by Brian Paschke on March 2, 2013
For my final post in the series of Conversations, we have a chat with Peter Kapos of Das Programm about the future, systems, Ulm influence and the history of Braun.
Braun KMM 1 aromatic, Reinhold Weiss 1965
BP: What is your background? What were the beginnings of Das Programm?
PK: I would say that I have a divided background. My first degree is in fine art, painting and following that I did a PhD in philosophy, German Idealism: Fichte’s relation to Kant. I’m now working on a research project, a philosophical history of the Braun Company’s reception HfG Ulm functionalism. I suppose, through this, I’ve found a way of uniting my interests.
Das Programm is part of that, although it also serves a more immediately material purpose. I began as a collector. I’d sell bits off now and then to refresh the collection. Apart from the guilt free opportunity to handle a lot of it, I enjoy buying and selling Braun, largely for the social aspect. I get to speak to intelligent people, particularly designers, that I wouldn’t otherwise have contact with. My mid-term ambition with Das Programm is to wind down the commercial side and expand the educational. In 10 years time, I’m hoping the website will be an archive, rather than a gallery.
Braun SK 5 phonosuper, Hans Gugelot + Dieter Rams 1958
BP: That sounds like a brilliant resource. What is your first memory of encountering a Braun product?
PK: My father, an architect, bought an SK 5 Phonosuper from a friend in the early ’60s when he was a student. Because this object has been a constant presence, I wouldn’t say that I’ve ever exactly encountered it. But this was certainly my first experience of Braun Design. My earliest memory of it is a feeling of uncertainty as to when it had been made.
BP: Fascinating. Uncertainty in what way? I often feel the same about good design (something I have mentioned in these conversations previously). That an object can have a quality of timelessness … not in a classic kind of way, but that it feels so familiar, yet so future at the same time.
PK: I was a teenager when I first started to become aware of design. At the time the piece of audio equipment that I was most familiar with was a Sony Walkman. It was very dense with bright yellow scuba styling and overly articulated rubber seal. The SK 5 seemed strange, I think, because although it didn’t look old, it also didn’t seem in any way to be part of what was going on. It seemed somehow dislocated and I didn’t know how to place it. Thinking about it now, it seems obvious that Braun weren’t ahead of their time so much as hugely influential in determining what would be done subsequently.
The term timelessness seems to get quite a bit of use. But I think it’s important to distinguish between: 1) the eternal, 2) the tricky to place chronologically, 3) the once more appealing for unexamined reasons. The last of these is the most common, and, symptomologically the most productive. When old things begin to seem ‘now’ again, it may be that they hold some content that can be useful to us, if it can be retrieved. Putting the phenomenon down to timelessness immediately negates whatever productive value the object may hold. In this context, it’s interesting that you mention the future. I think that this is a category largely absent from present design. Some very popular designers offer a depressingly impoverished concept of the future as an exaggeration of present tendencies, i.e. not fundamentally different to the present at all. I would be interested in giving some thought to how design might contribute to the formation of a more productive concept of the future.
Braun sixtant 4004, Dieter Rams + Robert Oberheim + Roland Ullmann 1979
BP: What are some other examples of good design for you? Have you become more critical when choosing objects to live with?
PK: I am a little bit obsessive about Camden Council’s social housing projects of the 1970s. They were very influenced by what Atelier 5 had been up to in Switzerland in the ’50s and ’60s. It’s a particular form of low-rise modernism building that is very effective (when it’s maintained). I’m also very fond of David Mellor’s work. He did an excellent set of traffic lights. In terms of more recent industrial design, I have a lot of time for Jasper Morrison and Naoto Fukasawa. Richard Sapper is a bit of a hero, too.
BraunTG 60, Dieter Rams 1965
BP: Awareness of Braun design was quite low for most designers let alone the general public 10-15 years ago. How do you feel about the current level of enthusiasm and awareness for Braun?
