Dieter Rams

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With the documentary film “Rams”, American filmmaker Gary Hustwit grants us a very personal insight into the life and work of Dieter Rams. Here, he speaks to Anna Moldenhauer.

Anna Moldenhauer: Gary, why did you choose Dieter Rams as a subject?

Gary Hustwit: I had interviewed him for the film “Objectified”, which I shot in 2009. The interview went well – I had the feeling he valued the fact that we didn’t bring a lot of equipment to his house. We treated his personal space with great respect. Dieter doesn’t like being interviewed; he doesn’t like having strangers in his house moving objects and disrupting his world. What’s more, he thinks there are enough books that discuss his work and his convictions, but I was sure that a documentary film would appeal to a different audience than a book, a new generation of designers and end consumers. It was this idea that ultimately convinced him.

What did you know about Dieter Rams before you started filming?

Gary Hustwit: I was familiar with his résumé, but not his opinion on the topic of sustainability, how he is now trying to bring about a change in thinking, a kind of reflection by consumers and companies. And to do so despite the fact that he has long been involved in the design of consumer goods. For me, it was a wake-up call to consider my own attitude towards devices and the kind of service life these should have. One thing that was very interesting for me was his views on how technology has altered our behavior. I think he’s a little horrified by how much we allow our lives to be determined by digital technology.

Has the collaboration with Dieter Rams changed your view of design?

Gary Hustwit: Most definitely. His way of thinking has undoubtedly changed my outlook on design as well as my personal behavior. It also changed my views about filmmaking because I believe his ten principles can be applied to my work, too. I have his list hanging in my office and during filming I thought about his ideas on the topic of simplicity and honesty time and again, hence it was important to me to create a film that was unobtrusive in a way.

Dieter Rams in his study room.

How has working with Dieter Rams changed your personal behavior?

Gary Hustwit: After spending a bit of time with Dieter at his house, I felt a strong need to tidy up my own home. (laughs)
He is the founder of the declutter movement; his motto is “less but better”. This was another reason why I thought this film came along at just the right point in time; our way of consuming, our society of built-in obsolescence, well I for one am convinced that Dieter’s ideas are important for the popular discourse. And at a personal level they also made me think more about the things I own and buy.

Where do you think his change of attitude came from?

Gary Hustwit: Well, he looks back and regrets having been part of the consumer system, in a way. At the same time, the products he designed for Braun were intended to be kept for a lifetime in an ideal scenario and to be repaired when required. They were designed and produced according to the highest standards. When it comes to the things we buy today, we assume at the outset that they won’t last for long.

Initially the viewer expects a film about the designer’s work, but as a bonus gets a very close look at Dieter Rams as a person. Why did you decide to focus on him as a person first and foremost?

Gary Hustwit: The biographies that have been produced offer a wealth of information about him, but not about his spirit, his emotions, about what it’s like to be in his house, to accompany him on trips or on a visit to an exhibition. I am convinced that people will be all the more interested in his work when they have got to know him on a personal level via the medium of the film, and when they see how much commitment, honesty and care he puts into his work. When you watch him for a minute tending to his bonsais, you get an entirely different feel for him as a person and a designer that you would when you just read a book about him. Yes, I think it’s a very human film in many regards, and for me it was also a special experience to shoot a film virtually on my own.

You have already interviewed lots of designers over the course of your career – what was different about Dieter Rams?

Gary Hustwit: Most people change their behavior when the camera is rolling. They want to create as perfect an image as possible of themselves. I don’t think Dieter cares that much about what other people think. He doesn’t really behave any differently when the camera is rolling, which is really great for a filmmaker. He’s not afraid to express his opinion, whether it’s about design or something else. This means there is no artificial distance between the subject and the observer, no gimmicks, and the viewer sees that. I think honesty is very important. You have to be able to present what you believe in before you can talk about what you don’t believe in and draw comparisons.

Dieter Rams has been involved in hundreds of product developments – what were the criteria you applied to deciding which of his works would be mentioned in the film?

