The Strong collection
An exhibition of design history and day-to-day utility via a remarkable personal collection.
Vitsœ New York
3 – 24 May, 2017
Monday – Saturday 10:00 – 18:00
Sunday 14 & 21 May 10:00 – 18:00
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 a collection of over 250 items.
Collecting is in the Strong genes, as he explained how “even in childhood, I’d always been a mad collector; it started aged 7, when my sister introduced me to stamps. I think the desire to collect is as insidious as marijuana! 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.
“The Braun collection fulfills a different need,” he said, “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 saw the work of Dieter Rams – head of design at Braun from 1961 to 1995. One particularly memorable interaction was with the T 1000 radio, which was capable of receiving short and long wave signals. “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. 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 that was reinforced later when I saw the packaging of Braun products. The bells really started ringing when I recognised how the boxes were just as seductive as the items inside, 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.”
Dieter Rams’s respect for the user of his products adhered Strong to his designs. “I felt that I was part of a family. 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. Strong revealed, “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. 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 an exhibition in New York, the collection will move to England to become part of the permanent display in Vitsœ’s new building in Royal Leamington Spa, which opens later this year.
When quizzed about the paradox of treating himself to a new Rams chair when he was supposedly downsizing he laughed, “Good point! I’ve had plenty of other chairs, but with this one I’ve used nearly every day watching TV with my son since it arrived.” Strong wondered whether “donating the collection to Vitsœ was just a happy accident, or serendipity - we’ll never know. I couldn’t imagine a better home for it.”