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Wednesday
Jun062012

Braun, Vitsœ & Dieter Rams #0109

The collector: Peter Kapos, lecturer, collector and industrial design dealer, London.

The collection: Braun products 1955 - 1995, out of production furniture designs by Dieter Rams for Vitsœ and general examples of industrial typographics design related to the Ulm Hfg (1954 - 1968).

The story behind the collection...

My father, an architect bought a Hans Gugelot & Dieter Rams Braun SK 5 in the early '60s. It was always in the house. I suppose now that it was the unconscious origin of my Braun collection. Around 10 - 15 years ago I began collecting Braun clocks. I think I was just beginning my MA then. I was drawn to their spartan rationality, on the one hand, and, on the other, to the large number of designs, often only subtly different,  which seemed a little irrational. I found the tension appealing.

By the time I'd completed my PhD (broadly: Kant and German Idealism) I had began to develop a research project into the theoretical foundations of Braun design, established for the firm by the Ulm HfG back in the mid 1950s. The history of the Ulm school, its utopian project and relation to the Braun Company can be elaborated through a tension within its concept of 'rationality', I now think. So, either my original intuition was correct, or I've wasted a lot to time developing it into a load of baroque nonsense that only philosophers, who generally don't pay much attention to industrial design, will understand. Whether or not my research project can be justified theoretically, my obsessive collecting is supposed to have been rendered respectable by it. It is also supposed to provide some part of an income. Both suppositions are somewhat contentious within my family.

Does your interest in Braun / Dieter Rams designs lie more in the aesthetic composition of the products than in their technical achievements?

Without doubt, the appeal for me is first of all aesthetic. Dieter Rams is great, of course. Despite the almost severe rigour and formalism, his work has a wonderfully unexpected and playful quality. I also admire the work that Rienhold Weiss did for Braun in the '60s. More sculptural than Rams, Weiss' HL 1 desk fan and KMM 1 coffee grinder are particular favourites - extraordinarily dense assemblages of clearly articulated functional elements that are also perfectly balanced compositions of masses and textures - they're little functionalist artworks, really.

I'm not a very techy person. Often, though, emphasis on technological improvement is just marketing. I tend to think that this is the case with Braun. There's a law of diminishing returns when it comes to technical improvements. In cancer treatments any progress at all is worth any amount of  time and effort to attain. When it comes to coffee grinders, I'm not sure that improvements in burr texture are really that significant. Typically, Braun would produce something of superlative quality and then 'refine' the design by progressively lowering production costs until they ended up with a manifestly inferior device that returned maximum profit. So in practice, often the best, and most technically advanced designs were the earlier ones. The KF 20 coffee filter machine and KMM 1 coffee grinders are good examples of this phenomena. But you can see it the engineering of Braun record players too - they tended to devolve. For a time in the '60s the audio division was allowed to exist as a loss leader for the homewares and photography divisions. During that period they did some truly great experimental work, at a technical level. It's incredible that some designs were actually produced at all. The wall-mounted system and various solutions for integrating Braun audio equipment into the Vitsoe shelving system, and LE 1 flat speaker, made in collaboration with Quad, are good examples, as are the series of elaborate 'kanagroo' stands produced around '67 that also tied in with the profiles of certain Vitsœ furniture designs. This coordination of audio products with furniture is extraordinary by today's standards. I can't think of any manufacturer that would consider it even for a second. After the Gillette takeover in '68 this approach was less tolerated. Vitsœ, which stayed a small company, carried on innovating but drove itself to the wall doing it. The firm was saved only by cutting down the quite extensive range and limiting production to a less costly version of the 606 shelving system. The utopianism of bad business...


Much has been written to link Apple's design ethos with that of Dieter Rams and Braun. Do you agree with that point of view, and if so which pieces do you think best reflect this?

