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Less is better: “Helvetica” documentarian aims to give industrial designer Dieter Rams his due

Flickr/Nick Wade
Dieter Rams’ famous alarm clock speaks to his sleek, minimalist style.
Published This article is more than 2 years old.

It’s probably safe to say that no one, single person in history has been responsible for more product design than Dieter Rams. During his 60+ years as an industrial designer he’s designed, or overseen the design of, some 500 objects, which include alarm clocks, radios, record players, juicers, toothbrushes and many, many, more items—all which are identifiable by his minimal “less is better” signature aesthetic. Rams’ work is in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art and is also often credited as the design inspiration for many Apple products. Rams has become something of a god in the design world. His ten principles for good design–among them that good design is long-lasting, environmentally friendly, and honest–might as well be etched on stone tablets for all students of design to memorize.

So it’s a bit surprising that Dieter Rams, until now, had not been the subject of a major documentary film. That’s changing. Filmmaker Gary Hustwit, who made a trilogy of design films (Helvetica, Objectified, Urbanized), recently announced his latest project “Rams,” a documentary profile of the the designer, on Kickstarter. The film recently crossed over the $200,000 threshold, meaning it has been successfully funded, and still has about another week to go before the fundraising ends. Quartz chatted with Hustwit about Rams, design, filmmaking and crowdfunding projects.

First off, I was surprised there hasn’t been a Dieter Rams documentary made before. I know you met when you interviewed him for Objectified. Do you know if he had been approached before about making one?

Rams had been approached many times before, I just think he doesn’t have the patience to deal with the media, and he wasn’t just interested in being involved in a documentary. To some degree he felt like he told all the stories before. I realized that there still needs to be a great film made about him. Even if there are a lot of amazing books about him, those are only going to reach a certain audience. Obviously film can do a lot of different things than books can. That idea of using film to pass on his ideas and his philosophy to potentially millions of people who wouldn’t necessarily pick up a book—hopefully the film will reach outside the core design audience— I think that’s what sort of swayed him and got him to agree to do it.

Well that’s sort of exactly what your past films have done, especially Helvetica. It took a design subject and brought it to a much wider general audience. I was curious how you got interested in making design films.

I had a Macintosh in 1985-86 and I always was a sort of self-taught graphic designer. I was using graphic design for all these early independent media projects I was doing, whether it was indie record labels or book publishing. Eventually I got to film distribution and production and I helped produce a few music documentaries. In 2005, I had already produced three or four music docs, and I felt like I had a handle on the process of making documentaries and I just wanted to try to make one myself. I always wanted to watch a film about graphic designers and type, and there wasn’t really anything out there. I just couldn’t believe that the massive history of graphic design and typography, and all these incredible people that were working in it in those fields, I just couldn’t believe there wasn’t already a documentary about it. So that was it. I was like: Okay it’s going to be a film about fonts. Somehow I decided that Helvetica was a going to be a good kind of way to talk about what these people did. It was a device really.

A way to crawl into it?

Exactly, but also it was a polarizing thing, at least among the design world, people kind of loved it or hated it. Outside the design world, I think people were just sort of shocked that someone would make a documentary about one font. They either thought it was a joke, in which case they were still curious about it, or, they were curious enough to watch it. When you point out something to people that affects them every day, they can’t stop thinking about it.

All the other films I’ve made, they always start with me wondering why no one has made a film about the subject or this person. So that’s been the process the whole time. I am the audience for these films, and I just can’t believe no one had made them yet.

That’s a good way to approach any project really.

Yeah, for me it’s been easy. In some ways, the process of making each film has been my learning experience, and the film itself is just some byproduct that other people get to watch. For me, they’re personal projects.

Right, I’ve heard Michael Pollan say the same things about his books, that they are his process for learning, or becoming an expert about something.

For me, they’re obsessions. I’m obsessed with these different subjects and this is the way I get to kind of express that obsession—to make a film about it.  And it makes it really simple for me in terms as what I’m going to do next. It’s like what am I obsessed with? What do I want to spend the next two or three years talking about and working in. For me it’s a pretty simple process and I’ve learned over the years to just go with it, not to second guess it.

Can you tell me about meeting Dieter Rams? There’s such a cult like aura around him in the design world.

Sure I mean he does have a cult-like following, just look at the sheer quantity of stuff he’s designed or overseen the design of and it’s just ridiculous. There’s so many things, so many different categories of manufactured objects, and they all have this stamp of his aesthetic on it. You can tell if it’s a Dieter Rams designed object from a mile away, and so many other designer have been influenced by his work.

There is an aura around him generally, it’s probably because he’s German and because a lot of the stuff he makes is very kind of minimal, and sometimes kind of severe. It’s very functional. I think people sort of ascribe that to his personality, but he’s definitely not like that. He’s very, very single minded and driven and focused, and I think that’s sometimes what people respond to because yeah, just don’t get in his way when he’s passionate about something, or he has a strong opinion about how something should be designed, or not designed. But really he’s much more funny and more sensitive than people would probably expect him to be. That’s what it’s like. He’s a really sweet 84-year-old man who has an incredible career, who likes to trim his bonzai trees and hang out in his house, which is a complete embodiment of his philosophy in every place you look. He’s designed a way to live, and he’s living it, and he’s very content.

And he’s still actively involved in the design of certain projects?

