Design

Design without an expiry date

7 min.

How should an object be designed to make us want to keep it for a long time? And how can plastics contribute to sustainable design? Design historian Professor Klaus Klemp answers these questions in an interview with us.

© Chaosamran_Studio / shutterstock.com

Designers have an impact on how quickly we throw things away. They may be impractical, or break, maybe the material wears out, or maybe we simply don’t want to look at them anymore. But throwing things away is no longer in keeping with the times.

The awareness of sustainability has permeated all aspects of our lives and product designers are therefore paying more attention to the preservation of resources. They use bio-based or recycled materials and rediscover proven materials. In line with this, a recognizable trend is emerging towards a simpler design language and creations that save resources.

Industrial designer Dieter Rams is a major role model in this field. He developed ten principles of good design which younger designers can pursue and modify in line with sustainable product design. PLEXIGLAS® talked to design historian Professor Klaus Klemp about this development and the criteria for durable design.

Professor Klemp, why do some everyday objects become design classics that people continue to like even decades later?

To answer this question, I’d first like to provide a little background information. Canadian philosopher and media scholar, Marshall McLuhan, distinguishes between “cold” and “hot” media. A “cold” medium is one which requires significant involvement of the recipient. An example here is cool jazz music. It is strongly reduced and requires the listener to think about it in their head. Contrastingly, there are also “hot media” such as operettas or movies which simply carry you along without requiring any imagination.

In terms of design, “hot” media are the many colorful things that overwhelm and excite us. But after a while we get tired of them because we do not have to participate ourselves. A very reduced object however, which is very well proportioned, has the right shape and is made from the right materials allows us to incorporate our own feelings.

© Andreas Baier

Prof. Dr. Klaus Klemp
(born 1954 in Dortmund) has a degree in design and is a design and art historian and curator for design at the Museum Angewandte Kunst in Frankfurt am Main. He taught design history at various universities, the last of which was the HfG Offenbach. He is an expert on the designs of Dieter Rams.

Dieter Rams

was born in Wiesbaden in 1932 and is considered one of the most influential industrial designers of the previous decades. Rams has designed over 350 products for Braun and Vitsœ since the 1950s– including the legendary phonosuper SK 4 from 1956, which was nicknamed “Snow White’s Coffin” because of its transparent lid made from PLEXIGLAS®.

Can you give us a good example of product design that meets these criteria?

Dieter Rams and the other designers at Braun understood this very early on, which is why the products they designed have a long visual lifespan. They are not simple but reduced in their design. They are also not only white, gray or black either, as Dieter Rams carefully selected where to use colorful highlights.

One example of this is the ET66 calculator which he designed together with Dietrich Lubs in 1987. Technically, nobody really needs a calculator these days, as every smartphone has a calculator function. But people still buy the new edition of this Braun calculator because it looks good on their desk, and it is still useful after all.

It’s the high art of design to achieve this longevity in industrial products that surround us in our daily lives.

© medvedzky.kz / shutterstock.com

Are you seeing a return to Dieter Rams’ motto of “less but better”?

At the height of postmodernism in the 80s and 90s, Dieter Rams’ designs didn’t really capture the imagination of young people. But for ten, fifteen years now, I have been seeing younger students take greater interest in this type of design.

Is this only because the “sustainability generation” has reached university age?

This generation knows that they will have to deal with the consequences if we continue to live the way we have been and produce high CO2 emissions and large amounts of waste. In addition, The DIY trend and all the related tinkering has passed. Young designers want to design sound products with a certain durability.

I appreciate this very much, as this generation will shape our future. And they need to carry their weight in companies and fight for their positions. After all, if company management does not understand and support creative sustainability, designers and technicians can do very little.

Ten principles by Dieter Rams

Good design …

  1. is innovative.
  2. makes a product useful.
  3. is aesthetic.
  4. makes a product understandable.
  5. is unobtrusive.
  6. is honest.
  7. is durable.
  8. is consistent down to the smallest detail.
  9. is environmentally friendly.
  10. is as little design as possible.

Everyone is currently talking about “sustainable design”. But what does that even mean?

“Sustainability” has become a buzzword. These days, there is hardly a company that doesn't claim that their products are sustainable. This takes away some of the term’s meaning. If you use this term in design, you should be able to prove the sustainability and not simply follow a general trend.

Sustainability is a very old topic when it comes to design. In 1909, the architect Adolf Loos, a pioneer of architecture and design, held a speech which was polemically titled “Ornament and Crime”. It contains a fitting sentence about sustainability which basically says: “The form of an object should last (i.e., should be bearable) as long as the object lasts physically.”

