Looking back, and ahead
Klaus Klemp and Sophie Lovell have both been responsible for documenting the work of Dieter Rams. They reflect on his motivations, far-reaching influence and his legacy.

Sophie Lovell, photo: Lena Giovanazzi. Klaus Klemp, photo: Andreas Baier.

The German design historian and curator Klaus Klemp and the English writer and editor Sophie Lovell are probably the leading published experts on Dieter Rams and his work for Vitsœ and the electrical products company, Braun. The occasion of the opening of Klemp’s latest exhibition “Dieter Rams: Looking Back and Ahead” in Frankfurt seemed a suitable moment to catch up with them and take stock of their professional association with Rams, his legacy, and their roles in preserving and sharing his work, his message and the context of his oeuvre.

15 years ago, Professor Klemp co-curated the major exhibition “Less and More: The Design Ethos of Dieter Rams” together with Keiko Ueki, which opened in the Suntory Museum in Osaka. It was a huge success and toured to several major museums around the world. Now, 13 years later, he has produced a new Dieter Rams exhibition.

Vitsœ Voice began by asking Klemp about the difference between the two?

Klaus Klemp: The difference lies in the fact that “Less and More” was a very large exhibition with a lot of exhibits that primarily related to Dieter’s design position, his “design ethos”, as well as the context in which it came about and the effect that it had. It spanned the work of Peter Behrens for electrical appliance manufacturer AEG before WWI, through the 1920s and the Ulm School right up to successors such as Jony Ive, Naoto Fukasawa and Jasper Morrison, who all referenced him. Teamwork too played a big role in this exhibition, which also displayed many designs by other Braun design-team members. It was originally planned for Osaka and Tokyo, but then went on to London, Frankfurt, Seoul and San Francisco. We never expect such a huge resonance back then. The show had over 400,000 visitors in total.

The current exhibition is much more modest. It grew out of the work on Dieter’s catalogue raisonné that we began in 2019 and is strictly chronological. As a result, it shows clearly that throughout his creative period, Dieter was always involved in parallel with Braun appliances and Vitsœ furniture. Even he was surprised by the connections that resulted from that. That was when the idea for this very compact exhibition came about, based on his work for the two companies and a few others. It is a kind of photo exhibition with only a few exhibits and a lot of text. It is, thanks to designer Mario Lorenz’s great exhibition system design, easy to transport and very flexible, so it can be shown in different sizes. Above all, it is intended to convey Dieter’s design principles in that is as durable as possible and thus environmentally friendly.

VV: How has it been for you both writing about one of what many consider to be the world’s greatest industrial designers? Do you feel a burden of responsibility there?

Sophie Lovell: I know both of us have struggled a bit with this kind of mythologising of Dieter as the lone, star-designer genius that the people tend to do. The real story is more complicated, because design is also very much a collaborative process, as Dieter would be the first to acknowledge.

KK: In much of the existing literature, he is either portrayed as the ‘superdesigner’ of all Braun appliances or simply as a member of their design team. Both are undoubtedly wrong. He was clearly involved in all the designs until 1995, but the design ideas of other team members also often dominated. His merit lies in his ability to have brought all these different ideas together into a single corporate design. Under his leadership, the design team was no monastic consensual community, rather a kind of pressure cooker with a pressure relief valve that occasionally needed to spring into action.

VV: Having turned 89 this year, Rams has stopped giving interviews, but there are two things he is still really passionate about: good design and the contribution it makes towards improving the environment. When do you feel this awareness really started with him?

SL: Yes! He is absolutely tireless in this respect he cares a very great deal about the natural environment as well as the built one. I think he always has done in some ways, but my impression is that his awareness and concerns for the environment seem to have really taken root after he went to design summits at Aspen in the 1960s and 70s where there were great gatherings of creative minds and speakers like Buckminster Fuller as well as student protests outside.

KK: For sure, Aspen, with its many encounters and conversations, had an important influence on Dieter’s work. In 1993, he himself gave a lecture there on “The Future of Design”. But since the 1970s, he has been invited to give many lectures in which he has expressed and increasingly developed his attitude to design, usability, functional and aesthetic qualities, the design process, education, the future and ecology. His lecture activities were almost as extensive as his design activities. Dieter has always been a very reflective person and has also always shared his thoughts with others.