PK: OK – my feeling is that the recent interest in Dieter Rams, the various monographs, world touring retrospective, etc. has been largely driven by the astronomical success of Apple, a large factor in which was its plagiarism of Braun Design. This is rather problematic because it is a mistake to identify Braun Design with a single person, however talented and capable they may be. I’m pleased that Braun Design is receiving more recognition; I’m less pleased by its distorted representation. I have a theory, that I won’t bore you with now, that relates the failure of the social design project of the hfg Ulm to the current personification of Braun design as Dieter Rams. The punch line is: a part taken for the whole.
System design: Braun M 140 / MS 140 multiquirl, Reinhold Weiss 1968
BP: You shared with me a wonderful set of publications by Ulm, the German school of design. It was a fascinating and refreshing read. Undoubtedly, the collaboration with Ulm was both inspirational and educational for Braun.
Would it be an overstatement to say Ulm provided both a mentorship and friendship with the young Dieter Rams when they began working together on forward-looking products.
PK: This is quite a complex history, but in a nutshell, the Braun Company approached the Ulm school in ’54 to re-style is audio offerings. Otl Aicher and Hans Gugelot arranged what we would now call a comprehensive visual identity, as well as a new style for the audio housings. However, the company was prevented from achieving a fully coherent program because it employed its designers as freelancers. Wilhelm Wagenfeld, Herbert Hirche, and Hans Gugelot designed what you might call personal lines, series that were internally rigorous but made less sense as a family.
Braun G 12 (Valvo chassis), Hans Gugelot 1955
In ’58-59 Gugelot’s Ulm research group was commissioned to prepare a ‘comprehensive product analysis’, in other words, a plan for a fully coherent program. They worked this out through a study of operational metrics, producing a system of standardised units. The next year the Braun design department was established to implement it. Thereafter, substantial ties with Ulm were cut and all the design work was undertaken in-house. Ulm provided the conceptual preconditions of Braun Design, but the institution of Braun’s design department presented the necessary practical conditions of the program’s actualisation as an aesthetic and functional unity.
Braun SK 2, Artur Braun + Fritz Eichler 1955 (left) PC 3-SV, Dieter Rams + Wilhelm Wagenfeld + G.A. Müller 1959 (right)
Dieter Ram’s role in all this was limited to his ability to understand the plan and carry it through, no small achievement. It certainly helped that during the ’60s he was personally responsible for the entirety of Braun audio design. Very importantly, the existence of the design department also permitted the partnership of designers and engineers in the development of new designs. This heralded a fundamentally new design approach.
The ’50s period of Braun Design was one of dressing up already existing technology in ‘modernist’ housings. Of course, this is not a respectable modernist operation. In the ’60s the relation between housing and technology was more organic.
Braun Atelier 3, Dieter Rams 1962 (left) Braun L 460, Arne Jacobsen 1967 (right)
BP: Interesting. The other way round, in your opinion, have any other Ulm collaborations reached such a level of resolution and influence?
PK: Arguably, Otl Aicher’s Ulm research group E5 did some work for Lufthansa in the early ’60s that has had wider influence than that which he did for Braun, at least in as much as it went a good way towards establishing the standard for corporate visual identities.
However, it’s important to grasp the fact that ultimately the project was not successful precisely because it has proven in certain respects to be so influential. In other words, influence may be an insufficient criterion for success.
There is a curious ambivalence between the self-sufficiency of an Ulm systems design, that is, one capable of figuring a rational whole, and the primary characteristic of commodity fetishism, namely the apparent autonomy and self-sufficiency of the ‘world’ of commodities.
BP: Thank you Peter, It was lovely chatting with you. Look forward to see where you take Das Programm in the coming years.
Das Programm was established in London 2010 by its directors Peter Kapos and Chris Ireson.
Brian Paschke is currently a Senior Industrial Designer for BlackBerry. A graduate of the Emily Carr University of Art and Design, Brian began as a studio assistant for Artist Douglas Coupland before moving to the Kyocera Industrial Design team in Southern California to focus on consumer electronics.