But we do not always use things as long as they may last...

The sentence by Adolf Loos makes an important distinction: not all things need to be equally sustainable nor do they need to be equally timeless. The service life is the result of the function. Loos explained this using fashion and furniture as an example: A ball gown only needs to last for one night and look beautiful. But if a desk only lasts for a short amount of time because it is simply no longer bearable, then the money is lost.

“Visual durability is a great challenge for product designers.”

Design historian Prof. Dr. Klaus Klemp

© Benoit Daoust / shutterstock.com

So appearance is an important aspect of longevity and therefore of sustainability. But what about the materials? How do plastics fit into this?

Durability of plastics was already a topic at Braun in the past, especially as many white plastics at the time would quickly turn yellow. The company worked closely with partners from the chemical industry to process plastics with greater longevity. The Citromatic (MPZ 22) juice press, which is almost unchanged for 40 years, is an example of this. It also has a transparent PLEXIGLAS® cover, by the way. And even old models from back then are still in good condition today.

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No yellowing or turning brittle. Can plastic be sustainable if these criteria are met?

Of course, a plastic can also be a very future-proof material. The biggest problem is single-use plastic which is just thrown away.

We won’t be able to live without plastic since we can’t just make everything with wood. But we can expect plastic producers to develop sustainable and recyclable materials. I would assume that the younger generation of chemists thinks much like the young designers. They are also aware of the environment and want to increase the durability of objects.

PLEXIGLAS® proTerra for sustainable design

The new PLEXIGLAS® proTerra product family consists of approx. 90% recycled acrylic glass and impresses with the proven brand quality of the original from Röhm. The sheet material is available in black and as a colorless option.

PLEXIGLAS® proTerra

PLEXIGLAS® has proven its worth in Dieter Rams’ legendary “Snow White’s Coffin” and in other well-known design objects – not least because it does not turn yellow. It is also recyclable. Which role could it play in future as a material for durable design?

The material is fascinating due to its transparency and robustness. It’s inspiring to think that you could once again create transparent products that provide a clear view of the internal machinations – just like with “Snow White’s Coffin”. After all, we own more and more objects that are actually black boxes: They have no designable surface, no buttons, and only work with voice control. Even a smartphone is a little black box. Perhaps many things in our lives would be a bit more transparent then.

“Snow White’s Coffin” with PLEXIGLAS®

The phonosuper SK 4 from Braun designed by Dieter Rams and Hans Gugelot in 1956 is also called “Snow White’s Coffin” because of its transparent lid made from PLEXIGLAS®. It was the first technological device in the living room that didn’t hide its technology. At the time, all other musical radiogramophones were made of wood. The SK4 was a very modern record player which perfectly matched the modern residential architecture of the time.

© Röhm GmbH – Acrylic Products

Radically modern design

Its breakthrough was in 1957 at the IBA, the International Building Exhibition in Berlin. Many showcase apartments there were equipped with the SK4. Modern architects were fascinated as this was the only radio-phonograph which was in line with the modern approach to architecture. Retailers were not as easily convinced of the model. But once they saw the SK4 at the IBA used by leading architects like Walter Gropius, they did start putting it in their shop windows.

© Röhm GmbH – Acrylic Products

Circular design guidelines by Stefan Diez (* 1971)

A good product …

  1. remains useful for a long time.
  2. can be repaired.
  3. can be designed as a system.
  4. is made from renewable or recyclable material.
  5. uses as little energy as possible during production, service life and recycling.
  6. can be transported in an efficient and space-saving manner.
  7. is innovative and fascinating.
  8. is used by many.
  9. is produced, maintained and recycled under fair working conditions.
  10. is as little product as possible.

Perhaps then we could see if something inside is broken instead of having to figure out how to even open the casing.

Yes, the repairability of devices is also a current topic and another aspect of sustainable design. But manufacturers first need to be willing to even produce things in a way that makes it possible to open and repair them. If you have to throw away an electronic device because it can’t be repaired and then have to buy a new one for 500 euros, that is not sustainable.

This could be avoided by following the cradle-to-cradle principle in product design, which would allow every component to be replaced and reintroduced into the material cycle.

Cradle-to-cradle is a highly important topic at the moment, also among designers. While it may not catch on to 100 percent, even a certain degree of reuse would make a huge difference. This change in thinking has already started.

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