'Rams': Film Review

Courtesy of Gary Hustwit
A soothing bath in smart aesthetics.
11/30/2018

Documentarian Gary Hustwit continues his series of general-interest design docs with a look at Braun's legendary Dieter Rams.

Gary Hustwit, who has made a specialty of bringing highbrow design topics to a wider audience in films such as Helvetica and Objectified, does it again with Rams, a portrait of a man whose work inspired today's arguably most influential product designer, Apple's Jony Ive. A refreshing reminder of the usability-above-all principles that once held more sway — look at nearly any contemporary website to see how far we've fallen — it benefits from both the work and the personality of subject Dieter Rams.

Rams, who became famous in the 1960s as the design team leader for Braun, originally wanted to be an architect. Born and raised in Germany, he started school shortly after World War II ended, at a moment when idealistic aesthetes believed their work could help create a new and better society. He was discovered in the 1950s by Braun, which at that time was a little-known company. But he got distracted from building design by his work with Hans Gugelot, who wanted to create a new style of radio. He thought to add a Plexiglas lid to a record player, creating a classic: the sleek SK61, nicknamed "Snow White's Coffin."

Soon Braun was leading the modern-design pack, making small radios, calculators and other appliances that would be so influential they would enter the collections of MoMA and other institutions. While observers then and now tended to give the photogenic Rams most or all of the credit, he always emphasized that he was one worker among many; here, as he tells of his Braun years, he seems almost anal-retentive in listing his many Frankfurt co-workers and pointing out their strengths.

As he hangs out in the designer's home and studio — as elegantly spare as you'd expect, with a tidy bonsai garden around the pool — Hustwit encourages Rams to show how appealing some of his old products are to touch and use. While he shows off novelties like what he calls "the first Walkman," a portable phonograph whose stylus works below the spinning record instead of on top, other designers examine the classics: Naoto Fukasawa looks at a stripped-to-its-essence little white radio and points out how suspiciously similar it is to the original iPod. (Ive doesn't appear here to give credit for this swipe.)

While it is looking at Rams' continued affiliation with furniture company Vitsoe (whose admiring director Mark Adams seems to invite his opinion on every aesthetic choice he makes), the film recalls the 10 principles for good design he began to espouse in the 1970s. An encapsulation of values like honesty, simplicity and utility as they apply to product-making, the rules eschew fashion and unnecessary adornment. "Less, but better," we hear Rams say a few times — a smarter version of the more commonplace maxim "less is more." (Hustwit doesn't dig into the question of how Rams' use of so much plastic at Braun fit in with his environmentalist beliefs.)

The shortish doc winds up at an 85th birthday celebration that coincided with a retrospective at the famous Vitra Design Museum; as in its opening scenes, this sequence shows design buffs young and old hanging on the master's every insight. With the world awash in increasingly disposable household objects (and in digital distractions Rams laments here), one sees the appeal of the man's evangelical minimalism. If only the actual decisions in manufacturing these days were made by earnest young designers, not corporations for whom quick obsolescence is a path to the next sale.

Production company: Film First
Director-producer: Gary Hustwit
Executive producer: Jessica Edwards
Director of photography: Luke Geissbuhler
Editor: Kayla Sklar
Composer: Brian Eno

In German, English
72 minutes