Minimalism & Good Design

February 20, 2015

Vitsœ’s designer, Dieter Rams. Photograph by Abisag Tüllmann

Minimalism is so much more than just clean lines, angular shapes, and a black and white palette. Although aesthetics is a big part of it, minimalism is about reducing a subject to its essentials by stripping away the extraneous. Everything that's left must serve a purpose.  

Perhaps the person who best conveys the sentiment is industrial designer Dieter Rams. Trained as an architect, Rams was recruited by Erwin and Artur Braun in 1955 to modernize and redesign the company’s interior. Then a few years later, Rams began designing furniture for Niels Vitsœ and Otto Zapf, and together with his team revolutionized modern, 20th century design.

While good design cannot be measured in any finite ways nor are there strict rules to adhere to, one thing we can all agree on is that not only should good design be functional, it should also be responsible. In his 1976 speech 'Design by Vitsœ,' Rams addresses the issue of wastefulness:

I imagine our current situation will cause future generations to shudder at the thoughtlessness in the way in which we today fill our homes, our cities and our landscape with a chaos of assorted junk. What a fatalistic apathy we have towards the effect of such things. What atrocities we have to tolerate. Yet we are only half aware of them.

I have spoken of our surroundings but let us look at the wider environment: the world we live in. There is an increasing and irreversible shortage of natural resources: raw materials, energy, food, and land. This must compel us to rationalise, especially in design. The times of thoughtless design, which can only flourish in times of thoughtless production for thoughtless consumption, are over. We cannot afford any more thoughtlessness.

Fully aware of his social impact on design, he asked himself: Is my design good design? And what he came up with is known today as the 'Ten Principles for Good Design':

Left: TP 1 radio/phono combination, 1959, by Dieter Rams for Braun. Right: MPZ 21 multipress citrus juicer, 1972, by Dieter Rams and Jürgen Greubel for Braun

Good design is innovative: The possibilities for innovation are not, by any means, exhausted. Technological development is always offering new opportunities for innovative design. But innovative design always develops in tandem with innovative technology, and can never be an end in itself.

Good design makes a product useful: A product is bought to be used. It has to satisfy certain criteria, not only functional, but also psychological and aesthetic. Good design emphasizes the usefulness of a product whilst disregarding anything that could possibly detract from it.

Good design is aesthetic: The aesthetic quality of a product is integral to its usefulness because products we use every day affect our person and our well-being. But only well-executed objects can be beautiful.

Good design makes a product understandable: It clarifies the product’s structure. Better still, it can make the product talk. At best, it is self-explanatory.

Good design is unobtrusive: Products fulfilling a purpose are like tools. They are neither decorative objects nor works of art. Their design should therefore be both neutral and restrained, to leave room for the user’s self-expression.

Good design is honest: It does not make a product more innovative, powerful or valuable than it really is. It does not attempt to manipulate the consumer with promises that cannot be kept.

Good design is long-lasting: It avoids being fashionable and therefore never appears antiquated. Unlike fashionable design, it lasts many years – even in today’s throwaway society.

Good design is thorough down to the last detail: Nothing must be arbitrary or left to chance. Care and accuracy in the design process show respect towards the user.

Good design is environmentally-friendly: Design makes an important contribution to the preservation of the environment. It conserves resources and minimizes physical and visual pollution throughout the lifecycle of the product.

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.

Left: Cylindric T 2 lighter, 1968, by Dieter Rams for Braun. Right: RT 20 tischsuper radio, 1961, by Dieter Rams for Braun

All images via Vitsœ



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