Gary Hustwit is the director best known for bringing design documentaries to the big screen—including Helvetica, the first (only?) film to revolve entirely around a typeface and attract a general audience, as well as the industrial and urban design documentaries Objectified and Urbanized, respectively. So the design world was naturally excited when in 2016 it was announced that Hustwit was to create a new film; and that its central character was none other than Dieter Rams.
For the uninitiated, Rams is revered for his pared-down, function-first designs, mostly for the German electronics product company, Braun, where he was head of design from 1961 to 1995. Together, with his team he was responsible for creating many seminal 20th-century domestic products—from alarm clocks, radios, and record players, to hand-held hairdryers and kitchen appliances. Rams was a protege of designers Hans Gugelot, Fritz Eichler, and Otl Aicher of the Ulm School of Design (successor to the Bauhaus), and he played a major role in defining mid-century product design standards that favored clarity and reduction. He’s known for a motto of “Less, but better,” part of his famed 10 Principles of Good Design, which are still widely taught in design curricula. Since 1959, he’s also designed for the furniture company Vitsoe.
Hustwit’s documentary on the design luminary, simply entitled Rams, is now complete and being screened in select cities before its release in December across various streaming services. We caught up with Hustwit to ask him about the making of the film, Rams’ design philosophy, and how the director persuaded the notoriously press-shy designer to star in his own feature-length documentary.
Can you talk about why you chose Rams for the subject of this documentary?
I was a fan of his work and I met him when I interviewed him for Objectified, but I think what really pushed me to do a film about him were his ideas about design on a big picture, on a societal level. For me, his ideas about sustainability and technology, and how human behavior is changed by product design—that’s what made the documentary more than just a design film. Also, it was just a film that hadn’t been made, because he didn’t want to be interviewed. But I thought it needed to happen.
Rams is such a notorious figure. Was there any hesitation on your part that this was already well-trodden territory?
It is in books, and it’s been told in design history, but it hasn’t been told in film. The movies I make are really just movies that I want to watch. And I wanted to watch an all-encompassing film about Dieter. That’s what drives me: I can kind of see it in my head, and then I get obsessed with it.
After a good three years of production, fundraising, and all that, we finally got to put it on the screen and have people see it. It never turns out like you think it will. I have a vague idea what it will be like in my head, but I really don’t know until I go out there and do it. It all changes.
What were you most surprised by?
The German surprised me! For some reason when I was imagining the film in my head before I started making it, I wasn’t thinking that it was going to be in German. That makes a big difference in how you structure it and how it’s shot.
One of the things I felt was most compelling about the film was how much of his personality you captured. He’s this famed figure, but he’s notoriously press-shy, and I think because of his designs many perceive him as austere. But that’s not how he was conveyed in the film.
Through my films, I’ve gotten to do interview probably 100 different designers, and most of them are different when the camera starts rolling. The personality changes, their mannerisms change. But with Dieter, he’s exactly the same when the camera’s are on or off, he didn’t care. It wasn’t hard to get him talking; it was harder to keep rolling. It’s hard to get him not to talk. Even in the times where we were just trying to get a still portrait of him, he could not stop talking, so we ended up incorporating a bunch of behind-the-scenes stuff in the title sequence.
It was more about just getting him to agree to do in the first place. I was lucky enough to have already interviewed him years ago, so I was kind of a known quantity. He enjoyed that experience. What’s interesting about Dieter is he doesn’t want to just talk about design, he wants to talk about politics, wine, anything. He’s really interesting to talk to and a lot of fun to be around. It’s much different than the idea of Rams with the stern gaze. People tend to kind of anthropomorphize, or reverse apply [the orderliness of] his products onto his personality. But he’s not like that at all.
“It’s hard to critically judge other designs or do anything in this world without some sort of framework, and without clearly defining what you really believe in.”
Right. I think his 10 Principles of Good Design has something to do with why he is seen as rigid, principled, and serious. But even the way you portrayed those in the film was with more levity and more flexibility than usual.
I think what’s important about the 10 Principles is really just the idea of laying out your own principles: what you think is good design, how you want work, the type of work that you won’t take on. Those principles can be applied to theater, film, anything—not just design. His happen to be about product design, but the real takeaway is to come up with your own set of guidelines. It’s hard to critically judge other designs or do anything in this world without some sort of framework, and without clearly defining what you really believe in. They don’t have to be set in stone—they can change and evolve with you.
