The Ettel Braun Design Collection
Recently, while on holiday wandering beneath the lush foliage of the trees that align the Elberfelder Straße in Moabit, Berlin, I stumbled across the Ettel Braun Design Collection. Other than a discrete sign and a notice on the door informing that the collection can be viewed on Sundays and Mondays between 11:00 and 17:00, there’s not much from the outside to indicate the design treasures collected there.
On ringing the bell we were greeted by Werner Ettel, the collector himself, who proceeded to give us a guided tour, explaining the design intricacies of the collection with warm enthusiasm.
I never grew up with any Braun products1, but for someone that spends a large amount of their time using various Apple devices, it all feels immediately familiar. Apple is perhaps the company that most prominently continues the Braun design legacy into the 21st century with chief Apple designer Jonathan Ive taking inspiration not only in the 10 design principles of Dieter Rams, Braun’s chief designer from 1961–95, but also in many of the products those principles informed.
The clean design aesthetic of classic Braun products leads one to imagine that they would lend themselves well to visual representations and a quick search on the internet reveals a plethora of articles and posts. Unfortunately only a few of them manage to communicate the attention to detail evident in the products themselves, Andrew Kim’s wonderful post on the Braun SK55 “Phonosuper” being a notable exception.
What the Ettel collection brings home is the physicality of the products. Not only the sculptural aspects, being able to view something from all sides, but also they way they feel when operating them. The resistance of the buttons. The feel of the metal. Their size, and, perhaps what was most exciting for me, the small click in the loudspeakers when turning on a device. The sense that electricity has brought it to life even when there is no sound emanating from it, an aspect absent from modern day devices, superior as they might be in other ways, and something that took me back to happy childhood hours building electronic circuits.2
Despite my complaint that the representation of classic Braun products on the web doesn’t quite do them justice3, viewing this collection brought home to me just how much the design principles at play have influenced modern app and web design. Clear minimal navigation enhanced by subtle colour coding. Hiding specialised controls in order to maintain an uncluttered user interface. Setting it all up so that the product can be used without first having to consult a manual. In terms of hardware Apple’s strategy of reduction to essentials again springs to mind. Looking at Herbert Hirche’s (1958) HF1 television set with it’s single on/off switch (further controls are hidden behind a panel at the top) one can see the inspiration for Apple’s (2001) Cube, for example. Or their Airport WiFi routers with a single LED instead of the more common array of blinking lights.
The HF1 apparently also had the effect of being suspended in the air when turned on with light emanating from it, probably best viewed from one of the low chairs that can be seen in this photograph of an apartment with furniture also designed by Herbert Hirche. I’ve never aspired to own a television set, but with this model I can see the appeal. The Hirche furniture in the photograph is incidentally from an apartment that was part of the 1957 Interbau project, to be found just a few hundred metres from where the Ettel design collection is now located. Interbau was a Berlin housing estate exhibit that brought together internationally renowned architects such as Alvar Aalto and Walter Gropius to rebuild the Hansaviertel that was almost completely destroyed during the war. It was an ambitious new approach to shaping city space set in motion around the time Dieter Rams started as a designer at Braun. High rise apartments opened up the ground around them with modernistic visions of city dwellers having better access to nature and space interspersed with common service points such as libraries and hairdressers. Looking at these, now somewhat weathered, buildings almost 60 years later4 the vision still shines through and brought home to me the perpetual aspect of the cyclical processes of simplification and renewal that occur across all layers of culture. I couldn’t help making an analogy to the stripping away of textures and skueomorphic elements in favour of a content centred approach involving ‘comical amounts of white space’ prevalent in present-day app/web design.
The drive for simplicity is sometimes at odds with usability, sometimes simply ahead of its time, and one can see software developers taking the same steps back that Braun’s subsequent television designs did, with the addition of a bunch of controls always in view. The steps back in order to allow customers to catch up with technological advancements was apparently something the Braun designers went through long before the advent of iPhones with “[pine](https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ibooks#mediaviewer/File:IBooks_user-interface_on_the_iPhone_and_iPod_Touch_(screenshot.png)” bookshelves and buttons and switches that mimicked their physical counterparts. The H1 television was ahead of it’s time and later models abandoned the stark metal enclosure for wooden panelling inspired by the latest trends in modernistic Scandinavian furniture. Users however apparently soon grew accustomed to the new paradigm and after a few years were ready to fully embrace the new.
