Max Braun, the West German appliance manufacturer, has a growing reputation as producer of Europe's most original line of consumer product designs. The reputation was confirmed earlier this year when the firm was awarded one of the design world's most important prizes: the Italian Compasso d'Oro. The following analysis of Braun's designs shows how the distinctive "Braun style" is achieved.
To talk of a "Braun style" in design immediately suggests comparisons with Olivetti. Comparisons are also invited by the fact that these two firms are the only manufacturing companies ever awarded the Compasso d'Oro. However, apart from the enlightened conception both firms show towards design, comparisons are misleading. Olivetti is big, Braun is small. Olivetti competes in a field where sensible design is the common rule, while many of Braun's products (transistor radios, tv receivers and kitchen appliances) fall into areas where sensible design is rare. Olivetti owes much of its celebrity to its unique employeewelfare policies; Braun's gratuitous health facilities (clinic, gymnasium, diet canteen) are no more than any up-to-date company does for its employees. Finally, the "Olivetti style" is not a single style of design but several styles (ID, November, 1961). In contrast, the "Braun style" is a very particular conception of design to which all the company's products rigidly conform. It is probably the only "house style" to which this term in its strictest sense applies.
All Braun products, from desk fan to kitchen mixer, belong unmistakably to the same family. Some of their resemblances are obvious: the use of white, the weighty masses, the purity of lines, the company signature, and so on. There are other resemblances, more subtle and powerful, which derive from the fact that all Braun products are designed out of the same spirit, the same notion of what is right and wrong in design. lt is as if each Braun product were designed strictly in obedience to certain rules - not the rules of a standardization manual but the code of a design ethic. Three general rules seem to govern every Braun design - a rule of order, a rule of harmony, and a rule of economy - and it is in these terms that Braun designs can best be analyzed.
The rule of order
Order, according to Webster, is the methodic disposition of elements according to a definite system. Braun designs are not simply orderly (which is an effect achieved simply by not being sloppy); they are ordered. The elements of its products-housings and handles, buttons and knobs, grille and ventilation slots, seams, inserts, switches, dials, surfaces and edges a real methodically disposed according to a system of alignments and parallels. Looked at in two-dimensional graphic terms, the Multipress juicer (2), for example, is hardly more than a composition of these alignments and parallels. The switch on one side of the motor housing and the input socket on the other are aligned with the vertical sections of the handle, which themselves are parallel with the sides of the crusher housing. The pouring-spout and Braun signature are in line with the vertical centerline of the chimney (through which cut-up fruit or vegetables are dropped into the crushing mechanism). Finally, there are tiers of parallels, reading from top to bottom, formed by the transverse section of the handle, the chimney-cap, the top edge of the cover, the seam between the cover and the crusher housing, and the upper and lower edges of the motor housing.
The all-purpose kitchen machine (1) is similarly ordered. The parallels among the horizontal surfaces, edges and joints are obvious. But notice also: that the rim of the bowl continues the joint where the base receives the detachable mechanism; that the inner slope of the housing parallels the inner "edge" of the bowl; and that the outside "edge" of the housing parallels the outside "edge" of the bowl.
The RT-20 table radio (5) provides a more simply graphic example of order in Braun design. An imaginary horizontal joins the top slots of the grille on the left with the Braun signature in the middle and the top edge of the dial on the right. Similarly, the bottom slots of the grille are aligned with the bottom row of knobs on another horizontal. In the other direction, the vertical centerpiece of the grille stands parallel with the vertical row of knobs in the middle and the two vertical edges of the dial on the right. This order in Braun designs governs the minutest details of structure. Interruptions of a plain surface and functional attachments and inserts are invariably placed so as to emphasize alignment and parallelism. They are almost always parallel with and flush up against an edge or a seam of the overall structure. Thus: in the Compact Flash F-20 (7), the bottom edge of the light element is flush with the seam of the housing, and the plug of the cable which goes to the camera is flush with the forward vertical edge of the housing. At the rear of the T-520 portable radio (9) the sliding door which gives access to the batteries slips along the bottom edge of the housing. The switch on the desk fan (8) is lined up against one edge of the motor housing (and the thumb-grip of the switch itself is parallel with the horizontal axis of the cylinder). The leading surface of the handle block of the kitchen mixer (11) is flush with the corresponding edge of the motor housing. And so on.
The order in Braun designs, in contrast to that found in most products, is neither accidental nor occasional; it is calculated and regular. Every Braun product challenges the viewer to find a single part something as insignificant as a screw-head-which does not make a positive contribution to the order conceived for the product. Basic to this order is the right-angle. Almost every angle in Braun products is a right-angle - or one that wishes it could be. The Braun principle of order (often called "arbitrary" but what principle is not arbitrary?) prepares the way for harmony.
