Every object made by humans has a story to tell. There’s the story of the people who made it, of the materials chosen, and the creative motivation. Only when you understand the story do you understand an object’s meaning. Or so says Dieter Rams, who headed up product design at Braun from 1961 to 1995.
Braun: Designed to Keep is the story of Braun. It’s billed as “the most comprehensive history” of the company to date. Telling it requires more than 400 pages and 500 images, including never-before-published archival materials and brand-new full-page photography of Braun’s most iconic products, each instilled with Rams’ “less, but better” approach that would directly influence designers like Naoto Fukasawa and Apple’s Jony Ive.
What’s most striking as I thumbed through an advanced copy is how desirable many of those early Braun products remain today, some of which were introduced almost 70 years ago. No surprise, I guess, given the disposable detritus you’ll find on Amazon and AliExpress, places where product design prostrates itself to the gods of mass consumption and devices vary with flourishes of useless decoration usually reserved for the Walmart cereal aisle.
I mean, just look at the TP1 (1959) in the image below, the portable predecessor to the Walkman that worked as a radio and also played records from the bottom like a Miniot turntable, and the T3 transistor radio (1958) that certainly provided Ive with some inspiration for the iPod’s click wheel interface:
Have you ever been stopped in your tracks by a table fan? Just look at the HL1, which first made its appearance in 1961:
Braun really excelled at Hi-Fi, and this wall unit designed in the mid-1960s was what space-age living was all about:
Braun: Designed to Keep is published by Phaidon and written by Professor Klaus Klemp, the German design historian and curator who has spent the last two decades carefully documenting the work of Dieter Rams through major exhibitions and books like Dieter Rams: The Complete Works. If a group of experts has gathered somewhere on the globe to discuss the legacy of Braun or Rams, you can bet that Klemp was invited.
Another thing I really enjoyed while flipping through it was noting the size and placement of the Braun logo — first introduced with the raised “A” in 1935. In Rams, the excellent 2018 documentary directed by Gary Hustwit (which also features Klemp), the acclaimed designer, then on the cusp of his 86th birthday (now 91), says he always wanted the Braun logo to be small and unobtrusive — a battle he fought with at least 10 CEOs, by his account, all of whom wanted the wordmark printed loudly on every Braun product.
“When you’re new someplace and you have to introduce yourself, or enter a room and say ‘I’m so and so,’ you don’t shout. You should do it quietly,” said Rams in Rams. “If every product shouts ‘I am Braun!’ it will get irritating.” This makes sense when you understand Rams’ dedication to the creation of a common design language during his four decades at the company.
In addition to endless gadget porn, the book also aims to correct a few things about Braun design for the historical record — namely, that Rams had help. That’s not a controversial position. Although Rams’ identity is so intertwined with the company that he’s been mistakenly (or jokingly) called Mr. Braun at times, he’s the first person to remind people that executing the company’s design strategy was always a team effort. Designed to Keep attempts to set the record straight by giving credit where credit is due.
The vast majority of the book deals with the Braun we celebrate, not tolerate, with plenty of history to reference anytime you want to better understand how the company’s thinking evolved.
Braun: Designed to Keep starts after World War I, when Max Braun founded the company in Frankfurt, Germany, in 1921, just as Bauhaus design — and its emphasis on function — was taking root and Braun was making radios and phonographs. Braun’s sons joined the company in 1945 after World War II. Artur Braun was a talented engineer and provided input on the S50 electric dry shaver. It launched in 1950 and quickly became the company’s most profitable product, lifting Braun as a symbol of post-war reconstruction and expansion efforts.
But it was his brother, Erwin Braun, who, in the 1950s, began gathering a group of colleagues to produce appliances “in the style of our times,” says Klemp. Lacking the skills himself, Erwin entered into a very successful commercial partnership with the Hochschule für Gestaltung (HfG) Ulm between 1956 and 1963. Otl Aicher, an Ulm school founder, and Hans Gugelot, who taught product design there, were key partners who “without a doubt greatly influenced the design mindset at Braun in the mid-1950s,” says Klemp. Rams joined Braun on July 15th, 1955, as an interior designer, before rising to lead Braun’s first internal design team in 1961, with Reinhold Weiss as his deputy. But according to Artur, his brother Erwin was “the true father of Braun Design.”
Credit can also be seen on every product photograph, which includes a caption naming the original designer and the date it was first produced. Spoiler: not every famous Braun design is a Dieter Rams design. The book ends with 60 biographies in a section titled “Design is made by people.”
The book is laid out chronologically, but the full-page photography (and the author) encourages the reader to flip around casually, bouncing between products and the profiles of each designer and then their influences throughout the company’s 102-year history. Navigation gets an assist with a comprehensive index that also identifies which pages have illustrations, alongside a glossary that helps readers make sense of Braun’s cryptic product names.
Fittingly, Rams’ “Ten Principles of Good Design” — first articulated in 1985 and steeped in Bauhaus traditions later refined by the Ulm school’s understanding of technology and industrial production — fall almost exactly halfway into the book. Whether it was the author’s intent, it neatly divides the history of Braun along a clear demarcation of before and after Dieter Rams. Perhaps his single most influential and well-known principle is number 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 non-essentials. Back to purity, back to simplicity.
In 1995, Dieter Rams was pushed out of his design leadership role by a manager from Gillette — which had purchased Braun in 1967 — who demanded more “emotionalization” from the product portfolio, according to Klemp. Rams was just two years away from retirement and given an elaborate yet meaningless (he had no direct reports) new title of executive director of corporate identity. He left Braun in 1997, just as Braun’s “less, but better” ethos morphed into “more, and worse.”
While the house of Braun gave birth to Rams’ 10 design principles, it was Apple, and more specifically Steve Jobs and Jony Ive, who fully embraced them from the mid-1990s onward, starting with the iMac (1998), iPod (2001), and yes, the iPhone (2007), which was a marvel of simplicity and usability at launch. In 2009, Rams said, “Today you find only a few companies that take design seriously, as I see it, and, at the moment that is an American company. It is Apple.” Notably, he did not say Braun.
Just 41 pages of Braun: Designed to Keep are, understandably, dedicated to the Braun of today. After all, it wasn’t until 2010 that Procter & Gamble — which purchased Gillette in 2005 and had witnessed Apple’s extraordinary global success — reverted to a “Past Forward” embrace of Braun’s own design legacy. Klemp says that 2012’s Braun Series 5 shavers were one of the first products to embody this reinterpretation. Which, well, fine.
This shaver from 2020 does seem to hew closely to early Braun designs:
Designed to Keep makes a valiant effort to chronicle the Braun of today, covering mistakes and setbacks and, more recently, reinventions, while suggesting it could again influence an industry with its innovations. Maybe, but the book’s appeal is unquestionably in looking backward, and there are benefits in doing that for Braun and the entire consumer electronics industry.
“New design always stands on the shoulders of its predecessors and, in the best cases, learns not only from insights gleaned during the creative process but also from the wrong turns taken,” contends Klemp. “Only Gods can perform ‘creation ex nihilo,’ or produce something from nothing.”
Designed to Keep gives meaning to the story of Braun by showing how generations of people drew inspiration from both past and current events to create products with sustained appeal. Such longevity is unheard of today, with fashionable design trends conspiring with software and electronics on a fast track to product obsolescence, planned or not.
The title — Designed to Keep — can also be read as an instruction. It’s a book you’ll want to keep around as a reference for the next time a new product launches and you think, “Now where have I seen that before?”
Braun: Designed to Keep is available to purchase now for $79.95 /€69.95.