Hartmut Jatzke-Wigand
Fritz Eichler: Letter to Wagenfeld

Fritz Eichler

Letter to Wagenfeld

Dear Wagenfeld,


You will understand that I am not sending you an article that others can write much better, but that I am resorting to this letter, which may contain more questions than answers. This has got two reasons. First, it is difficult to write about something you are involved in, and second, I think I know your expectations. They are high. You once said what Braun had achieved in the field of design (in the widest sense) was a pattern. It is good to hear that. But it also has its risks. It is easy to become a goody two-shoes and then it is all too easy to run the risk of becoming unpopular.


Are there any real patterns at all that can measure up to what the term suggests, i.e. that are transferable? I think – no, or only to a very limited extent. There are a lot of theoretical patterns – good, semigood, and bad. I think of all the articles written about design, all the lectures and discussions and their results. I consider them (at least the good ones) to be meaningful and important. But I often ask myself: What is their effect (quite apart from the fact that those who read them usually already know it, and those who should know it hardly read them)?


To start with two questions, questions that are always at the center of all the efforts and discussions about good product design:

Question 1 -
What actually is good product design? There are clever and profound answers; there are aesthetic catechisms – yes, there are theories of judgement which, even when applied by professionals and the expert, all too often lead to contradictory judgments. The only thing I can say about this question is what I think is good product design (among others that which we try to achieve and not always achieve).


Question 2 -
What are the prerequisites for good product design and how does it develop? Here, too, there are many fundamental studies and complex analyses that take into account all the many points of view that relate to the topic: in addition to the creative, the entrepreneurial and economic, the organizational and technical, along with the sociological and cultural. Of course – they contribute to clarification, but I have the impression that with their often high, absolute demands, they rather prevent the real starting point from being found from which something can develop at all. They remain theoretical, because they do not take into account the most obvious factors – often "simple" human problems – which in reality play a determining – sometimes decisive – role. The main problem is and remains: How is it possible that good product design can and may be done at all? A short heretical note in form of a question at this point: If we had known all this at the time when we came up with the idea of redesigning our devices, would we still have had the impartiality and courage to start at all?


Our start was less complicated, I would almost say more natural. It was strongly determined by personal motivations, and it was certainly decisive that these motivations came from the company's top management. Now it has almost been ten years since Braun began to give its products a new face.


The starting point was a program of four product groups: radio sets, kitchen machines, electric shavers, and photo-technical equipment. The face of these devices differed in nothing from that of the usual competitor devices – it was a dozen-face, partly decent and solid but boring, partly intrusive and speculatively hypocritical. We found it was a face that did not match the inside of the device. We made technical appliances – household and hobby auxiliaries – appliances that are primarily intended to fulfill a function for people and that only make sense when they are directly related to them and their immediate environment.


We thought about these people as likeable, intelligent, and of course with a feeling for authenticity and quality. People whose home is not a stage decoration for unfulfilled dreams, but is simple, tasteful, practical, and even cozy. And this is what our devices should be and look like. Not devices made for shop windows to stand out in summed up obtrusiveness, but devices with which one could live together for longer. Erwin Braun once phrased it as follows: "Our electrical devices should be unobtrusive, silent helpers and servants. They should actually disappear, just as good servants in former times have always done. You did not notice them."


The radios corresponded least to these ideas. That is why we started with them – at zero, so to speak. There were benchmarks. We knew the aspirations of the Bauhaus; there was the example of Olivetti; the chair of Charles Eames; a lecture by Wagenfeld; the Leica; Knoll International and good Swiss graphics.


But we did not know any patterns of how well-designed radios could look. The radio, more than other technical household appliances, had lost its actual function-related character – it had become a piece of sound furniture in which the representative prestige value was often more important than good and correct sound. There was a certain consequence to this: A weak plush tone corresponded to the bloated appearance of the devices.