Rams believes that there’s not enough thought on the part of the designer, the manufacturer, or the consumer about the long-term effects of design.
At the premiere, Vitsoe managing director Mark Adams said that the convincing factor that got Rams to do the film was that he would have an opportunity to talk about his ethics and his philosophy of design in his own words for a new generation. Can you sum up what that is?
His philosophy is basically that there’s too much throwaway product out there, and that there’s not enough thought on [the part of] the designer, the manufacturer, or the consumer [about] the long-term effects of design. While Rams was running the design department at Braun, they made billions of injection-molded plastic items, but they built them so they would last your entire life. And they were designed to be repaired. He’s seen that change, and that’s his biggest disappointment. He feels a responsibility, that his work had a role in getting to where we are now.
One small moment in the film that stood out to me, from a graphic design standpoint, was when Dietrich Lubs, Rams’ colleague at Braun, said that they designed the products so that they wouldn’t need a manual. The graphics, the colors, and iconography were all meant to work toward a level of usability that didn’t require outside instructions.
Lubs was a graphic designer when he came to Braun but then got more involved in product design. He was responsible for all the alarm clocks, calculators, and watches. They wanted there to be clear instruction on the product itself for how to use it, using color coding and very reduced, universal graphics. It seems like common sense, but I think we all know how many products aren’t designed that way.
For graphic design, you can argue that sometimes you’re not trying to be clear about communication. You want some sort of layer to the messaging, or you want a kind of puzzle that the viewer needs to decode to understand. But for product, you know—when you just want to make a cup of coffee, it needs to be clear.
As a filmmaker, was it much different to profile one person, as opposed to the more mosaic narratives of your other films like Helvetica and Objectified?
It’s not actually as different as you would think. With the other films, we were bouncing between these different cities and people. The structure of Rams shares a lot with that, too; it’s just that each scene is revolving around him.
On one hand it was nice, because I could take my time unspooling the thread and making those connections between ideas, time periods, and products. When it comes to a longform documentary, that’s its strength—letting the ideas soak in and the connections form. Something I think a lot about is just giving the viewer the time to think about how the subject matter relates to that and how what Rams is saying relates to their lives.
All through the film I try to build in those moments where you can sit back and think about it. I wish I’d done a little more of that, actually—built one more music break into the film. Because Brian Eno’s music is so amazing, anyways.
I thought his score was so essential for the film.
I got my start in documentaries by helping to produce music documentaries. I worked at record labels, and music is a huge part of my life. I still think of all my design films as actually music documentaries, just about design [laughs]. Helvetica was a music documentary about a band called Helvetica—just in terms of how the music is used. I need the music to propel me through the narrative.
Eno is just insanely prolific, and gave us hours and hours of music to find the pieces that we thought really worked with the footage, both from a pacing standpoint, but also just from an emotional standpoint.
You mentioned that music is really important to Rams, too. That in a way, that group of designers was just trying to create record players that they would want to play their jazz records on.
Sometimes that’s how innovation happens. They never made money on the Hi-Fi systems, and when Gillette brought Braun, it wound that production down because it didn’t make money. But they were just music freaks, and wanted to design something that would make their records sound better.
There is that part in the film where Dieter is just expressing complete disdain at Gillette having bought Braun.
Well, he stayed on, almost to protect the design department, I think. But after a while you can only be asked to make the same product so many times. It was like, “What color’s the hairdryer going to be this year?” That’s just debilitating for someone like Dieter.
Your editor mentioned that you used the 10 Principles in developing the film.
Mostly in terms of their ideas about clarity and being understandable and using “as little as possible.” We had all of that in mind while producing the film. We kept asking this question of, “Do you absolutely need this sentence?” If the idea had already been expressed, then we just needed to keep going. There was a lot of trying to crystallize and clarify.
My original idea was to just have Dieter’s voice, but then I didn’t want to have subtitles in every scene. I also began to realize that I don’t think he even really sees the bigger picture of his own influence on the design world. For that, I needed to start bringing in other voices to provide context.
I interviewed [Japanese industrial designer] Naoto Fukasawa. Not many people realize that those Braun products made their way to Japan and went on to influence a whole generation of Japanese product designers. We see these Muji products and we all think it’s minimal Japanese design, but it’s partly influenced by European modernism, which I think is super interesting.