The rule of harmony
Harmony in design is the special kind of order in which all parts are made to agree, creating a unity. Harmony is, as it were, the ordering of order. lt is a much harder thing to bring off. lt is almost never seen in products for everyday use. But I think that Braun' s designers know what harmony is, and just how to impart it to a design - even of an everyday product. While their sense of order can be reduced to the idea of the right-angle, their sense of harmony depends on the idea of balance - the balance of masses and volumes which are made up of ordered elements. Braun's designers are constantly in search of equilibrium, and they almost always get their man.
There is no perfect symmetry in Braun products. But there is an urge toward symmetry in all its designs - subtly struck balances which suggest symmetry. This tendency can be seen in the surface treatment of the RT-20 table radio (5), where the weight of the circular grille on the left is counter-balanced on the right by the weight of the big rectangle formed by the rows of knobs and edges of the dial. lt can be seen again in the front of the spaceheater (14), where the balance of the five different rectangles (the four plates which surround the grille, and the grille itself) places the visual center of gravity smack in the center of the unit.
One of the best examples of harmony in Braun designs is the hand kitchen mixer (11). Looked at directly side-on, the unity of the object shows up in the balanced sets of parallels. First, reading from the bottom upwards, there is a strict procession of parallels formed by the lower edge of the motor housing, the seam in the middle of the housing, the upper edge of the housing, and the lower and upper edges of the handle. Then, reading from left to right, there is a set of parallels which crosses the others at right-angles: the common forward edge of the housing and handle block, the inside edge of the handle block, and the rear surface of the housing (aligned with the rear tip of the handle). But that is not all. The importance of the two sets of ventilation slots (which should be compared with the radio grilles) can be seen if we imagine the rear set of three slots placed a half-inch in front of or behind the point at which it stands now. There would be either too much or too little space between the two sets of vents and also between the rear set and the rear edge of the housing. Where they stand now, and nowhere else, the rear vents constitute a graphic touch which counterweighs the heavier mass of the forward section of the unit. Nor should the ornamental value of these vents be overlooked.
To separate order from harmony may seem like making a distinction where there is no difference. To see that the difference is real, we have only to inspect a Braun design which is successfully ordered without achieving harmony: the Studio-1 radio-phonograph (12). The elements are well ordered. The two principal knobs balance each other on either side of the dial; the less important knobs are lined up along the top; the single knob on the right lines up with the right edge of the turntable insert on the top surface; and the right knob of the row of four lines up with the left edge of the turntable. But this order has not been harmonized. The alignments are arbitrary and hence disjointed. They stand by themselves, unrelated by the multiple interconnections which create the harmonious effect of most Braun designs.
This raises the question why, in face of all the objectivity in Braun design, are some products clearly more successful than others? If design is objective, should not all products have the same happy or unhappy effect? The fact is that they do not. The RT-20 radio (5) is a harmonious design, but it is not the sort of object you would as willingly have in your home as, say, the toaster (13). The radio is prodigiously empty. But you might, figuratively, contemplate the toaster for an hour with continued delight in its compact, effortless perfection. For although it is just as severe as the RT-20, it is no more empty than the steps of a Greek temple. This paradox seems to demonstrate that design, even at Braun, is not just a matter of adherence to principles nor of the mechanical wielding of rulers and compasses. lt is also a matter of eye and idea.
The rule of economy
Economy - the last of the three rules - is the creation of harmony in design by the fewest and simplest means. (Those who like economical design call it "efficient"; those who dislike it call it "dull.") For Braun's designers, economy is not a question of restraint but of temperament. They seem naturally to want to stick as close to zero as possible. They do not expressly avoid using ornaments and emblems, embossed and recessed effects, gratuitous overhangs and undercuts, unnecessary doors or frames, fake veneers and so on; all they seem to do (to judge by the results) is to make the essential elements do all the work, both functional and decorative.
Thus for example, there are no overhanging edges for frames in Braun designs (and of course no gluedon chromed extrusions), because the edge of a housing can be made to act as its own frame. Braun's designers are up on hidden persuaders; there's one in the RT-20 radio (5). A hidden line persuades you that there is a frame around this unit, even though there is none. First, there is the outer rectangle formed by the outer edges of the front surface. Then there is an inner rectangle, parallel to the outer one, formed by the imaginary lines that enclose the grille, buttons and dial. The space between these two rectangles constitutes the slyest frame in radio.
. .Or again: why make a special grille - plastic sieve or spangled fabric - to cover a radio speaker, when you can let the sound out simply by piercing the housing itself? That is the way Braun grilles are made: by subtraction rather than addition. They consist merely of holes or slots molded into the plastic or cut out of the metal housings (as in the radios 5, 10 and 16.) They are disarmingly ornamental, too.
Or still again: why use two parts when one part can be made to fill two purposes? The handle of the portable T-520 which is designed to contribute to the visual harmony of the whole, is not only a handle but also a leg which can be used in one of three positions and works on an ingeniously simple principle (see drawing, page 41.)
