Nothing shocking is currently on view on SFMOMA's second floor. Nothing new and nothing eye-popping. Indeed, this non-newness is so not-new, it's completely familiar. So familiar you see it everywhere. It's strapped around your wrist. You're sitting on it. It projects this text on your screen. You thought it, clearly. And now it's gone.
"It" is order. And it is one thing that will always be a challenge. It is also one thing we desire at times more and less than its opposite: chaos.
In Less and More: The Design Ethos of Dieter Rams, order takes the form of chairs and speakers, lighters and turntables, cameras and clocks. It is stamped on each wall in bold Helvetica: "There is no longer room for irrelevant things... Irrelevance is out." And while instructive, exclusionary statements such as these seem increasingly "out" of fashion today, there's something immediately familiar about this exhibition. Not only do Dieter Rams' now-classic designs influence those of our contemporary world (iPhones, IKEA furniture, etc.), the world in which they were created is every day becoming similar to our own.
Dieter Rams, Braun coffee machine (KF 20 Aromaster), 1972; detail, design: Florian Seiffert, photo: Koichi Okuwaki
Dieter Rams came of age during what we might call the greatest disorder our species has known: the 20th Century. More, his minimalist ideas and designs developed during a particularly disorienting period: post-war Germany and the revolutionary 60s and 70s. While the world was struggling over its most complex questions, Rams and his design team at Braun worked to offer its easiest solutions. They did this by joining elegant, minimal form to total function. The world could fall apart, but Braun products would stay on track.
Their answers were, as Rams puts it, "simplicity and restraint:" use simple colors, simple shapes, and repeat. And skim the fat: "My aim is to omit everything superfluous so that the essential is shown to the best possible advantage." The effect is a line of orderly products designed to quietly simplify our complex lives.
Dieter Rams, Braun hair dryer (HLD 4), 1970; design: Dieter Rams, photo: Koichi Okuwaki
Again, this is entirely familiar. What brand doesn't posit itself as the next best thing to simplify your life? The difference is that Rams takes part in the progressive, radical thinking of his contemporaries. His products, like art objects, come packed with living ideas: a stacking stool set brings communal sharing to the kitchen, a movable, interchangeable shelving unit turns the buyer into a co-creator. And with dictums like, "Question everything generally thought to be obvious," we can't but wonder if Rams was a revolutionary himself. Apart from sounding like a quote from John Cage, we wouldn't be surprised to find such a line scrawled across a banner at Occupy Oakland.
And here's where difference lies. While Rams' designs influence an array of industrial design products today, the progressive philosophies that fueled his designs have been largely forgotten. Companies like Apple and [insert name of nearly any popular US manufacturer] produce slick-looking, useful, and orderly products that are designed to become obsolete in a matter of years, and sometimes months. A true Ramsian would go the extra step to ensure sustainability: "Fashion objects are not capable of being long-lived. We simply cannot afford this throw-away mentality anymore. Good design has to have in-built longevity."
Perhaps one day ideas like this will be familiar to the point of common sense. For now, Less and More will act as a kind of idea incubator: a place to meditate on the great work that's been done and the work that's left to do.
Less and More: The Design Ethos of Dieter Rams is on view through February 20, 2012 at SFMOMA. For more information visit sfmoma.org.