Review: Rams

by Andrew Parker

An insightful and thought provoking (but not exactly dramatic) look at one of the biggest names in product design, Gary Hustwit’s documentary Rams profiles a man that’s frequently credited with changing the ways customers look at consumer goods. Although German product engineer Dieter Rams would humbly note that some of his most iconic designs were the result of numerous different opinions and inputs, he formed a signature style that has been frequently aped and duplicated by some of the biggest names in art and technology. He never asked to become the poster person for the state of modern design since the mid-20th Century, but Hustwit’s profile of Rams is a fitting tribute for a quiet and reserved man who’s proud of his work, but doesn’t want to take all the credit for it.

Initially living out his dreamed profession as an architect during the post-World War II reconstruction of Germany, Rams was offered a position at Braun, an electronics company that wanted to challenge people’s notions of how household products should look and function. They didn’t want traditional designs, preferring simplicity, cleanliness, and functionality over bells and whistles. The philosophy of the Braun brothers meshed nicely with Rams’ sensibilities, and soon after the release of his first majorly successful design for the company – a record player that would affectionately become known as “Snow White’s Coffin” – Dieter’s name would become synonymous with the brand. His partnership with Braun lasted from 1961 to 1995, ending only when Gillette purchased the company and started to place corporate branding as a higher priority than overall design. He would freelance on the side for furniture manufacturer Vitsœ, with similar success, and assume more of a full time capacity with them once his time at Braun was at an end.

Today, consumers can readily see Rams’ indelible influence on design in Apple and Ikea products. Rams might also be the only designer of consumer electronics and products whose works are worthy of touring exhibitions and permanent art installations. He used his notoriety of sorts to come up with a loose manifesto of ten essential elements of product design that are still treated like gospel today. It’s easy to see why Hustwit (Helvetica, Objectified) would find Rams so fascinating. Here’s a man who has spent his entire life to thinking about simplicity and function more eloquently than many fine artists.

As a person and as a documentary, Rams has little room for drama. His life doesn’t have a great deal of tragedy, soul searching, or sudden turns. He’s just an average man who’s great at his job. He’s lived at the same house in Kronberg for fifty years alongside his wife, Ingeborg. He’s private by nature, but also a people person. He’s always believed that in order to make a better product, you need to understand the people who use it. Whenever he speaks in Hustwit’s documentary, it’s authoritative, but based in common sense and decades of refined reasoning.

No moments in Rams would ever be described as suspenseful, dramatic, hilarious, or even all that emotional, but it’s a warmly told look at a fascinating and important artistic influencer. In Rams’ eyes, every product tells a story, and Hustwit’s documentary gives viewers tips on how to figure out what a designer is trying to state with their work.

Rams opens at The Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema on Friday, December 7, 2018.

Check out the trailer for Rams:

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