A new exhibition is opening in Japan this week celebrating the work of legendary German designer Dieter Rams.
Less But Better will focus on Rams’ work for electronics company Braun and furniture outfit Vitsoe during the 1960s. The curated collection will feature a number of well-known and well-loved pieces, alongside some lesser-known samples of work.
London-based design consultancy Systems Studio has curated the show, as well as designed its identity, exhibition space, merchandise and overall visitor experience. It will open in the flagship store of Isetan in Tokyo, Japan, with the aim of bringing Rams’ “extraordinary aesthetic” to new audiences.
“An autonomous world of Braun and Vitsoe”
Systems Studio has worked extensively to document the work of Braun throughout its existence through its Das Programm research project. The work often takes the form of exhibitions, workshops and publications, Systems Studio strategic director Peter Kapos tells Design Week.
“Over the years, through Das Programm, [we have] developed a strong connection with the Braun company, now a client of the studio,” he says. “Using our deep understanding of the brand, Systems provide a combination of strategic and design services that frame heritage stories for contemporary audiences.”
In preparation for this latest exhibition at Isetan, the studio was given a “very open brief”, Kapos says. The only requirement was that the exhibition provided an “immersive experience”.
“Rather than go toe-to-toe with neighbouring displays, we created a free-standing pavilion, an autonomous world of Braun and Vitsoe, amidst the hubbub of the store,” Kapos says.
“The extraordinary aesthetic unity between designs”
Visitors will explore the offering in three separate stages, by walking through the “familiar environments” of a living room, a screening room and a study. This “progressive storytelling” technique has been devised by the studio as a way of showing the connections between Rams’ diverse back catalogue of work.
As well as featuring classic pieces like the T1000 World Receiver radio and the Phonosuper SK4, affectionately known as Snow White’s Coffin, the display will also include some lesser-known pieces from Rams’ career. These will include things like the RZ 57 Vitsoe storage system and an extensive collection of Braun packaging and printed product materials.
Kapos says that even in these vastly different mediums, Rams’ unified design aesthetic can be identified.
“What makes [his work] unique, particularly in the 1960s, is the extraordinary aesthetic unity between designs, even across categories as different as audio equipment and seating,” he says.
The “logical sequence” of the exhibition
Rams is well-known for his modular, pared back approach to product design and these philosophies underpin Less But Better, according to the studio. It can be found in the physical design of the space, and in the exhibition identity and brand language.
The space itself takes inspiration from the D55 exhibition system – a prefabricated and expandable display – used extensively by Braun between 1955 and 1970. The D55 is characteristically standardised and modular and its use as a reference point provided both “a practical solution and historical connection,” Kapos says.
“The vision we had for the exhibition was to present the extraordinary aesthetic coherence of Dieter Rams’ 1960s designs for Braun and Vitsoe to an audience with little prior knowledge,” he says. The austerity and severity of Rams’ work can be challenging, so we arranged the exhibition as a progressive storytelling journey, structuring our rational oasis as a series of linked cells.”
Giorgio Del Buono, design director at Systems Studio further explains the D55 influence, saying: “Our structure needed to guide visitors along a single path from entrance to exit, so we expressed this sense of a journey in the grid of the pavilion structure, whose modules become progressively open as visitors move through it.
“The shift occurs at the threshold of each ‘room’, providing a varied structure and typographic elements, which conform to the panel structure of the grid, further emphasise these transitions.”
“We hope Rams himself would wholeheartedly approve”
The “logical sequence” of the exhibition is further applied to the visual identity, which can be found across merchandise such as totes and posters, social media and in-situ graphics. It is comprised of a column system for text and features a muted colour palette of olive green and light grey. In a nod to Rams and Braun’s history, it also includes pops of orange where needed, according to Del Buono.
“The theme of the exhibition is the powerful unity of approach that links Dieter Rams designs across categories as different as audio equipment and seating,” he says. “So, we used the grid to bind all aspects of the exhibition together.
“We used it to establish the structure and floor plan of the pavilion and the exhibition’s graphic elements. In this way, the theme of the exhibition was embedded within the identity design – an approach we hope Rams himself would wholeheartedly approve.”
“The austerity of Rams’ work can often be difficult to grasp”
The setting of the exhibition presented the team with a challenge at first. It is a different kind of environment to the usual galleries, Kapos points out.
“A retail environment also brings unique challenges for exhibition-making – unlike the calm cubes of traditional museum spaces, today’s department stores are filled with merchandising displays fine-tuned to snag shoppers’ attention,” he says. Isetan’s status as a busy department store in Tokyo, can appear to be at odds with Rams’ minimal style, Kapos continues.
“The austerity and severity of Rams’ work can often be difficult to grasp, particularly on the first encounter,” he says. “To showcase it to new audiences in the context of a department store, where it inevitably competes with merchandising displays designed to grab people’s attention, was a fascinating challenge.”
Inspired by the gulf between the two ideas, the team pushed on.
“Both in our selection of objects, and in our exhibition and identity design, we placed the emphasis on parts coming together to form a cohesive and aesthetically unified world,” Kapos says. “Hopefully, visitors will leave the exhibition with a sense that Rams’ work was more than the sum of its parts.”
LESS BUT BETTER Dieter Rams: The World of Braun and Vitsoe opens at The Space, Isetan Shinjuku Store Main Building 3 December, and will be on display Thursdays to Mondays until 11 January.