Dieter Rams’s Design at Museum of Modern Art San Francisco

As the chief of design for Braun, Dieter Rams was a visionary. View our gallery of his works, now on view at San Francisco’s MoMA. By Blake Gopnik.

Braun: Making Lives Modern

If your kitchen looks with it, if your bathroom is sleek, if your desk has clean lines, thank Dieter Rams. He's the man behind the products at Braun, the great German manufacturer that, for many decades now, has been making our lives modern. More than any other company, Braun has taught us to prefer clean form to surface decoration. Apple's lean iMac, iPhone, iPad—iAnything—wouldn't even exist, without Braun's example. On Aug. 27, the Museum of Modern Art in San Francisco opened a survey of great objects by Rams, who was chief of design at Braun from 1961 to 1995. Coffeemakers, calculators, radios, stereos, mixers, shavers—every kind of object for home and office will be on display, one sleeker than another. 

Rams has enunciated "10 Principles of Good Design." The pictures in this slide show reveal all 10 at work.

–Blake Gopnik

Koichi Okuwaki

The TV of the Future, Decades Ago

"PRINCIPLE 1: Good Design Is Innovative—The possibilities for innovation are not, by any means, exhausted. 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."

The strange thing about this television is that it still looks innovative, even in a world of LCDs and plasmas. Most flat screens look less up to date than Rams's 1964 TV.

Koichi Okuwaki

Designed to the Last Drop

"PRINCIPLE 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 a product while disregarding anything that could possibly detract from it."

But the honest-to-God truth is that not every Braun product has done its job better than something much uglier from Westinghouse—except on the "psychological and aesthetic" front, where it destroys the competition. Some of us would rather have a drippy coffeemaker that's gorgeous than a dry one that's hard on the eyes. (This one is from 1972, when Rams made more use of color.)

Koichi Okuwaki

The Mixer That Refuses To Die

"PRINCIPLE 3: Good Design Is Aesthetic—The aesthetic quality of a product is integral to its usefulness because products are used every day and have an effect on people and their well-being. Only well-executed objects can be beautiful."

No mixer has ever come close to the beauty of Braun's 1956 model, which also transforms into a blender, a meat grinder, and a spice mill. And one such Braun mixer has now given almost 50 years of service—including decades spent mixing for a family of eight—with only a few basic repairs.

Koichi Okuwaki

A Flaw, But Who Cares?

This detail of Rams's mixer makes clear how gorgeous it is ... while zooming in on one of its flaws: the mixer relies on a special bowl that turns because gears on its inside edge engage with teeth on the mixer itself; those gears make the bowl very hard to keep clean.

Koichi Okuwaki

Music to Our Eyes

"PRINCIPLE 4: Good Design Makes a Product Understandable—It clarifies the product's structure. Better still, it can make the product clearly express its function by making use of the user's intuition. At best, it is self-explanatory."

Anyone who can't use this Braun music system without thinking twice shouldn't be allowed to play music. What could be clearer than a few big buttons and a knob or four? (Long before Rams's time with the company, it specialized in radios and sound systems. This one is from 1956.)

Koichi Okuwaki

A Radio That Disappears

"PRINCIPLE 5: 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."

If this radio were any more unobtrusive, you couldn't find it to use it. (And this is decades before the iPod came out ...)

Koichi Okuwaki

Essence of Clock

"PRINCIPLE 6: 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."

This clock makes one simple promise: to let you read the time from it. It keeps it.

Koichi Okuwaki

A New Handle on Design

"PRINCIPLE 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."

There are no doubt still doors being opened by Dieter Rams handles.

Koichi Okuwaki

A Juicer Shows Respect

"PRINCIPLE 8: Good Design Is Thorough Down to the Last Detail—Nothing must be arbitrary or left to chance. Care and accuracy in the design process show respect towards the consumer."

It's true that Braun designs seem more thought through than others. Whether the thinking always bears fruit almost matters less than the sense that it's there. This juicer makes you feel that its designer imagines you juicing.

Koichi Okuwaki

A Name for Good Design

"PRINCIPLE 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."

At least in its earlier years, Braun made products that felt more solid and better engineered than other manufacturers' goods. You didn't replace them as often—partly because you wanted to keep looking at them. (The famous raised "A" logo visible in this photo actually predates Rams's arrival at Braun.)

Koichi Okuwaki

Design at Its Purest

"PRINCIPLE 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 nonessentials. Back to purity, back to simplicity."

In Rams's hands, a coffee grinder pares down to a cylinder.