A birthday present for Dieter Rams
A visit to our new production building and HQ in Royal Leamington Spa.
Words: Mark Adams
Photography: Greg Funnell
Like all teenagers I was reluctant to rise from my bed in the morning. So I bought an alarm clock with a snooze function. And as hairs sprouted from my chin I bought a black electric razor. I chose them because they worked well and looked good.
As a student I visited an exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum. It was called ‘Eye for Industry’. It celebrated the work of the Royal Designers for Industry (RDI). I bought the fine little catalogue – and still have it on my shelf today.
Later, when I walked into a new interiors shop in London’s West End to see a shelving system being installed on the wall, I made the connection: a German designer called Dieter Rams was responsible for my razor and clock – and the shelves – while also being recognised as an RDI (only honorary, of course, because he is not British).
The next stop was Frankfurt where, as an eager 25-year-old, I was introduced to Rams by Niels Vitsœ, the founder of the company that made those shelves. Typically, Rams barely gave me the time of day, but I still remember the frisson when he entered the room.
Decades later I find myself writing this – on the occasion of Dieter’s 85th birthday. In those intervening years trust has built between us – slowly, steadily but firmly. Knowing its rarity, that trust is something I value most highly.
Being Dieter he is dismissive of this milestone. He certainly does not want a wrapped box with a token gift inside. He has no need for more objects in his life.
Instead I chose the present of an invitation to join us in the heart of England at Vitsœ’s new (timber) building in Royal Leamington Spa. His first words on entering were, “It smells good.”
Equipped with his trusty stick – given to him by its designer, Nanna Ditzel, 40 years ago – he analysed the details forensically. As I have always witnessed, his hands were to the fore – assessing every shape and surface with a tender caress. The stopped chamfer of the beech columns was particularly noteworthy.
While most humans he encounters are not committed to memory, his joy is expressed the second he meets a member of the Vitsœ team whose skilful hands he has previously admired. True respect.
Conversely, I have learnt to recognise the instant that frustration and anger harden his distinctive features – almost always as a result of a lack of care and professionalism in his midst. Poorly prepared journalists can be treated with disdain.
Once products and people are behind us, his line of inquiry always turns to: “Mark, how do we make the world a better place?” At some point the Shakers earn a mention – as trust, simplicity and integrity come to the fore. For years we have wrestled this little problem. Indeed, he has established his own foundation for this purpose.
Over supper in a Warwickshire pub Dieter noted that the beef is supplied by the Queen’s butcher. Normally a fish-eater he opted for the fillet steak because, as he said, “it is rare to find good meat.” His appreciation for the resulting immaculate plate of food – and single glass of good red wine – is total.
I have been lucky enough to spend more than 30 years working with Dieter Rams. Often when I leave him I have two thoughts in my mind: to be truly world-class the bar has to be high; and to keep that bar high, one must deploy the unwritten eleventh principle for good design that I have observed repeatedly in Dieter Rams: single-mindedness.
Happy birthday, Dieter.