(Incidentally, it would be erroneous to assume that because Braun designs are so formalized, they neglect the convenience of the user. On the contrary, Braun rarely misses a chance to give the consumer something extra. The multiple uses of the handle on the T-520 is just one example. And the firm spent $1,500 on a new tool to make longer knobs for the same portable radio, which can be installed in a car, as drivers wearing gloves found the original ones difficult to operate. The thermostat control on the spaceheater (14) is to be moved from side to top surface for easier handling; and on this same unit, the leg also serves as a hook for hanging the heater on a wall.)
Edges as frames, holes as grilles, handles as legs are only a few examples of economy in Braun designs. lt shows also in the selection of colors-white, gray and black, principally, with occasional altogether whimsical and insignificant touches of blue-gray - and green-gray. Economy shows, too, in the minimum number of different materials used in any one product and in the resistance to using textural effects relief.
Braun has won many honors for its designs, including grand prizes at the Milan Triennales of 1957 and 1960, a citation from the Brussels World's Fair in 1958, a display in the Museum of Modern Art in 1959, and top prize at the London Interplas exposition last year (for the transistor portable radio-phonograph TP-1, (15 and 16). Braun's main object, however, is not to win awards for its products but to make money with them. This is easier today than it was six or seven years ago.
"They said we were crazy," recalls design director Dr. Fritz Eichler, thinking back to 1954, '55, '56, when the current line of Braun products was experiencing the throes of development and the scepticism of the market place. One of Braun's chief engineers quit his job, the others were reluctant to work with industrial designers; distributors howled; and the sales department - of course-raised hell. Objections were silenced by topmost management, which not only supported the new design policy but bad in fact instigated it. When founder Max Braun died in 1951 he left the firm in the hands of sons Erwin and Arthur, two young men in their early thirties with youthful ideas about modern design. The old juicer (4) is illustrative of what Braun was selling at that time. Erwin called in Fritz Eichler for some advice on a modernization program. Eichler, an old friend from army days, was busy with a career in set design and film direction in Munich; he went up to Frankfurt for a few conversations and, on the theory that "it would be better to make good products than a bad German film," stayed on to become director of design and the Braun brothers' most intimate associate.
Eichler and the Brauns decided to start redesigning the radio line; the general acceptance of modern furniture design encouraged them to think that fully rationalized radio design might succeed. Eichler and Arthur Braun designed the shelf model SK-2 (18), and got outside consultants like Hans Gugelot, professor at the Ulm design school, and Herbert Hirche, professor at the Stuttgart Academy of Applied Arts, to design other models. (One of Hirche's design's was the R-23 stereo console (17.)
The new design program took a few leaps forward in 1955 when Dieter Rams joined Braun as staff designer. Rams had studied product and interior design at the School of Applied Arts in Wiesbaden and had spent his two years since graduation in the office of Otto Apel, a leading Frankfurt architect. Today, Rams, who is only thirty, heads the five-man design staff which, under Eichler's guidance, has carried the idea of rationalized product design to a point which lovers of simplicity are tempted to call perfection. Eichler and Rams themselves, both great lovers of simplicity, are not tempted at all. They both claim to be less satisfied by achievement than by the quest itself. They regard their effort up to now as a cleaning-up operation - getting rid of what is unnecessary in design. What they want to do now is to bring the same visual formalism that characterizes individual Braun products into the overall design of whole famiIies of products. There are some charts hanging on a wall in Rams' office which present Braun's future program in schematic form. They are the basis of an attempt to unify entire series of related products by a single design pattern. lt will be interesting to see what comes out of it.
The original Braun experiment with rationalized product design was vindicated at the Frankfurt Radio and Television Exposition in 1957. Against the chrome and ormolu designs of its competitors, Braun's new line of radios stood out like Scandinavian glass in a five-and-ten, and the critics applauded in both the specialized and popular press. At the Berlin International Building Exposition of the same year, visitors found Braun equipment in almost all the model apartments and homes. Independently of each other, the diverse architects represented at the show-people Iike Alvar Aalto, Walter Gropius, Pierre Vago - had used Braun instruments in furnishing the interiors of their model dwellings.
The amount of influence exerted by this kind of unexpected publicity is not measurable, but it greatly helped attract the customers Braun was looking for. The new Braun line was never intended for the mass market. lt had been aimed at the unknown numbers of "discriminating buyers" whom the giants in the business-firms like Telefunken and Grundig - were not even trying to please. This other market proved large indeed, and today Braun holds a monopoly of it. Braun's total sales for 1955 amounted to $12.5 million; by 1960 they had jumped to $29 million. Braun also enjoys the flattery of imitation and, in fact, is at present suing Bauknecht, a leading German appliance firm for alleged infringement of design copyright.
Moss, R.: Braun. Reprinted from Industrial Design, Whitney Publications, November 1962, 36-47
Preserved in the archive of Artur Braun, Königstein / Ts. In: Folder Braun AG Others about Braun AG reports, interviews from newspapers and magazines