If you work in design, study design, or even if industrial design is on your radar in any capacity, you are likely familiar with the work of Dieter Rams. Known for his time designing iconic products for Braun and later Vitsœ, Rams’ 10 Principles of Design have garnered him a top spot on the list of most influential industrial designers of our time. We won’t give too much of Rams’ design story away, as director Gary Hustwit did the work for us with his new feature-length documentary, RAMS, which is all about the life and philosophies of the eponymous designer.
RAMS hasn’t released yet, but I had the exciting chance to attend the New York screening at SVA’s theater last month. I was expecting the film to serve as a timeline for Rams-designed products, but the crowd ended up being treated to so much more. Instead of solely focusing on Rams’ work, Hustwit chose to tell a more compelling story—that of a designer who spent his entire career bringing beloved consumer products to life but deeply regrets (and continues to contemplate) the role his products played in creating a wasteful, disposable society.
Hustwit structured the documentary around Rams’ backstory, both personal and professional. The film comprised of dialogue from Rams and his colleagues sandwiched between moments left with nothing but the powerful sounds of Brian Eno’s original soundtrack and striking visuals of products and architecture. Naturally, I left hungry for more information, but there was no denying that Hustwit’s stripped-down editing style appropriately played homage to Rams’ 10 Principles of Design and the designer’s personality.
To give a glimpse into the making of RAMS, I’ve combined tidbits from the Q&A session held after the NYC screening with Hustwit and Mark Adams, Managing director of Vitsœ, with a separate follow-up interview with Hustwit:
When you started working on RAMS, did you realize the film would turn into something larger than design—a whole commentary on consumerism?
Gary Hustwit: Yeah, the contradiction of Dieter regretting being a designer and feeling like he played a part in getting us to the consumerist point we’re at is exactly why I wanted to do this. He said something early on in the film about how we are going through another period of technological and social change due to a completely different global/cultural situation. Working on this film has been three and a half years of meeting with Dieter, talking with him and trying to understand how things have changed. The world has changed in a lot of ways over that time, and I think that is reflected in the kind of conversations I was having with Dieter and with the other people in the film.
A lot of what Dieter has done over the past 20 years since he’s been out of design has really crystallized his thinking around sustainability issues and his whole less but better philosophy. That is what pushed me over the edge to do the film. If it would have just been, “Wow Dieter is amazing, look at all this amazing design he did”… That’s fine too, but that was only part of what interested me in his story.
In some ways, I wish I didn’t have to talk about his designs. I realize that they’re obviously the reason he’s well-known, but I was much more interested in encapsulating his philosophy in the film than I was talking about the radius of a curve on a radio. Dieter spent so much time thinking about how we relate to consumer electronics and decided to not be involved in creating digital products. He has this really objective view on the behavioral changes that smartphones and additional technology have brought around. He has this incredible point of view that’s informed by a 60-year career of designing and making products.
“It was a lot of work to persuade Dieter and Ingeborg to open up one last time. They felt that everything they’ve said is already in the public domain. They have nothing more to say, and yet this seemed to be a glaring omission. I think it’s fantastic that we’ve got this.” —Mark Adams
Mark Adams: I’m a great believer in the pendulum. It swings, and it can over-swing. I think Dieter would certainly have the argument that the digital pendulum is over-swinging at the moment. We just need to come back somewhat. Dieter often talks about what limited resources he had growing up and what limited education he had because his education was frankly completely interrupted by the war. He took a great deal of inspiration from that. He would go back to, “Where did the modern movement come from?” Well, the modern movement came from the destruction of WWII. Therefore, it was all about cleanliness and light—it wasn’t about cool white spaces that were going to have a particular aesthetic. It was all about health. It was all about sweeping away the destruction that had become before.
Rams’ 10 Principles of Design were, rightfully so, a major theme in RAMS. Did you consider the Principles while filming and editing the documentary? Which principle out of Rams’ 10 Principles of Design do you think shines through most in the film (deliberately or non-deliberately)?
GH: We had the 10 principles taped up on the wall next to the editing computer, and number 10 ended up shining through the most. I kept thinking about number 10 in terms of how to structure the film and even just with incorporating simplicity as much as possible into the making of the film. It’d be impossible to make a cluttered, messy film about Dieter Rams. I kept thinking about that as well as the overall length of the film. It was longer before, but I kept going through it and reducing, reducing, reducing. That’s the editing process for a documentary anyway, but for this one, it felt especially critical. With every scene we had to ask ourselves, do we need this extra line? Well, no, the point’s been made. Okay great. We went down the list and tried to make it as streamlined as possible.
Given that Dieter and his wife Ingeborg are extremely private people, what particular factors did you have to take into consideration when deciding how to approach, and eventually, document them on film?
GH: They really are very private people. I think there’s a generational difference, and it might even be a German thing. This idea of sharing details about your private life and talking about your personal relationship with someone else is not something that they do. I would’ve loved to interview Ingeborg. We spent a ton of time with her, but she didn’t want to talk on camera, and I respected that. But, they kind of chastised me a little bit about it (laughs). They were like, “We’re not like you Americans—always wanting to talk about everything that you feel.”