We tried to change appearance and sound: a clear sound as natural as possible – a corresponding appearance. It was not only through market investigation that we knew that there was a real, albeit small, need for such devices; we had friends who installed their radios and hid them behind bars so that they only had to deal with them acoustically.The new radios should be devices you do not need to hide in good, modern homes; they should blend in pleasantly and naturally.


We went to work with our own, initially small, forces and sought help from outside.
We found friends at the Hochschule für Gestaltung in Ulm – Hans Gugelot for product design, Otl Aicher for informative design. Not only did they create real patterns that were essential as a starting point for our future development, they also gave us methods and suggestions that would determine our future work. Finally, we found Herbert Hirche as another employee. In less than a year, the entire range had a new face, from the small portable radio to the so-called music cabinet. With the experience we had gained with radio sets, we started to redesign our entire range of appliances. It has been a long journey rich in experiences that has led to the products that you can see in the family picture of today's range on the left.


The realization of these devices required a separate department for product design. In its somewhat random grouping, the picture can illustrate how versatile and diverse the tasks are it has to solve. Diverse in terms of the task, the techniques and materials, diverse also in terms of the market situation of the individual devices, which may often be more decisive for product design than one would want.


There is certainly no denying the family likeness of the individual devices. Is it by chance or is it deliberate style? In industry and trade there is not infrequently reference to a Braun style. Does it even exist? In an extensive and careful investigation Richard Moss has tried to analyze the "Braun style" on the basis of our devices in the magazine "Industrial Design". He writes:
"One gets the impression that every Braun product is designed very strictly in accordance with certain rules – not according to the rules of a book of standards, but according to the laws of design ethics. Every design by Braun seems to be subject to three generally valid laws: the law of order, the law of harmony, and the law of austerity," whereby he understands austerity to mean the creation of a harmonious form with the least and simplest means. Three laws that we surely affirm as the basis for our product design. "Design ethics"? too great and demanding a word for a natural thing.


We do not know what our devices of tomorrow will look like. Should they resemble those of today, it will certainly not be because they are based on certain stylistic intentions – ideologically founded – but because they were made by a group of people who work according to the same experiences and methods, and who have come together because they have similar views and a similar taste. I know that taste is a term that cannot be used carefully enough in this context – and yet in reality it largely determines product design, both in the positive and negative sense.


In this context a word about function: "Function", "functional", "function-conscious", "functionalistic", all words with which mental equilibristic is often practiced today – mostly with the tenor: All of this is outdated, we need something new. We? No – which is worse – humanity.


We build technical devices that have to perform functions for humans or even in direct connection with them. Despite all my efforts, I cannot imagine that devices, especially technical ones, can be developed in which their function is not the starting point and also the goal of constructive and formal design. This has been the case for thousands of years, and I see no reason why it should be different in the future. We actually strive to work functionally, and as a consequence we are function-conscious.


We do not try to cover or conceal the function by formal means, but are proud when we succeed in making it visible in an unobtrusive, natural, harmonious form – which we achieve in entirety unfortunately only if we are lucky. And "functionalistic"? I do not see any danger. At least not in terms of the devices we manufacture. I do not know any "functionalistic" radios, projectors, flash units, and shavers; nor do I know any "functionalistic" kitchen machines. On the contrary. It would often be desirable for them to be constructed and designed in a more function-conscious, for all I care even "functionalistic" way. A lot of housewives can testify to that.


Let me tell you, based on some new devices and the journey that led to them, about a few experiences and findings that we have made in particular, but that certainly also occur in some form or another wherever products are designed. The journey that has led up to this point is a journey from designing the external form around the technology to a uniform design of technology and form – the journey from form design to product design. When we started building modern radios, we had to build on an existing radio chassis – the well-proven radio chassis of conventional devices. We cleared it of false shine, improved look and controls, arranged them in a more logical manner, made the scale clearer and built a simpler housing of more appropriate materials around it.
The form of these devices was successful, yes, they were characterized by a particular long life. The chassis, which was contained in the most different housing types, was constantly technically improved and further developed, but its basic concept could not be changed, because it still had to fit into the existing housing types. The strange situation occurred that form no longer had to be made around existing technology, but new technology had to be made into existing form.


