Dieter Rams is not a household name, but for many years the products whose design he oversaw played a part in everyday life in households throughout the world, and they have an influence still.
There was a time in the 1990s when I would wake to one of his alarm clocks, shave with one of his shavers, grind my coffee in his coffee mill, and brew my coffee in his famous columnar coffeemaker. His radios weren’t sold in the U.S. at the time, but if they had been, I probably would have been listening to one.
Rams was the longtime design director for the radio- and appliance-maker Braun (pronounce it “brown” if you are a design aficionado or German) and is the subject of “Dieter Rams: Principled Design,” on view at the Philadelphia Museum of Art Perelman Building through April 14.
The show, which consists mostly of materials on loan from the Museum Angewandte Kunst in Frankfurt, was organized by assistant project curator Colin Fanning and is the Art Museum’s best design show in years.
The exhibition is full of objects that do not try to look more important than they need to be. They stand proudly among the smaller things in life. Their designs rarely call attention to themselves, though the fierce rationality of their form makes an implicit promise that they will work as intended.
Rams, 86, long considered one of the most important product designers of the late 20th century, is having a bit of a moment right now. He is the subject of a new documentary by the design-oriented filmmaker Gary Hustitt, an excerpt of which is in the show, and he was here last month to receive the Art Museum’s Collab Design Excellence Award.
In the film, we see Rams in the garden of the modernist house that he designed for himself many years ago, delicately wielding shears to trim the slightly oversize bonsai trees around his pool. He remarks that the cutting and the shaping of the trees is design. It is a way of showing that less is more — as long as you are making the right cuts. Rams’ design is about being careful and responsible and eschewing waste, but it is also about living a rich, comfortable life.
What he said here about designing responsibly and unobtrusively was, almost word for word, what he told me when I interviewed him for a 1990 magazine article. Rams’ work is nothing if not consistent.
For most of his career, Rams was an executive, and many of the items in the show were the work of designers functioning under his supervision. Still, they embody a consistent vision, from the beginning until now. Thus, although I usually believe it is a mistake to exhibit designers as though they were autonomous creators of their work, Rams does qualify as a master.
For me, the most interesting object in the show is a small portable radio, the Exporter 2, designed by Rams and others at the school. It is a simple gray plastic radio with a round tuning dial and round speaker grille and red power and volume button. It looks just like a classic Braun product, clean but not precious.
What makes it interesting is the radio that is next to it, the Exporter 1, introduced by Braun in 1952, without any influence from Rams or his Ulm colleagues.
It has a deep-brown plastic case with a round, gold-colored tuning dial. It is trying to look a bit fancier than it is. But if you look closely, it is exactly the same radio. The dial, controls, and speaker are in the same place. Everything is the same shape. All that is different are the colors of the materials and the way those colors highlight the features of the radio.
In one sense, then, the Exporter 2 design is entirely superficial, a simple repackaging of an earlier product. Seen another way, it is profound.
The new design does a much better job of communicating how to use the product. It positions the radio as a component of modern life. And, not incidentally, it established a design style that, although greatly watered down under the company’s current ownership by Procter & Gamble, is still very much part of Braun’s identity as a brand.
Also in 1956, Rams designed a much more elaborate piece of equipment, the SK4 combination radio-phonograph. Its rectangular profile and clear plastic cover earned it the nickname “Snow White’s coffin,” and it signals the beginning of Rams’ career. But, really, the entire exhibition can be seen as a process of refining the ideas about honest materials, circles, and grids embodied in that first little radio.
We see, for example, reproductions of studies for teardrop-shape knobs to be used as selectors on the audio equipment. Rams does not believe in reinventing the wheel, but everything can be carefully tweaked. Later, he did much the same with door handles, which are shown here full size.
In addition to his work for Braun, Rams co-founded a furniture company, Vitsoe, with which he still consults and which sells his lines of shelving units and chairs. This is not a well-known part of his practice, so it is useful to see these items.
Even better, some chairs and a sofa from his Vitsoe modular seating system are available to be sat upon. Often, design exhibitions show dozens of chairs, but no place to sit.
Rams’ chairs, unlike those of many designers, are built for long and frequent use. They are very compact — no larger than they need to be. They are handsome but not sculptural, so they fade into the background as Rams indicates. And they are very comfortable.
If you go, by all means sit in one and sense, in your muscles and bones, what thoughtful design feels like.
Dieter Rams: Principled Design
Through April 14 at the Philadelphia Museum of Art Perelman Building, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday–Sunday, open Christmas Eve and New Year’s Day, closed on Christmas, $14-$20 (children under 13 free), 215-763-8100, philamuseum.org