Dieter is really fastidious about his house, which is one of the reasons why he doesn’t like the media and doesn’t let people come into his house anymore to do any kind of filming or photography. He’s tired of having people disrupt his living space. We look at that house and we think it’s like a museum or something—it’s amazing. But it’s really their private home that they’ve lived in for 50 years, and you have to respect that. Everything from taking our shoes off when we’re inside and being really careful about everything to just showing overall respect for their environment was really important. For all of the filming we did in his home, we didn’t use lighting. Luckily, there’s a ton of natural light in that house, and it looks beautiful.
“Everybody wants things quickly now, but it’s refreshing to take your time sometimes. This film took me three and a half years. Could I have made it in one year? Probably, but it wouldn’t have been the same.” —Gary Hustwit
We were trying to do as little filmmaking as possible—just the bare minimum of our equipment and our crew. It was really, really stripped down, and I think he appreciated that when we came into his space. It’s definitely the reason he came back to work with us again. Every time I saw him after that first time, he would bring it up. “Oh, you guys were so amazing, you had no equipment.” He appreciated that we were low impact basically—as little design as possible.
Everybody wants things quickly now, but it’s refreshing to take your time sometimes. This film took me three and a half years. Could I have made it in one year? Probably, but it wouldn’t have been the same. I wouldn’t have documented all the things I got to document like building the Vitsœ headquarters. Even working with Brian Eno wouldn’t have happened if I had finished the film earlier. There are benefits to slowing down the process, especially with a long-form documentary.
What was the process of working with Brian Eno like, and how did you connect with him?
GH: I had a sense that somehow Rams and Eno would work together. There’s some sort of shared aesthetic there, and I had a feeling that maybe Eno was a fan of Rams. I called Eno’s manager and sure enough, he was a fan, and it went from there. Brian just wants to be in the studio creating. Anything else is extraneous. I would show him a ton of footage, and then he would use it as inspiration to write and then he’d send us tracks. I’m a huge fan of his work, so it was incredible to work with him. I think there is something there—a lot of times I can’t put my finger on it, but I know there was some crossover or some sort of a symbiosis.
Why did you decide to start using Kickstarter to help fund your films, including RAMS?
GH: I originally got into film through music. I’d helped some friends produce a couple music documentaries, and in those cases, the fans of the band wanted to see the result even more than we did. Engaging the audience and involving them in the process of making the documentaries was already something that we were doing. I always think along the lines of, “How am I going to go into a boardroom of investors and convince them to make a film about a font?” It would never have happened. But there are other people like you who want to see these projects made too, so why can’t we get together and make this thing happen? Kickstarter formalized this idea.
What were some of the main challenges you and your team faced while creating RAMS?
GH: Subtitles change the way you pace the film. There’s that looking and reading, looking and reading, looking and reading; it gets hard. When I first came up with the idea for the film four years ago, I wanted it just to be in Dieter’s voice, and it was going to be simple. Objectified and Urbanized both had other languages besides English, but it was very specific for scenes—only two or three minutes at a time—so it wasn’t like this where the majority of the dialogue is German. But you have to do these things in a person’s original language. It would have been silly to have Dieter push through and try to do it all in English. I ended up having a great group of design experts, finders, curators, and others who would be right next to me, having the conversations with topics already in mind. Then we’d take breaks and discuss them afterward.
“The 10 principles worked for Rams, but people can and should make their own principles. Create a written set of ideals and then, when you see something that you think is bad, you have a framework to justify why it is bad.” —Gary Hustwit
The 99% of things you have to leave out is also tough. Dieter has had an incredibly long career. I was more interested in his ideas and philosophies, especially about culture now, than I was about his classic Braun designs. Trying to balance all of these themes out was a huge challenge. It really was about the 10 principles. I was trying to keep things as pure as possible, but there’s so much to talk about. I think we definitely go into the specifics of his designs and design philosophy. I’m not sure it would have come out if we didn’t—maybe the zen diaries of Dieter Rams or something. It took me ten years to get enough trust to film him in the backyard with a bonsai tree. Maybe in another ten years, we’ll finish shooting something else.
Are there any other designers that you can see yourself making a feature-length film about in the future?
GH: Every designer or architect in any of my films deserves a full-length documentary. I can’t exactly say why Dieter was the one that I decided to do. Part of it was that I felt that if I didn’t push and try to do it, then it would never happen. I kept thinking about how if I didn’t do it, there won’t be a Dieter Rams film or there’ll be some crappy one that comes out after he’s dead. I mean, I personally really wanted to watch it, and that’s what motivates me. There are so many incredible designers who all deserve having films about them, and I’m assuming you guys want to watch more design documentaries about designers, so I’ll try to keep making them.
The architecture in the film was particularly striking. Who is the architect of Rams’ house?
MA: It’s unattributed who actually designed the whole estate. It’s one of those don’t believe everything you read on the internet things. Dieter does not live in a house that he designed. He designed the interior, but he did not design the dimensions of it.