Despite this limitation, we tried to come up with new solutions, solutions that led away from compact radio furniture to more flexible radios. We separated the loudspeakers from the control unit and adjusted the size of the two speakers so that they could be arranged on top of each other and next to each other, as in "Atelier 1". Stereophony came to our aid. It demanded the distanced loudspeaker.


A substantially stronger and improved chassis brought about yet another, as I believe, last step for this basic concept. In "Atelier 2", the operating elements were extended and rearranged, the former station names were replaced by numbers, the wooden side panels by matt brushed aluminum surfaces. Instead of slits, the loudspeaker box was equipped with a calendered aluminum fabric, which looks calmer and is better permeable for sound.


While we were bound by the uniform chassis for the larger devices, the smaller and medium-sized individual devices left more room for new concepts.


With the "SK 4", which was to become our most successful radio/phono combination, we brought the turntable and the control unit into one plane so that both could be operated from above. We think this arrangement makes sense, because the operation of the turntable and the control of the amplifier belong directly together. In addition, phono combinations are usually positioned relatively low (simply due to the turntable). The arrangement from above therefore offers a better overview and operability. It does not make it necessary, as is often the case with front operation, to bend your knees.


With the development of the new "Audio 1", this idea was further developed on a larger and more technically sophisticated level; no longer as a stand-alone device, but as the first component of a new program.
The new "Audio 1" is a flat, mains powered stereo control unit with radio receiver and turntable. It is the first device in its performance class to be equipped with transistors. This was the prerequisite for the flat design, in which the control unit is arranged on the same plane as the turntable.
An earlier experiment with tube assembly was not feasible due to the heat problem that occurred. It is the first component of a future device complex. Its internal technical structure consists of individual exchangeable assemblies.


The developmental tendency towards functional expansion and versatility can also be seen in another new device. Like the "Audio 1", the electronic flash unit "F80" is a high-performance unit built as a modular system. It is the basis for a small studio flash unit. Generator part, battery boxes for lead or nickel batteries, power supply unit, lamp rod and charging plug can be assembled in different combinations, depending on whether the device is used in the studio, in the field, daily or only occasionally.


Unlike radio sets, it had only one predecessor in its class – the "Braun Hobby Automatic". It was created almost 10 years ago and is the device that has lived the longest without any major changes having to be made to it. At that time, its form corresponded to a very advanced technical interior. In addition to the new developments we gave it something old-fashioned and solid. We still find it likeable today.


The path leading to these new devices is at the same time the path of an increasingly closer relation of engineering and product design. This relation is, as you know from experience, a problem that is often able to destroy the best will even under otherwise favorable preconditions. It is difficult and complicated because it is a "schizophrenic problem" by nature; it always occurs when two (or more) people creatively work on a task and are supposed to find a common solution while starting at different points.


In particular with technically complicated devices, both can give each other a hard time: one by stubbornly insisting on an engineering solution he found and protecting it against all new ideas and justified requests with the disarming argument: "this is not feasible from a technical point of view"; the other one by becoming obsessed with pure design ideas and then insisting on specifications that do not take into account the technical preconditions and possibilities and that are really "not feasible from a technical point of view". But even if both are willing, this adventure – and each complicated technical development is one – bears enough unforeseeable difficulties and surprises that are able to void the often rather mature results of the product design and may end in quarrels. And then there is also the human aspect.


Especially the development engineer is interested in the product beyond his mere technical contribution. He sees it as his child and property, which he does not like to share with others, leave alone with an outsider. He wants it to be successful and wants it, which he sees as a prerequisite for its success, to look "good". Good is that which he likes, which corresponds to his taste. That the taste of the product designer often is a fundamentally different one, all too obviously suggests itself. Personal human acceptance and respect are required if this joint venture is to deliver something good. Often, mere emotional processes such as sympathy and antipathy are more important than the objective assessment of talent and skills. How may these problems be solved?


