Brains and Braun

Lynda Relph-Knight speaks to design head Peter Schneider about the future of Braun and the emerging talent taking part in the BraunPrize 2001

Germany 5, the rest of the world 0. That is how a Swedish journalist described the shortlist of young hopefuls for this year’s BraunPrize.

Having attracted over 380 entries from 40 countries to its prestigious international award, the electronic home-to-self-diagnostic product manufacturer settled for a shortlist of five projects by German students. Though the specialist jury that picked the line up included UK designer Ross Lovegrove and US design pundit Chee Pearlman, three of the contenders came via one of Frankfurt-based Braun’s local design schools, the University of Darmstadt.

But then Braun is intrinsically German. Its heritage is strong on style, function and precision, but less on emotion. Over the past five or so years its design head Peter Schneider has worked hard to broaden its appeal in a global marketplace against fierce competition with colourful ‘popular’ lines such as its children’s toothbrush, and the company has international standing. Braun watchers say, however, it will be a long time before it undergoes a major internal culture shift.

Schneider describes Braun’s current designs as ‘a little less dogmatic’ than in the past. A glance round the studio bears this out, with samples of rival manufacturers’ products and colour and materials samples on display.

‘The trick is creating new values without compromising the company’s identity,’ says Schneider, who is keen to balance functional and aesthetic requirements and make sure that Braun’s reputation for great design doesn’t ‘degenerate into folklore’. A company statement suggests he is succeeding, with products launched within the past five years now accounting for 70 per cent of sales, which totalled $1.657bn (£1.13bn) last year.

But it isn’t easy to deny Braun’s rigorous heritage. It’s headquarters in Kronberg am Taunus, a leafy suburb of Frankfurt, is an elegant tribute to contemporary architecture. It has a highly rational design, featuring a gridded steel and glass facade, with a strip of water running the length of its long clean central atrium. And the ‘cleanness’ extends to the company’s working practices.

The 23-strong design department, for example, is an uncluttered spacious environment kitted out with the latest computer technology. This links to the model shop – an all-important research centre for a company that believes in testing its ideas in physical forms – that is as spotless as you can get in an industrial environment, looking out on to a grassy courtyard.

The design team is tight. Eight industrial and three graphic designers work in teams with in-house engineers, model-makers and CAD operators on the company’s output. At peak times their effort is supported by freelances, says Schneider, but it is only when pressures are extreme that work is put out to local design groups to complete – and that need is ‘limited’.

There are no plans to bring in external consultants of the calibre of Lovegrove. ‘It has to be this way,’ says Schneider. ‘The design department is tailored for the purposes of the company. [Design] has to be part of it [the process]. It takes a lot of time to link into the Braun philosophy. Braun has grown in this way. Designers are responsible for the whole project and the products are their children.’

There is also considerable stability on the team. Schneider has been with the company since the autumn of 1973 – he was a BraunPrize winner in 1972 with a camera design – and he says design vacancies don’t come up too often. The team is refreshed by the six-month placements offered to BraunPrize winners – though this year’s winning duo, Ingo Heyn and Sven Wuttig, have opted to take the 10 000 Euro prize money instead.

For the international design community Braun is still typified by the exquisitely detailed products made famous by Schneider’s predecessor Dieter Rams. The pure, precise products dating back to the 1960s are now largely collectors’ items. To own a Braun electric razor was every male designer’s dream; these days the Braun shaver range faces tough competition on the mass market from other similar products.

Since it was set up in 1921 by Max Braun, Braun has stood for quality, in terms of function and engineering, with design at its heart. Though it has been part of The Gillette Company since 1967, the basics of this heritage still ring true, with design being fundamental to its culture – hence the biennial BraunPrize for product design students or designers less than two years out of college. Schneider speaks of ‘natural design evolution’ and a philosophy of ‘making it different only if it gets better’.

But, like many other specialist manufacturers, Braun has to meet the challenge of fast-moving new global markets in an era of increased customer choice and expectation. Like Dutch company Philips – a rival in some aspects of its output – it has had to rethink itself and introduce more mass-market appeal. Fashion has a greater part to play now, which currently means a deviation from the familiar black, white, steel and chrome look – described by Lovegrove as ‘fat-free’ – towards plastics, colour, transparency and texture. Shapes too have changed, taking a more organic, ergonomic form than might once have been associated with the German giant. Research showed that ‘young people don’t buy Braun for its technical benefits’, says Schneider.

Schneider explains that he kicked off the process about seven or eight years ago, while Rams was still design head. Since Rams stepped down after 40 years at Braun and Schneider assumed the title of Director Corporate Design in 1995, that process has escalated with the markets.

But Braun has remained faithful to its roots throughout. It has focused on its core expertise in: dentalcare, largely through Gillette stablemate Oral-B, for which Schneider’s team also works, haircare and grooming, personal medical diagnostics kit, clocks and domestic appliances. Lovegrove, a BraunPrize judging stalwart, maintains that for all its diversification in colour and form over recent years, it remains more focused than the likes of Philips, with its 400-plus global design team.

Braun retains a reputation for design excellence. Whether it can maintain that position while hitting mass-market targets remains to be seen. It will if Schneider has anything to do with it. ‘It is possible to express [Braun] products in a more modern way,’ he says. ‘I am convinced it is possible without compromising our values.’ It will be interesting to see how long these values are identifiable as overtly German.

BraunPrize winner

Ultrasonic washing machine

Design: Ingo Heyn and Sven Wuttig

Laundry is cleaned by high-frequency microwaves in a liquid bath at the low temperature of 20 to 30 degrees Centigrade without much detergent. The process, termed ‘kavitation’, is physical rather than chemical. The low temperature ensures very gentle cleaning, which allows whites, coloureds and different fabrics to be washed together in the same load.

The tilted cylinder doubles up as a laundry basket, which means people sharing a machine just have to install their own drum. Its cylindrical shape ensures that items of washing are constantly moved forward then drawn back by gravity past the microwave source.

The machine is controlled by a touch-screen display in the lid and operates on a short cycle of a few minutes, thus saving energy over a conventional wash.

Braun facts

Owner: The Gillette Company since 1967

Stablemates: Duracell, Gillette, Oral-B

Staff: 9000 worldwide

Design team: 23, including eight industrial and three graphic designers

Production plants: 13, producing 150 000 products a day

Current products: 200 in 11 product sectors. Market leader in foil shavers, cosmetic hair removal, electric toothbrushes, hand blenders and infrared ear thermometers

Global sales: £1.13bn ($1.657bn) in 2000

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