On a similar note, the Vitsœ headquarters was a major setting in the film due to Rams’ involvement during the design process. Who is the actual architect of the building?
MA: No architects for the Vitsœ building. We started with academics about eight years ago, sitting down at Cambridge University and Imperial College and contemplating, “How might we go about this?”. We had about 30 really good brains who contributed to it. Only when we got to the point where we completely designed it, we then had to deliver it. We were then told that you legally have to have architects involved. So at that point, we brought in a firm of delivery architects who were specialists in timber architecture.
Dia:Beacon was one of the main inspirations for the building. I measured out every aspect of Dia:Beacon one cold Sunday in February. Being in that space and talking to the gallery assistants was the final confirmation for me. They have very artistically educated gallery assistants who just oozed the joy of being in a naturally lit space. That’s what we’d been wanting to do. We came away from that day and just said, “Absolutely this is what we have to do.”
Vitsœ is a rare kind of furniture company that doesn’t relentlessly come up with new products, which is very much in line with Rams’ philosophy. In a culture where you typically need to make more product to make more money, how can this type of business be sustainable?
MA: I get this question asked often: How can you have a viable business from persuading as many customers as possible to buy as little as possible from you that they’re going to use preferably for generations? We actually see people put our furniture in their wills and hand it on. The way we do it? There are 7.2 billion people on this planet, and the vast majority of them have not heard of Vitsœ. That is our opportunity—every single person that we can take from operating a certain way to coming over to our side. We see that word “fulfillment” come across them. There are those few objects experiences that you have in your life that genuinely give you fulfillment rather than short term satisfaction. That is the trick. Once we get people into our world, they very rarely leave it. Then we see them literally physically drag other people into our spaces and say, “Here you are, Vitsœ.” They all bloody well sought us out. So that is the only way in which the model works. It’s that tremendous power of word of mouth.
As Neils Vitsœ was coming towards the end of his life, there was very much the chip on his shoulder that he knew he had always been 30, 40 years ahead of the curve, and yet commercially that is a very very difficult place to be. Dieter often talks about the late ’50s, early ’60s at Braun, and how there were senior resignations from the company at that point because what they were doing was way too far ahead of the market. There were people inside the company who were saying, “This is insanity, this is not going to work.” There’s no doubt in my mind that the Vitsœ journey is a difficult one. If anyone wants to go and setup a business to make money, do not do it like Vitsoe. I would, however, argue that we need many more businesses like Vitsœ on our single planet with its single planet’s worth of resources when 7.2 billion of us are here and we need three planets.
You get a sense of humility from watching the documentary, but in person, do you get the feeling that Dieter recognizes his impact on design and the world at large?
GH: I don’t think he regrets the work that he did—I think he’s really proud of it—but, I think he sees the connections from the 1960s post-war mass production to where we’re at now. I think feeling complicit in that development is his regret, along with the sustainability part of this; being someone who is working at a company that was churning out a lot of mass-produced plastic goods. I think the difference is that they designed them to last. You can buy a Braun juicer from the 70s or a coffee maker or any of these products or an alarm clock, they still work just as well as they did back then. It’s just a different philosophy. I think as you see that change, he’s really annoyed by it, as you can tell from the film.
“Dieter is not interested in any more products—he’s interested in transmitting his 65 years of experience to the next generations.” —Mark Adams
A student came up to me after watching the film and said, “Wow, the 10 Principles are such a great idea. We need to be able to talk more about what’s good and bad design like Dieter does, but I don’t really know how to do that.” That was really what the ten principles were about. They weren’t meant to be this overreaching design philosophy or for Rams to push out to the masses; they were created for his team to have some rules because, at the time, they didn’t have any guidelines during their design process. The 10 principles worked for Rams, but people can and should make their own principles. Go home and write down the things that are important to you—the things you want to do or don’t want to do with your work. Create a written set of ideals and then, when you see something that you think is bad, you have a framework to justify why it is bad.
MA: Can I take you back to the birth of this film? I didn’t know it was the birth of it and nor did Gary at the time, but it was about seven years ago in the back of one of Dieter’s favorite designs—the black London Taxi. He and I had been in traffic for a while, and we were talking about the state of the world around us as we often do. I was trying to be reassuring to him, and he looked at me earnestly with his steely eyes (because you can look across at each other in a London taxi), and he said, “Mark, but is anyone even listening?”
His fear is that when he dies, his 65 years of professional experience and everything that he has learned will be gone. If we have one unique characteristic as human beings that sets us apart from animals, it’s the ability to transmit our knowledge—to learn and to teach. When Gary suggested maybe four years ago that this documentary could be a possibility, that was the argument that I took to Dieter. Maybe this is your opportunity for more people to listen. Now I’m out here promoting this film so I can take back the reassurance to Dieter that there are people listening. That people really do want to hear what he has to say, what he has learned. Dieter is not interested in any more products—he’s interested in transmitting his 65 years of experience to the next generations.
Learn more about RAMS here.