It is simply a fact that Apple design is stylistically derivative of Braun design of the 1960s. This is more apparent in certain designs than others. But generally the appropriation consists in a kind of frankenstien re-construction of borrowed details: a radius here, a speaker grill there, an expressed fixing, a finish, a profile, labelling, packaging etc. etc. And all these details are endlessly  re-combined in a sort of listless collage. What seems to get overlooked in all the comparisons that are drawn between Braun and Apple design is the difference between the two. This seems far more significant to me than the similarities. The result of Apple's procedure, to my mind, is not convincing as compared with the '60s Braun designs that it appropriates. I rarely look at an Apple design and think: that's absolutely right, I simply cannot imagine that being any other way. That ability to convince and appear necessary is what is truly great about Braun design of the '50s and '60s. I don't believe that Apple designs retain any of Braun's design ethos; it's entirely superficial. It all seems a bit deathly to me, to be honest. Give me Richard Sapper for IBM over Apple any day.

Are there any other post-war designers that you particularly admire?

Too many to mention. I've got a lot of time for Jasper Morrison and Naoto Fukasawa. They do seem to be continuing the Braun ethos. More historically, in the area of German industrial design: Otl Aicher, Hans Gugelot, Max Bill, Nick Roericht, etc. Architecture: I'm a big fan of Jim Stirling, and Camden Council's modernist schemes of the '70s by Neave Brown, Benson & Forsyth, etc. To generalise about all of these: modernism as social project!



Do you think Braun still embodies the principles of early pioneer designers such as Dieter Rams? Are you interested in post-Dieter Rams Braun products?

No and no. Braun were acquired by Gillette in '68, Gillette were acquired by Proctor and Gamble in 2005. The material conditions no longer exist for a design practice such as was practiced in Kronberg in the 1960s. It struggled to survive in the 1970s.  Proctor and Gamble are currently engaged in mining the 'heritage' of Braun design. This consists in licensing the Braun marque to second party manufacturers. Zeon are now producing a range of entirely new 'Braun' watches. Very recently P & G sold the Braun homewares division to De'Longhi. I find all this interesting from an historical point view but Braun design was never nostalgic, so there's something a little perverse about all the retrospection that the value of the brand now seems to depend on. Is anything of interest still being produced? Braun still have Rams' and Greubel's MPZ 22 citromatic in production; Zeon are re-issuing Rams' DW 30 digital watch. Is any interesting new work being done? In my opinion, no.

Are there any pieces in your collection that you would never consider selling?

Not many, actually. Part of the cure for my collecting disease is to regard objects with a detached eye as stock. Having said that, there are one or two that it would pain me to part with. One of these is a G 12 turntable in maple veneer by Hans Gugelot 1955. This is one of the earliest Braun devices. It has a Valvo chassis inside it because Braun weren't yet producing their own turn table element. The unit is quite unBraun-like in appearance. So plain that the most significant characteristic is the figuring in the wood. The very height of planning to have permitted an arbitrary element such prominence within the scheme: genius! Braun by another route. Another favourite is a TS 45/ L 450 Dieter Rams designed  wall-mounted audio system 1962. This is very orderly and severe but comes to life when the dial is illuminated, quite uncanny. These are very hard to find, so replacement would be tricky. But I've also become attached to the particular one that I have for some reason...

Are there any Braun products that you use on a daily basis?

Many: KMM 1 coffee grinder and an E 20 espresso machine, HT 6 toaster, AW 10 wrist watch, an AB 21s alarm clock, ABW 30 wall clock, AB 21 domoset wall clock and barometer. TS 45/ L 450 wall-mounted system. Toothbrush by Braun design dept. for Oral B.

Have you ever met Dieter Rams?

No, I once met Dietrich Lubs in the Vitsœ shop. He was present to supervise the installation of some of his own 606 shelving in an exhibition of Vitsœ. My over riding impression was of his undue modesty.

Peter's Links:

Website - www.dasprogramm.org

Flickr

Further reading:
HFG Archiv Ulm

Books
Ulm Design: The Morality of Objects

Images © Peter Kapos / Das Program and used with kind permission.

Old-Christmas-catalogs

Reader Comments (2)

Great, Peter!
100% agreement. That's a wonderful collection. My first contact to Braun was also a snow white coffin, a SK61, which my father buyed second hand, when I was four years old. Many years later I discovered the item while looking an old family Super-8-movie. In these times (before the ebay era) it was so difficult to find such things, so I searched for a long time until I get my first own Braun item: the SK61.

June 7, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJörg Hansen
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