Dieter’s Top Ten

Legendary industrial designer Dieter Rams discusses his iconic 606 Universal Shelving System.

For nearly 30 years Dieter Rams served as head of design for German appliance company Braun. Until his retirement in 1997, Rams designed all types of products, from radios and record players to coffeemakers and calculators, many of which entered the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art. His 606 Universal Shelving System, a midcentury classic, was based on an idea the designer came up with shortly after joining Braun as an architect in 1955. “Erwin Braun, the owner of the company, had noticed that more people were becoming interested in making their homes modern spaces,” Rams says. “So I suggested that we design an exhibition room to display the new radios together with furniture. Out of this came about the idea for the shelving system.” The system was eventually produced by Vitsoe and in 1960 became commercially available in the United Kingdom. Last October Metropolis asked Rams—who was in New York for the North American launch of the 606 unit—to talk about the how the modular shelving system applies to his principles of good design.

The classic 606 Universal Shelving System by Vitsoe, created in 1960 by German industrial designer Dieter Rams, on display at Moss, in New York City. The steel shelving and fiber-composite-and-laminate cabinets, tables, and desks can be used in a wide variety of modular applications.

Dieter Rams: I have distilled the essentials of my design philosophy into ten points. But these points cannot be set in stone because just as technology and culture are constantly developing, so are ideas about good design.

1. Good design is innovative.
Technological development is always offering new opportunities for innovative design. But innovative design always develops in tandem with innovative technology and can never be an end in itself. When designing the shelving system, I had the idea that it should be like a good English butler. It should be there when you need it but be in the background when you don’t.

2. Good design makes a product useful.
A product is bought to be used. It has to satisfy certain criteria, not only functional but also psychological and aesthetic. Good design emphasizes the usefulness of the product while disregarding anything that could possibly detract from it.

3. Good design is aesthetic.
The aesthetic quality of a product is integral to its usefulness because products we use every day affect our well-being. But only well-executed objects can be beautiful.

4. Good design makes a product understandable.
It clarifies the product’s structure. Better still, it can make the product talk. At best, it is self-explanatory.

5. Good design is honest.
It does not make a product more innovative, powerful, or valuable than it really is. It does not attempt to manipulate the consumer with promises that cannot be kept.

6. Good design is unobtrusive.
Products fulfilling a purpose are like tools. They are
neither decorative objects nor works of art. Their design should therefore be both neutral and restrained, to leave room for the user’s self-expression.

7. Good design is long-lasting.
It avoids being fashionable, and therefore never appears antiquated. Unlike fashionable design, it lasts many years—even in today’s throwaway society. I live with the shelving system. It’s the only way I can improve it. I’m proud when I get letters from users who say they bought system in 1962 and were able to add elements to it as their needs grew and changed.

8. Good design is thorough down to the last detail.
Nothing must be arbitrary. Care and accuracy in the design process shows respect toward the consumer.

9. Good design is environmentally friendly.
Design makes an important contribution to the preservation of the environment. It conserves resources and minimizes physical and visual pollution throughout the life cycle of the product. A few years ago I had the crazy idea that gas stations should not only be places to buy gas but locations where you could return goods for recycling. Companies have the technology; the problem is finding ways for users to be able to return a product at the end of its life. (“To learn more about Rams’s views on environmental sustainability and designers’ responsibility to the earth, read our Web-exclusive essays “The Art of Living Better” and “The Future of Design.”)

10. Good design is as little design as possible.
Less but better—because it concentrates on the essential aspects, and the products are not burdened with inessentials. Back to purity, back to simplicity!

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