How people experience food processors
Dec 2, 2010
Oliver Grabes, Head of the Design section at Braun, Foto: Uwe Schinkel

Oliver Grabes has been Head of the Design section at Braun for around a year now. Anybody taking up this position is not only treading in the footsteps of one of the icons of German design, Dieter Rams, but also needs to be able to explain how he sees the future of a brand that has such a great past.

Jens Müller: You have been in charge of the design department at Braun for one year now - a dream job for any German designer I imagine. How did you end up there?

Oliver Grabes: It wasn't easy. I had been involved with Braun previously as a designer, but on the agency side. As early as 2002, I worked on a Braun razor, the "cruZer". This was my first contact with the brand. Then, in 2006, I joined the University of Wuppertal as a professor and conducted two student projects with Braun while I was there. Over the years I was always in contact with the brand, our collaboration was successful and positive. That was certainly one of the major criteria for then saying: this feels right, let's collaborate even more closely.

How many people work in the design department at Braun? Has this changed over the years?

Grabes: The number has always remained fairly constant. We have a total of 25 people for industrial design and corporate design, including the model-building department. The latter is important to us, so that the designs can be assessed not only as drawings, but also as models. In other words, we are a relatively large group and of course there are other people as well who only work for us on a temporary basis. There is also the packaging design department, with another four designers who specialize in product packaging.

There was a time when Braun products were everywhere: throughout my entire childhood my father always used Braun razors to shave with; my mother kneaded the dough for our Sunday cake in a "KM 32"; the water for our filtered coffee ran through a Braun "KF 20" , there was a Braun " T 2" table lighter on our coffee table and every time we went away we took a Braun "AB" alarm clock with us. When and why did Braun lose this position in German households?

Grabes: It certainly happened gradually, over a relatively long period of time, mainly in the 1990s, or the noughties. Of course there is less competition for products that are technically complex and difficult to develop, simply because not everybody can do it and because it is not just about a price war but about the efficiency and quality of the appliances as well. And a great deal has happened in the household and indeed in the entire audio sector over the past few decades. For the Braun brand it has become increasingly difficult for us to assert ourselves there, despite our good design. The competition in Asia is strong. First of all came the Japanese, then the low-cost Chinese. Braun is a high-quality brand, but also one that costs more than the cheapest providers. Accordingly, one important aspect is to be active in the markets where quality counts for something among consumers. And that is the reason why we are where we are at the moment - with a much stronger focus than earlier on bathroom products. Braun has concentrated less and less on household and living room products.

This year has seen monographic exhibitions in major German cities on Wilhelm Wagenfeld, Herbert Hirche and Dieter Rams - people who have left their mark on post-War Braun design. Contemporary designers such as Jonathan Ive of Apple expressly reference the Braun design of back then. How do you deal with this as the current head of Braun design?

Grabes: Well, I absolutely share the enthusiasm of Jonathan Ive and of others for the Braun design of that era. It is no coincidence that these exhibitions are taking place now and that at the moment there is such pronounced interest again. One factor is definitely the success of present-day designers, who take this direction in design as their starting point and reinterpret it. I too want to do more in this direction with Braun, as it involves fundamental values closely associated with the brand, values to which, in the recent past, we have taken a much more experimental approach, trying out a large number of things. I believe that it is good for the brand to get much closer to the old values again and to the formal clarity that is associated with it.

Today, Apple products are characterized by that reduced and yet immediately recognizable "signature" that was once typical of Braun. Why is Apple so successful with Braun's recipe?

Grabes: Apple today is continuing brilliantly the style of design largely influenced, at the time, by Dieter Rams. Apple has adopted Rams' way of thinking and his understanding of shapes and design, but has reinterpreted it. And that was the decisive step, because their combination of formally reduced hardware with a software design on the bright and cheerful side made for a new way of experiencing a product, one that had previously not existed before. I do not see this as copying, rather they took their inspiration from this type of design and developed it unbelievably well - in an area where the product is far more complex than food processors were back then - where all you had was possibly a switch with a few settings and the experience lay more in preparing the food and less in operating the machine. With Apple products the situation is different. We all know that computers are harder to operate than we would like, reduction and simplification is just the right approach. The basic understanding of design that Dieter Rams made famous is very suitable today.

And it is no longer suitable for household appliances?

Grabes: With household appliances at any rate simplicity of operation is not a distinguishing feature, there is little product complexity in handling them. Let us take razors as an example: there is usually only one switch, it is easy to understand how they work; however, their insides and their working parts are all the more complex, but nobody sees these. And what makes a very simple appliance into one that is nevertheless high-grade and fascinating is its materials, its shape, it proportions. In future, we will be aiming for this again with more reduction, but certainly not with the absolute minimalism that Apple can use for an iPhone, because an incredible number of things actually take place in the display.

What is the relationship between the terms "design", "brand" and "marketing"? Or: how important are design and marketing to a brand's identity?

Grabes: Nowadays, all these things are very much interlinked. And whenever we find ourselves in an area where products are not trumpeted loudly those little things, the details are very, very important - and these are closely connected with the particular brand's values and with the way that customers perceive the brand. Here there is a very close, difficult relationship which we need to analyze and communicate exactly - much more so than in the past. We spend a great deal of time on this. The brand, the products, the product design - all these need to feel right. It is all about the authenticity of the overall impression for the customer.

Dieter Rams' motto is: "Less, but better." One of the things that this means is only launching a new product if there really is something new about the way it works. Can marketing be satisfied with this?

Grabes: In principle, Dieter Rams' statement is correct. And it also forms the basis of all the products we develop: an improvement. However, variants must of course be permissible. For example, it must be possible to include technologies that we have developed some time ago in cheaper models so that people who cannot afford the latest, best, and therefore often the most expensive solution can still buy Braun products. Marketing is repeatedly presented as the enemy incarnate but I do not think that this is right because this much is true, after all: marketing also prefers to sell technical innovations and products with even better functionality.

In conclusion a somewhat more general question: what do you think represents "good design"?

Grabes: Good design is a matter of individual taste. We all have varying characteristics and move in different cultural spheres. On top of this, today, products are sold globally, there is no longer only one solution, there is a very large number of everything, sometimes too much and we can choose brands and products that suit us and correspond to our tastes. At the end of the day, everybody decides for themselves what good design is for them. There is only one general condition: good design does not harm anybody.

Oliver Grabes, Head of the Design section at Braun, Foto: Uwe Schinkel
Cooking machine KM 3 by Braun Design; photo: Braun DE
Calculator ET 66 Control by Braun Design; photo: Braun DE
Clock radio ABR 21 by Braun Design; photo: Braun DE
S 60 Standard 2 by Braun Design; photo: Braun DE