In 1955, Sloan Wilson published The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit. The novel, in which a World War II veteran ascends and then quits the corporate ladder, synonymized American-style capitalism with a devil’s bargain. That same year, a young German architect named Dieter Rams began work in the design department at a little-known consumer products company called Braun.
While Wilson’s protagonist stepped off the hamster wheel, Rams built a better version of it. His early Braun projects, such as the SK4 record player and the pocket-sized T3 transistor radio, had a minimalism and intuitiveness that almost justified wartime destruction: They suggested that something wonderful might flourish in its place. By the 1970s, when his simultaneous career at Braun and Vitsœ had produced scores of products and a class of fanatical consumer, Rams grew leery of the environmental consequences. He in turn measured his designs against 10 principles in which quality equates to functionality, durability and a light-footed emotional relationship with the user. In Rams’s version of Wilson’s businessman, you can reject the order of things through invention.
Perhaps because it is so easy to draw a line from Braun to Apple, or maybe because today’s political unrest and irrational exuberance recalls a 20th-century world on fire, culture observers have recently reset their attention on Rams’s story of principled corporate complicity and transcendence. The new Gary Hustwit documentary Rams and an ongoing Philadelphia Museum of Art retrospective celebrate the designer’s singular vocabulary and the ethical stance that came to underpin it. But these are not breezy valedictories; an octogenarian Rams faces Hustwit’s camera and damns iPhone society – and partly himself– for a rampant, desocializing consumerism masquerading in his aesthetic. The suit still pinches, and Rams and his champions want you to feel that.
Gary Hustwit’s film Rams is viewable online at hustwit.vhx.tv.