There is a patent remedy. You, dear Wagenfeld, once recommended it in a speech to engineers: Development engineer and product designer should be one single person. Is it really smart? You cited the aircraft structural engineer as an example and asked why he, whose constructive work is expressed in a perfectly shaped exterior, left the interior of the aircraft to the designers?


There is certainly much to be said about the design of the interior of an aircraft. Only – would the designer who determined the external shape of the aircraft do it differently and better? Maybe not – even worse? Is it not possible that the same floral curtains that decorate his home would appear inside the aircraft? Is the external shape of the aircraft so good because the "taste" of the engineer determined it, or perhaps on the contrary because natural physical requirements and necessities prevented his "taste" from having an effect?


Are they not two completely different tasks, each requiring different and very special talents? On the one hand a very high technical and constructive talent, on the other hand a constructive-formal talent focused on the human-related function that involves psychological empathy and, to use two often misused and therefore frowned upon terms at once, artistic taste.


Artistic taste – for me this is not only innate, but also developed talent: developed by permanent and systematic dealing with formal-aesthetic problems on the basis of real tasks, by experience of many years interspersed with various disasters and errors and with the goal of arriving at evaluations that are as objective as possible from purely subjective ones.


Those who really know become modest. Those who do not know (and there are only too many of them) believe they can afford to judge by the often questionable and sometimes non-existent something they call their "taste". It is probably unusual and rare that both talents, the high technical and the formal creative, are united in one person: for one rather develops in an abstract world, the other demands open mindedness.


At Braun, these problems, which in particular the independent product designer faces, have been largely eliminated by the fact that we have our in-house product design department, that it lives together with enginering, that it belongs to it.


The variety and diversity of our product range requires constant and intensive contact. I consider it essential that our product design has from improvised beginnings developed organically in interaction with real and human conditions and has out of our special practice arrived at more refined and differentiated experiences and methods.


Today it has got four product designers: Dieter Rams (as manager), Reinhold Weiss, Richard Fischer, and Robert Oberheim; as workshop manager Roland Weigend, assistants and sample makers.


I would like to talk about another problem. It accompanies the birth of a device in many minds, causes quite some frowning and also affects the product design (mostly for the worse).


It expresses itself in the questions: "Will the device be accepted on the market, will it be able to successfully survive within the competition, is its form right, is it effective?" Justified and necessary questions from an entrepreneurial point of view, which are all the more pressing the fiercer the competition and the more consumption-oriented the device is. Our new electric shaver, the "Braun Sixtant" and the development that has led to it, may illustrate some aspects.


When the first Braun shaver, the "S 50", was launched in 1950, there were no sales problems. The market was new and unsaturated. There were no form problems yet either. We did it as well as we knew it (and we still knew little). The shear blade principle we used proved to be an advanced and fortunate technical solution; it was functional and capable of development.


The next device, the "Braun 300 de Luxe", became bigger and more powerful. On the outside it cannot deny self-satisfied and somewhat thickly applied pride, which only seemed justified retrospectively because the device achieved a top position on the market. That was the situation when we started to consciously design the form of our devices.


With the "Braun Combi" no fundamentally new form could yet be made. The head, now made of metal, was redesigned, because a new part was added (a shearing comb, which extended the function of the device considerably): The somewhat inflated body form had to remain. Merely by a kind of "face operation" we tried to make it calmer and simpler.
Only a completely new technical design, the "Braun SM 3", enabled a farther reaching new exterior design.


They were determined by the following considerations. An electric shaver is, according to its character, a hygienic device; a tool that has to fulfil a function directly on humans and comes into direct contact with them in two ways: it must be pleasant, safe and yet movable in the hand, and it must adapt to the different shapes of the face (a requirement that was taken into account from the very beginning with Braun shavers).


We tried to realize these demands in a harmonious and closed form. There were no speculative views on the market impact. They did not enter the discussion until later. The market had changed over time. It was saturated and therefore became accordingly difficult. Some competitors not only worked with quantitatively superior advertising, they also tried to achieve prestige by "richly" bedizened devices. And they succeeded.