A lot of his time now is helping sort of re-engineer his designs for reissue, but he also just got back from Japan, speaking with design students there. In a few weeks, we’re going to be in Munich, filming him doing a long a Q&A with students there.

You have said that if he had to do it again, he wouldn’t want to be a designer. He thinks that the work he’s done has contributed to this commercialized, over-consumerized society. Dieter Rams literally wrote the design principles about wanting to make things that last and don’t need to be re-designed, which doesn’t always jibe with the commercial interests of corporations. How does one square that?

I think as a company you can still make money making really well designed objects that people only have to buy once, you just have to get a lot of people to buy them once. It’s a philosophical decision. Mark Adams at Vitsoe talks a lot about it. You know, they close their store on Black Friday just because they’re opting out of this whole rabid consumerism idea, so they’re just like: We’re closing, we’re not going to be here, don’t buy anything from us on that day, because they just don’t believe in it.

Definitely it’s an ideology, but it’s as much from the consumer side as it is from the manufacturers. People’s buying choices are often driven just by price alone and convenience, and what Rams represents, and a lot of people think this way as well, is it’s just about trying to be more informed about your choices. Like, is this thing going to last? Where was it made? Who made it? What are the materials that went into it? If I do have to get rid of it, how do I do that? Is it responsibly-designed for disassembly? Or for recycling?

It’s just thinking about that stuff. So the whole minimalist idea that I think people ascribe to Rams, it’s not about giving away all your objects and living with nothing, but it is about thinking about the choices you make and just committing to certain objects. Obviously, with consumer electronics technology it’s not possible, you’re going to go through another 50 different mobile devices the next decade. I still think you can apply some of those questions even to technology, and it’s up to consumers to kind of pressure manufacturers to abide by that.

I would like to see some of those ideas applied more rigorously to cell phones, where maybe you don’t have throw away the whole phone every year.

Right, yeah and it sounds counter intuitive that a company would not want to sell you a new cell phone every year, but I think consumers would respect that. There would be so much more loyalty to certain manufacturers if they did build like that, in a modular way that was easy to upgrade, where you weren’t throwing out the thing, and the case was built to last a lifetime or longer than a typical gadget life cycle.

Do you think it’s trending that way, that people care more about design? I was trying to imagine what it was like for Dieter Rams in the 60’s or 70s, if people knew his name back then?

No, no, no, not at all. People did not know his name, no one knew his name. And in a way I think designers of that era, a lot of them are sort of overlooked by the mass public. We all probably all had a a Braun alarm clock, or something he designed, in our households growing up, but we didn’t know. Nobody knew who was behind it. That’s pretty much just the past 15-20 years that people start connecting that, people outside.

..The design world?

Right. When there’s an article in Wallpaper about all the things this one man designed, that’s when he starts getting this kind of cult following. I think people are more aware of design now, but also the story behind the stuff that they buy. They want to support makers directly. They want to know what the materials are and where they were sourced, and as much from a consumer responsibility standpoint as it’s just interesting too. People want to know who made this leather camera strap that I use everyday. Well, it was made by a guy in the Navy Yard in Brooklyn. I’ve seen his shop, it’s really cool. I want to support people like that.

99% of the objects in your life, you can apply that same idea. You can find out who makes it, or who makes a better one. Maybe it’s a little more expensive, but it’s probably going to be worth it, because it’s going to last longer and you know you’re going to be supporting an artist or maker who deserves your support.

One of the big changes in the design world right now is Kickstarter, which you are using to raise funds for the film. There’s so many design projects on there, some totally off the wall crazy, and some totally brilliant.

Is Pebble still going? The next generation Pebble watch was over like $12 million when I looked at it, and it still had time to go. Kickstarter turned into a viable path for so many startups to test the market, or to get their first versions made. It’s obviously changed the way design projects get funded and get out in the world, without a doubt. I think sometimes people have a mental block about doing a Kickstarter, they kind of equate it with begging, and I’ve never seen it that way. I see it as more sharing in this project, that I’m passionate about with a lot of other people who are just as passionate as I am about it.

This is my fifth Kickstarter. I did my first one in 2010. This is the first time I’ve announced a new film through launching a Kickstarter campaign, but even before Kickstarter existed I was crowdfunding my projects. I haven’t really held a real job since I was kicked out of college, so it’s been 30 years now of completely independent projects. It’s about connecting with the audience of the films, before the film is finished, and letting them be a real part of it and help it get made.

So how much more filming are you guys going to do, what comes next?

Next month we’re filming Rams talking with design students in Munich, and filming the objects themselves. I’m sort of excited about trying to do that in a different way. Trying to experiment with new ways to film these things. I’m interested in this idea that all these objects have a function, they do things, and there are ways to try and capture that visually and sonically that I think can really be interesting.

When I first imagined this movie, I really imaged it as almost a dance film about objects or a performance film about stuff. I think that’s again something that’s going to be fun and interesting. I really want to keep it stripped down. Sometimes the subject matter of the film kind of dictates your approach. I don’t think I could have a messy cluttered documentary about Dieter Rams. So in terms of other people in the film, it’s going to be a very short list and I’m still coming up with who is going to be on the list. It’s just not a case where I’m going to have a parade of famous designers and other people talking about how great Dieter Rams is. It’s got to be absolutely necessary for another voice to be in the film besides Dieter’s.

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