Gary Hustwit: Dieter and I spent days talking about which designs had the most influence. Furthermore, I wanted to use the products to show the different facets of his design philosophy, which represent the ten principles. Many of his works now have parallels with digital design or interaction design, such as the pocket calculator that Dieter Rams designed with Dietrich Lubs for Braun. A clear user interface created by reduction, color coding and an ergonomic shape.

Portable: The Braun T 1000 transistor radio from 1964 with aluminium housing was part of Braun's Studio 1000 product line.
The "Snow White Coffin": The radio turntable combination Phonosuper SK 4 from 1956, designed by Hans Gugelot and Dieter Rams.

I find the similarity between Dieter Rams’ designs and current designs to be unmistakable, for example in relation to Apple.

Gary Hustwit: Dieter sees it as a compliment when companies take inspiration from his designs. For him, it’s a kind of evolution, just as his work at Braun was a kind of evolution of the Bauhaus and the Ulm School. I didn’t explore this area any further in the film; rather, the observer should make the connections themselves and form their own, untainted opinion.

Your roots are in the music industry. I read that when you’re writing a screenplay it’s the sounds that appear before the images in your imagination. What did Rams sound like to you?

Gary Hustwit: He sounded like a piece of music by Brian Eno, ambient, electronic. I immediately had the feeling that Rams’ and Eno’s sensitivities would match up, even if they come from very different areas of creativity. Eno and Rams are like the two ends of a spectrum: Brian Eno combines sounds in a chance, unexpected way, while for Rams it’s about control, completeness – nothing is arbitrary. Nevertheless, they do overlap. I had hoped that Eno would be a fan of Dieter Rams’ work and that proved to be the case. It therefore just made sense to combine them. I’ve been listening to Eno’s music for 30 years, so I can hardly believe he became part of the project.

Is there anything that surprised you about Dieter Rams?

Gary Hustwit: I wasn’t expecting his sense of humor. You project the clear, minimalist design onto his personality, but he was basically completely the opposite. He has a strong connection to nature; his garden and the forest near his home are very important to him. What’s more, he is one of the most influential product designers in the world, but at the same time regrets being part of the consumer system. He seems to be full of contradictions, and it was exciting to discover these during our three-year collaboration.

What effect do you think this insight will have on the young generation of designers?

Gary Hustwit: I think it will encourage young designers to look forward, that it’s OK to be at odds with your own ideas, to wrestle with yourself. And also to change your standpoint every now and again, to acknowledge the influence you have, and that all this does not represent a barrier to producing great products. Design is supposed to benefit people. It can steer the direction of society and industry in a certain way. Here, I think it makes sense to ask whether we really all need the products that are currently being produced.

Gary Hustwit accompanies Dieter Rams on a visit to the Vitra Design Museum in Weil am Rhein.

You work independently as a filmmaker – how did you finance the project?

Gary Hustwit: With a combination of Kickstarter campaign and an injection of funds from my own production company from the sales of my previous films. My family and friends often help me out when it comes to creating a film. I work independently because I think the result would otherwise be completely different. I’m not interested in working for someone who is writing the story they think should be told. I want to take my time making the film and to decide for myself. Giving things space was an essential part of my work in the case of Rams too.

Is there a film you think still needs to be made?

Gary Hustwit: I am still interested in design, even though I have released four design documentaries. I’m sure I’ll come back to it time and again, but I have a list of 50 films that have not yet been made and that I really want to make, and these cover music, art, design, architecture and other areas. Every film needs two to three years to be realized – and that’s a huge commitment, especially since during that time I drive everyone around me crazy because I can’t talk about anything else. (laughs)

How did you get into film?

Gary Hustwit: I made my films because they were ones I wanted to see myself but had not yet been made. I never wanted to be a filmmaker, but I wanted to see these films, and not to wait for whenever someone else made them. And I’m not alone in that – there is a demand for documentaries about design. I think the fact that I am not a designer or have not worked in the design industry has definitely contributed to the films becoming what they are. It’s nice to have an objective standpoint. If I were in the industry, I would have a different perspective. The films are explorations for me. I get a crash course in product design, architecture, open design, typography. The film is just the byproduct of the research. And I’m looking forward to the next one.

"Rams" is currently screening at special events worldwide.

Dieter Rams in his garden in Kronberg.
Gary Hustwit
Rams - Official Trailer