Among others who have had a profound influence on the history of industrial design, Dieter Rams is among the most prolific designers whose opinion is still sought after today. The German designer, who cut his teeth at Braun and established the company as one of the most historically-significant contributors to the history of “understandable products”, is known to still regularly chime in at Braun to help direct their design language.
Although Rams – who lives amongst the products he helped shape years ago – is no longer regularly at Braun for day-to-day operations, he has a right-hand man who helps guide his philosophy with today’s generation of Braun designers: Oliver Grabes, the company’s Global Design Director.
Oliver Grabes joined Braun in September of 2009 as the Head of Design responsible for leading the corporate, industrial and packaging design teams at the company’s Kronberg, Germany design studio. Among other duties set in place for Grabes upon arriving at the company was to strategically guide the company into the future while building upon the brand’s famous design heritage set forth by Rams.
In addition to guiding Braun with the occasional input from Rams, Grabes holds many patents for design innovations of his own and has been recognized internationally with dozens of design prizes.
We had the chance to talk with Grabes more about how he approaches the design process, what it’s like to work with Rams and perhaps most importantly … which German food everybody needs to try.
SS: Was there a light bulb moment where you really grasp the essence of what designing products could be?
OG: At school we were asked to design a real product for art class, so I remember sitting at home in the afternoon and sketching an idea for a pen. I don´t know why, but it was a special moment. I remember thinking, “this is the best designed pen in the world!” It clearly wasn’t, but it got me hooked on design.
SS: What do you do in your spare time?
OG: Somehow I used to have more spare time that I do now. These days, I enjoy being with my wife and two children. They are fantastic and I can recharge with them. We play sports, spend time laughing and talking, and visit with friends.
“One of our main focuses when creating models is ensuring that each is unique. This has not changed since the Dieter Rams times.”
SS: What’s different from designing electronic products and, say, a handcrafted item?
OG: Handcrafted items are often one-offs. They can be created by one person, telling a personal story, sometimes even made just for you. Electronic products, however, are mass-manufactured, and many specialists are needed to design them. It is a very complex process. Still, they can create a special experience for you over many years and for many users. I enjoy this product development journey as it allows the team to combine ideas and experience before arriving at a final product that works for millions of people.
SS: What design aspects do you spend most of your time on at Braun?
OG: Over the last few years, we’ve spent a lot of time focusing on a new design approach that connects Braun today to our famous Design Heritage. We call this approach “Strength of Pure” and it is now deeply embedded in the brand. We focus on new, innovative areas, the digital space and the connected product world but also new materials, manufacturing technologies and tools.
SS: Do you have an opportunity to ‘get your hands dirty’ anymore using tools, machines and other prototyping methods?
OG: I am the first one to review new 3D prints or models when they are created, but I unfortunately don’t have time to build models myself anymore. I love the moment when a design becomes “real” and tangible; when an idea is no longer just a sketch or a digital image on screen but can actually be held in your hands.
SS: What does the design process involve at Braun? What’s unique about how Braun does things?
OG: In our Kronberg Design Studio we have a highly talented group of designers, but what makes them truly unique is their ability to work strategically as a team, focussing together on how their thinking and creative skills can improve the Braun product experience. One of our main focuses when creating models is ensuring that each is unique. This has not changed since the Dieter Rams times. Many Braun products like shavers, kitchen appliances and beauty grooming tools are hand-held, so ergonomics and comfort are very important, so we ensure that we have models and prototypes to evaluate what works best.
SS: What sort of things have you learned about not just design – but life in general after working with somebody like Dieter Rams?
OG: Every time I meet Dieter Rams, I can feel the unlimited presence of his beliefs. He just has this complete dedication to good, meaningful design and for creating simplicity for everything in life. If any designer is authentic, it is him. The phrase “Less but better” is good guidance for me, not only when designing products but also for how I approach life in general.
SS: Does Dieter Rams still have an impact on the products that come out of your studio?
OG: Dieter is now 82 and does not need to design anymore, but his beliefs about honest and meaningful designs and the Braun design values of functionality, simplicity and quality are in everything we create. If you look at the Braun Series 9 shaver, the Braun Face beauty system, or the Braun watches and alarm clocks, there is a clear connection to the Braun design heritage.
SS: What advice would you give for today’s young industrial designers?
OG: Design is currently shifting towards a connected world of hardware and software. My advice to young designers is that they should not have boundaries and should approach design as a holistic experience. Being flexible enough to work with many tools and in different medias, in 2 and 3 dimensions, is going to be as important to understanding what design quality is and how you create it to the last detail.
SS: What’s the best German food that everybody should try?
OG: Have you ever tasted fresh German bread? With butter and a cold German Pils on a warm spring day? It is fantastic !
Grabes, along with a host of other prolific designers including Rams, are heading up the BraunPrize 2015 competition this month that gives entrants that chance to win a chunk of the $75,000 USD prize. Find out more by heading here.