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Tips from the designer who influenced Apple--and many others

An exhibition of work by legendary industrial designer Dieter Rams offers a neat history of--and a tutorial for creating--beautiful and simple consumer products that achieve iconic status.
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Written by Reena Jana on

SAN FRANCISCO--Even a quick walk-through of the exhibition "Less is More: The Design Ethos of Dieter Rams," on view at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art through February 20, offers a striking sense of deja vu.

For those familiar with Rams, a legendary German industrial designer known for his enduring vision for creating simple, easy-to-use products, the show features many of his greatest hits. These include gadgets he created for electronics maker Braun, like his iconic clock radio (above), and for the furniture company Vitsoe.

The curators have grouped the products beautifully, in a way that's both aesthetically pleasing and historically illuminating--befitting for a major exhibition that has been touring museums around the world. One display, for instance, features eleven hand-held movie cameras that Rams designed over the years for Braun, neatly spaced and standing like soldiers at attention or trees in a forest. At first, it's hard to realize that this display also includes basic design mock-ups made from wood. They are hard to distinguish from the actual devices themselves, because the final products are so minimal and have such sleek lines that their simplicity echoes the bare-bones nature of the mock-ups.

Braun hair dryers, designed by Dieter Rams

For those unfamiliar with Rams, walking into the galleries that house the show will seem familiar as well--because they have the elegant, streamlined feel of a chic store. Making such a comparison to commercial environments might seem disrespectful at first, but the museum-like feel of Apple Stores is so similar. And, after all, the items designed by Rams celebrated in this show are all utilitarian and were intended to be sold.

The show can also be viewed as an engaging history of trends in consumer electronics, as rendered by a designer who can also be considered a visual poet who elevates the everyday. A nice illustration of this concept: the Braun phonosuper, a record player for vinyl albums that Rams designed (with Hans Gugelot) in 1956. Its form balances a futuristic set of ultra-cool, all-white surfaces and control buttons with wooden details that lend the device a warm, welcoming touch.

Walk further through the galleries and you're transported through time, past oversized (by contemporary standards) lighters from the 1960s, when smoking was as common as standing in line to drink large, over-caffeinated lattes is today. Rams's lighters, designed with attractive, elongated lines, are as compelling as sculptures. Today, they're artifacts from another era, although their silhouettes could certainly inspire designers seeking compelling forms for digital gadgets that have nothing to do with lighting a cigarette.

By the time you hit Rams's designs for the 1970s, you get a sense of the dawn of ubiquitous technology in the home--interpreted stunningly by Rams in a black TV/radio/audio device that is as sleek and unforgettable as Darth Vader's helmet, only not as daunting. (Note: this gadget, designed in 1974-75, pre-dates the first Star Wars movie, which was released in 1977.)

One of the best parts of the show is the inclusion of Rams's Ten Principles of Good Design, painted onto SFMOMA's pristine white walls. The principles are, after all, some of Rams's most important contributions to the history of design.

We've outlined them before in detail on SmartPlanet, but they're worth repeating again in their most basic form--like a mantra or the Ten Commandments for creating products that resonate with consumers.

Good design, according to Rams, is:

- innovative

- makes a product useful

- aesthetic

- makes a product understandable

- unobtrusive

- honest

- long-lasting

- thorough down to the last detail

- environmentally friendly

- as little design as possible

At the end of the show, the curators have included a varied selection of recent products that exemplify these tips in many ways, but are designed by other superstars of the industrial design world, including Jonathan Ive of Apple and Naoto Fukasawa, for Muji. While these examples may at first seem to distract from a focus on Rams (really, an iPad in a museum?), they powerfully illustrate the commercial and cultural influence that Rams has, and how his tips are as relevant to successful designers today as they were in decades past.

Images: SFMOMA. Photos by Koichi Okuwaki

Related on SmartPlanet:

Apple's aversion to chaos (in industrial design)

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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