SL: He also never stops looking at things with a critical eye and thinking about how objects, environments and systems could be improved, from the waste bins in the street to the organisation of a space.

KK: True! Dieter is never satisfied with how things are. He is always thinking ahead. And I think that is what makes him a good designer. He could of course be satisfied with the products he has brought into the world. There is hardly a designer who has realised a greater number of successful and rational designs than he has. But even today, at 89, he is concerned about the future of design, about good design education and about a very necessary new relationship to the environment.

VV: This year, Braun celebrates its 100th anniversary. What, for each of you, is a key aspect of their legacy?

SL: I can’t help thinking that instead of celebrating past products, the focus should be more on the fact that in the 1950s, Erwin and Artur Braun built the company’s own health centre for its staff; that they had a doctor and dentist on-site, a canteen with nutritional food, a crèche for workers’ children and share incentives for employees. Likewise, Vitsœ today also have an incredibly holistic approach to their products, staff, materials, distribution and even the space they work in. Good design cannot be disconnected from the systems that it is part of.

KK: I agree completely. It’s not just about the way things look, but also about the conditions under which our product environments are produced and used. Erwin Braun had a holistic approach to the Braun company since the 1950s. He was not so much concerned with a new design just as design, but with a future new company that focused on consideration and respect for employees and users. This followed the idea of a “social market economy” that should treat all members of society fairly. It was highly successful and stood in stark contrast to today’s widespread turbo-capitalism, in which the only thing that matters in many companies is the highest possible return on investment. In my opinion, however, this no longer has a justifiable future, because consumers, or rather users, are falling less and less for marketing tricks, but are judging a company more and more according to its objective attitude to the environment and sustainability. This is very much on the agenda at the moment.

VV: How has this holistic view – of which design is of course a part – evolved, in your opinion?

SL: Recently, the (also German) designer Stefan Diez came up with his own set of ten Circular Design Guidelines. They are guidelines for an interconnected world from a designer who is almost two generations younger than Dieter but are very much built on the foundation of his ten principles. We are just beginning to see a different kind of modular future to the one a young Rams and his colleagues were envisaging, but it has strong parallels. There is a clear evolution of thinking there.

KK: Today, the circular economy is a highly topical issue which, although it will certainly not be possible to realise 100 per cent, can contribute to a significant reduction in resource consumption. This is an important field for product designers: to think not only about the use and aesthetics of things, but also about making things as environmentally friendly as possible. Incidentally, the HfG Ulm [Ulm School of Design] was already active in this field in the 1960s and the HfG Offenbach [Offenbach University of Art and Design] with Jochen Gros in the 1970s and 1980s. If this has now also arrived in companies, then we need designers who can really develop it. Stefan Diez is certainly on the right track. His theses on the circular economy clearly refer to Rams’ ten principles and fulfil his wish that they be developed further into the future.

VV: In this respect, your exhibition “Dieter Rams: Looking Back and Ahead”, Professor Klemp, is part of this way of thinking – it provides a contextual background and shows Dieter’s evolution of thought through his practice and how it is part of a continuum with the future.

KK: It is primarily intended as an example of how things that were designed half a century ago are still relevant today. It is an attitude to design – durable, usable, self-explanatory, environmentally friendly and, last, but not least, highly attractive – that should be conveyed by this exhibition. Sensible design is only convincing if it is also attractive. It is an exhibition with many photos and texts and only a few exhibits. We do not want to fetishise Rams’ design, but to foreground and explain his intentions.

Illustrated with photography captured by Wolfgang Günzel on the day Dieter Rams visited the new exhibition. Images courtesy of Museum Angewandte Kunst.

“Dieter Rams: Looking Back and Ahead” will be on show at the Museum Angewandte Kunst, Frankfurt, until 16 January 2022.

Further reading:

Klaus Klemp – Professor em. of design theory and history of design.

• “Less and More: The Design Ethos of Dieter Rams”. A catalogue compiled together with Keiko Ueki, to accompany the exhibition of the same name (2008).

• “Dieter Rams: The Complete Works” (Phaidon, 2020).

Sophie Lovell – Author, editor and consultant in the fields of design, food and architecture.

• “Dieter Rams: As Little Design as Possible” (Phaidon, 2011)