Dieter Rams at 90
Passionate, principled, and committed to responsible design

Photography: David Vintiner

Dieter Rams, recognised as one of the most influential industrial designers of the 20th century, celebrates his 90th birthday on 20 May 2022. Whilst now shying away from public engagements he remains passionate about his principles and commitment to responsible design.

Rams’s design and thinking have always been ahead of their time. He created the first perspex lid for a record player. Nicknamed ‘Snow White’s Coffin’, the Braun SK 4 now sits in many museums around the world as a milestone product. The ET 66 calculator released in 1987, when Rams was head of design at Braun, is often paired with Apple’s iPhone as an influential point of reference. His system-thinking 606 shelving system has been in continuous production by Vitsœ since its creation in 1960 and his ‘Ten Principles for Good Design’ are referred to by the design industry and educational institutions around the globe.

Rams recently explained, “It should be universally understood that designing your environment – and that is what product design is – requires taking a stance. For many years now, mine has been summarised in three words: “less but better”. We must engage ourselves with less, but more useful, more environmentally friendly, more universal, and more fascinating things. This is, in my opinion, the key to changing mindless consumption into responsible consumption. Attractivity must relate to new and convincing concepts and functions, not to a pretty appearance designed as a superfluous incentive to buy.”

Back in 1976 Rams gave a speech in New York City entitled ‘Design by Vitsœ’. This frank and prescient speech asserted this lifelong commitment to responsible design and his awareness of an “increasing and irreversible shortage of natural resources”. Believing that good design can only come from an understanding of people, Rams asked designers – indeed all of us – to take more responsibility for the state of the world around us: “I imagine our current situation will cause future generations to shudder at the thoughtlessness in the way in which we today fill our homes, our cities and our landscape with a chaos of assorted junk.”

46 years later we are aware of many companies now beating the sustainability drum, but this is not a word either Rams or Vitsœ choose to use. Our principles cannot be taken lightly, they run deeply through the longevity of the adaptable design and the lifelong ‘less but better’ behaviour Rams and Vitsœ have collectively championed for over 60 years. To us it is a ‘responsibility’ to create for the long-term. Today, many of Vitsœ’s customers have had an association with the company for decades, adding or adapting their shelving systems as their lives change, handing down product to the next, and the next, generation, or taking their Vitsœ systems with them as they move around the globe.

For his Birthday, Rams has stated, “Even though we humans may be living longer and longer, a 90th birthday is not something to take for granted. I would like to take this occasion to emphasise once again my concern for the design of our world of things. Today marks not-so-much the fact that I am ninety years old, as my good fortune in being able to work as a designer for seventy-odd years. Throughout my life, this has frequently been the result of luck, but more often thanks to the many people with whom I have had the opportunity to make suggestions for a slightly better world. I worked for many years for the company Braun and to this day I continue to work for Vitsœ, a company that has been producing my furniture designs for over 60 years, and which now actively and successfully sells them worldwide.”

Though Rams remains restless about the need to “get away from this unculture of excess, of waste and cheapness, both literally and figuratively”, he is also able to reflect that some of his furniture designs for Vitsœ have proven that the principles he and Vitsœ adhere to run true. And he allows himself to admit: “There is no reason why you shouldn’t have these systems for your whole life. That makes me a little bit happy, a little bit proud.”

Congratulations and thank you Dieter, from all of us at Vitsœ.