watering, as well as Swiss posters and sports balls, which I grade by size. I think the desire to collect is as insidious as marijuana!
“The Braun collection fulfills a different need. I began to collect these items because I enjoyed using them and I was fascinated by the progression in design that I was seeing. The products were only evolved to improve their function, not just to change their style.”
It was during a stint in the US Army that Strong first encountered products designed by Dieter Rams (head of design at Braun from 1961 to 1995). “I never went to ’Nam, but I knew the G.I.s stationed over there were lonely for America and they missed the sound of our music,” he recounted, settling into his origin story of the innovative Braun radio that could receive short- and long-wave signals. “Those that were lucky enough to have a T 1000 were able to feel closer to home. When I eventually found one for sale in Germany many years later, I raced over to Frankfurt to buy it and carried it on my lap all the way back to the USA on the flight. There was no way I would risk putting something so precious in my hold luggage!”
Following his years stationed abroad with the US army, Strong returned to the east coast of America to begin a Masters of Fine Arts in graphic design at Yale, where he confessed to developing “a fetish for grids.” Later, the bold and organised design of Braun packaging reignited his interest. “The bells really started ringing when I recognised how the boxes were just as seductive as the items inside,” he said, “and it made me realise that all the brainwashing with typeface, colour and proportion that I’d got at Yale was important after all. Rams was clearly taking the design very seriously … to help the people who used the products.
“Rams’s designs made the products understandable and self-educational. He made things that were easy to grasp, to get to know and to handle roughly without breaking. The controls told you quietly ‘lift me’ or ‘push me’, and the colours are there for your advantage only – like the use of red for the Off switch.”
Rams’s respect for the user of his products adhered Strong to his designs. “I felt that I was part of a family,” he said. “Although we know Rams cared such a lot for aesthetics, he made sure that you felt personally addressed by every package. There would be a fold-out with all the essential details written in every single language and you’d be given the address and phone number of who to call in every region should you ever need spares or a repair.
“His design team behaved responsibly, which was all part of the charm. Even the broken items have been kept, because they are worth so much more than the value of their function. For me, Rams created products that were most definitely the best in their field. They nailed it.”
Debunking what he sees as the stuffy and short-sighted attitude of art institutions worldwide, who, in his opinion, fail to see the significance of industrial design, Strong ruefully explained, “there’s this theory that if something is useful, it can’t be art, but that’s not true. To me, the products designed by Rams were just as important as a Henry Moore sculpture – except people could afford them, touch them and use them.”
At 77, the Connecticut-born graphic designer became concerned about the legacy of his collection, preferring, as he enthused, to “give it to someone who would use it as a teaching tool. You can’t take it with you, so you should at least put it into the safe hands of someone that will make good use of it.”
The determination to move to a smaller apartment led Strong to Vitsœ in 2016, when after 30 years of admiring the 620 Chair Programme, he finally walked into Vitsœ’s New York shop. “Had I not decided to buy the Rams chair that I had always coveted, and fulfil my lifelong ambition to own one, the rest would never have happened,” Strong revealed. “It was almost by chance, talking to the Vitsœ team about my Braun collection, that they mentioned how it could help with their mission to educate the next generation of design students if it was included in their archive at their new Leamington Spa HQ.”
Strong has donated his life’s collection to Vitsœ. Following exhibitions at Vitsœ’s shops in New York and London in 2017, the collection will be exhibited at Vitsœ’s headquarters in Royal Leamington Spa from June 2018.
When quizzed about the paradox of treating himself to a new Rams chair when he was supposedly downsizing, the compulsive collector chuckled, “Good point! I’ve had plenty of other chairs but with this one, I’ve used it nearly every day watching TV with my son since it arrived.”
Strong contemplated, “Was donating the collection to Vitsœ just a happy accident or serendipity? We’ll never know, but I couldn’t imagine a better home for it.”
Tom Strong has kindly given his fine collection to Vitsœ on the condition that it is always displayed for the benefit of future generations of design students.
Vitsœ’s latest exhibition of the collection is open to students and the public via appointment at its HQ and production building in Royal Leamington Spa, UK. To make an appointment, contact email@example.com.