Ironically, Dieter Rams, the visionary designer whose sleekly simple and ultra-functional products had for six decades made Germany’s Braun company synonymous with cutting-edge appliances, might have been indirectly responsible for a trend that he sees as the bane of modern culture.
As mentioned in the brisk documentary “Rams” from Gary Hustwit (“Helvetica”), Jonathan Ive, who developed Apple’s signature, stripped-down style, has cited Rams as his inspiration and role model. But in the film Rams expresses dread at the Internet age Ive and Apple helped create. “It worries me that people no longer look each other in the eye,” he says while standing in a London street among oblivious pedestrians hooked up to devices. “They are all staring into their tablets.” Later he warns, “Digitization diminishes our ability to experience things. The world perceived through the senses cannot be digitized.”
This technological alienation is not the world he dreamed of in the 1950s, when he and a generation of German architects and engineers, fresh from the devastation of World War II and at the beginning of the Cold War, sought to use their art to improve the human condition. Enlisted by Braun because of his idealism and talent, Rams led a team of designers to produce kitchen appliances, radios, razors, turntables, stereos, alarm clocks, and electric toothbrushes that have been the hallmark of quality and cool for generations. In the late 1960s, after the company was absorbed by Gillette, his credo of “less, but better” was more and more overruled by an ethos of crass consumerism. So Rams left to work full time for Vitsoe, a Danish furniture company that better suited his aesthetic and values.
Hustwit wisely embraces that “less, but better” mantra himself in the design of his film as he combines a profile of the irrepressible octogenarian with interviews with his experts, colleagues, and other designers, along with the occasional montage of iconic Rams creations backed by a soundtrack from Brian Eno, himself legendary for the brimming minimalism of his music. Instead of his own stylistic indulgences, Hustwit instead follows the lead of his effusive, arch, and incisive subject.
That takes Hustwit to a museum retrospective of Rams’s career, where Rams comments on the work of other designers exhibited there. “I always admired George Nelson but I never understood what he meant by that,” he says about that designer’s uncomfortable-looking Marshmallow Sofa. And when a museum curator points out that a studded metal settee that Rams especially dislikes was “the most expensive piece of design ever sold at auction,” Rams retorts, “The idea that design must be expensive leads to things like that.”
Throughout the film Rams frets about the current political atmosphere of intolerance, anxiety, and anger in a world that, as one interviewee points out, is in some ways as fractured and as full of uncertainty as the one in which Rams first began his career, more than 60 years ago. He condemns a consumer culture that thrives on the useless and disposable rather than the utilitarian and enduring. But as he poses with teenage fans at his 85th birthday celebration, he reaffirms his faith that good design can create a better future.
“Rams” screens at the Museum of Fine Arts on Dec. 1 at 3 p.m. The director will participate in a question-and-answer session.