Did the simple form of the "SM 3" in contrast not appear "poor" and actually endanger its market position?
Justified and obvious questions. Obvious merely because in such situations it is all too human to look for motifs in what is at first accessible and tangible, the exterior. However, one must not forget that in most cases a whole series of factors combine that are certainly more important than the form: such as the price. In our case, the price of the Braun device was significantly lower than that of the competition. It is certainly telling that abroad, where the price ratio was partly reversed, the simplicity of the form was perceived as a special value.


For the development of the "Sixtant", increasing consideration was given to the sales effect of the form. A new technical invention, a honeycomb shear blade, brought a decisive improvement in performance. The new device was more valuable from its function – it should now also represent a higher value in its appearance. There are different ways to achieve this.


We did it our way.

We kept the basic form, because we thought it was good and right in terms of function, and tried to achieve the increase in value through a higher material value. A process engineering unit was set up specifically for this purpose, which carried out lengthy trials to identify process methods for the surface treatment of plastics and metal.


The plastic housing of the "Sixtant" could then get a dark dash-dot matted surface, which is also easier to hold. The metal head is polished dash-dot matt. The great success of this device on the market in the first six months of its existence at least permits the conclusion that one should also be cautious with blanket assessments of the external form's effects on the sales success of mass consumer goods.


To ask direct questions:
Can you be successful with good product design? Certainly with those who consciously notice and appreciate it. These are usually relatively few, but people whose goodwill is worth winning also from an entrepreneurial point of view. Is it also suitable to achieve farther reaching business success? By good design alone certainly not, but surely with good design.


Our kitchen machine "KM 3" may illustrate some aspects in this context.
When it came onto the market in 1957, it differed from its competitors in form and color. While designing it we had not asked the question: "Will it be widely accepted on the market?" We had made it as well as we could, and as well as we liked.


The fact that the form was successful was confirmed by the many positive reviews and international recognitions it received as a result. The machine became a great sales success. It quickly took the lead in the market share it has been able to maintain to this day.


What was the reason for its success? The form?
One is very tempted to affirm the question.First and foremost it was probably because it was a good, powerful design, easy to use and – what is important – reasonably priced; in short, because it had something special to offer in general.


It would have certainly succeeded if it had looked different. But that way its special form was linked to its sales success, it was noticed, even by people who were otherwise immune to formal matters and therefore more easily fall victim to speculative seductions.


The form was thus also by them perceived as something special.
Not only by them, also by the competition.
Attention was attached to the external form of kitchen machines more deliberately than before. The influence of our machine did not only show in the light color, which had cost us many tests and reject rates, it partly even showed in the typographic advertising image.


The fact that its form was even copied was certainly less a result of aesthetic pleasure than because its form was seen as the decisive factor for its sales success. If it had been inadequate in its technical function and thus a failure, what would have happened? Would one not have looked for the blame for it in its unusual appearance first, which stood out from the "normal", and would the actual causes not have receded into the background? And would the kitchen machine of the company, which found ours so beautifully successful, not have looked completely different?


I think one should not overestimate the form's effect on the sales success of technical devices. Design cannot replace technical performance. If a device is technically and functionally poor, neither a good nor a bad form, therefore not even an eccentric speculative one, can help it to live a longer successful life.


The more advanced the technical performance and the higher the functional value of a device, the more likely it is that you will be able to afford a good form – even with a wide-spread consumer product. With all of this in mind, one should also not forget the psychological effects of the effort for good, consistent product design – both internally and externally.
With the increasing demands we have made on the form of our devices over the years, a higher awareness for technical quality has developed naturally along with it.


And externally? When looking at short-term success, one should not ignore its long-term confidence-building effect. And although one cannot put it in numbers directly, I am convinced that it can be among a company's important capital.


Kindest regards (although it is a superlative),
Yours Fritz Eichler.



Eichler, F .: Letter to Wagenfeld. In: form 23/1963, and Eichler, F .: "Said" by Dr. Fritz Eichler, Kronberg 1973, 5-15

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