In terms of design evolution the Ettel collection offers a unique opportunity to view the subtle design changes in subsequent iterations of products such as the “Phonosuper” mentioned above. Keeping the back of the device clean and moving the placement of loudspeaker connectors to the underside, for example, with the thought that it should now be able to be placed on one of the newfangled room dividers designed for the modern open plan apartments of the time and seen from all sides. Aesthetics won over the impracticality of difficult to reach connectors with the argument that these connections did not need to be changed very often. Again the Apple Cube mentioned above, springs to mind, as does the current MacPro and John Siracusa and Marco Arment’s discussion of the aesthetics of the device vs the impracticality of the placement of it’s connection ports.
Products, Time and the Web
The Ettel collection is a wonderful opportunity to have over 40 years of inspiring design history spread out in front you. The physical presence of the products makes a strong impression and it’s wonderful to be able to touch and interact with them. They might be said to epitomise the kind of products that Oliver Reichenstein describes in his article Putting Thought Into Things:
Well-designed products do not just save us time, they make us enjoy the time we spend with them. They make us feel that someone has been thinking about us, that someone took care of the little things for us. This is mainly why we perceive well-designed things as more beautiful the longer we use them, and the more used they become. This is a trait that websites lack completely. But that is another story…
—Oliver Reichenstein, Putting Thought Into Things
As is clear from this post, my mind has been jumping back and forth, connecting dots between architecture, products and digital interface design. Finding precedence for the current move away from skueomorphic tendencies5, for example, in the design developments of the fifties. Frank Chimero, in his wonderful web-essay What screens want takes up the same topic in relation to the introduction of plastic manufacturing processes in the seventies: When things can easily change shape (the original meaning of the word ‘plastic’), we expect them to do just that. And with multiple affordable versions we can now buy them in the shapes we prefer.
The dimensions of products and their relation to our bodies are to some degree defined by the properties of the physical world we live in. They are more or less fixed. With software and screens, Chimero argues, the mental abstractions at play are constantly shifting. Once we have internalised the functions of a button, switch or bookshelf we can discard those metaphors for more nuanced abstractions. “Like taking the training wheels off a bike.” Part of the delight in using computers is precisely that they change (or rather, that we change them) as our mental relation to the way they are structured changes, and vice versa. A strong element of flux has altered our relation to design and, I would argue, art and culture in general.
Reichenstein points out that the amount of time well designed products save us grows with use over time. Over and above the ever increasing amount of the time saved we also have an ever growing pool of time enjoyed with the product. Their perceived beauty is, he argues, tied up with the consideration we feel the designer exhibits for us. The consistency they provide over time provides us with something against which to perceive our own experience of (saved) time.
While some appreciate the time put in on their behalf (‘opinionated design’ as it’s sometimes called) others might object to having decisions made for them6. Traditionally if that was the case you were probably more likely to lean towards Windows or Android (the more features the better) rather than Apple7, but those divisions too have been blurred. We now feel that we have our own part to play in the design process through feedback and feature requests8. With the web, as Paul Ford has remarked, “Everyone feels they should be consulted”. Some might find the process of constantly defining themselves through the choices they make exhausting and wish for a return to a generic form of the product – no longer the thing in the shape we prefer, just the thing itself9. (How else do we explain people turning their backs on so much that has been done on their behalf?) A certain fatigue creeps in, as John Chidgey and Guy English discuss in the Pragmatic podcast episode on software entropy. A little bit of laziness might in some cases be the best medicine suggests Ethan Marcotte10.
“Well designed products save us time.” The same might be said about well crafted blog posts/articles in relation to tweets and status updates, or perhaps even, at a push, composed music in relation to improvisation. They communicate in concentrated form. The quick comments and steady stream of updates that have come to characterise much of the time we spend on the web are the opposite of time tested thoughts. We often feel that the medium is taking instead of giving11. Unsatisfied we keep coming back for more. I might appreciate the refinement of an app like Tweetbot, but the stream it gives me access to is of another character12. The web isn’t minimal. The web is, as Reichenstein points out, baroque13.
That’s of course also its beauty. Improvisational flourish carries a thrill of its own. It’s social. Composition, on the other hand, means hours of sitting alone and implies a deep commitment that we may find difficult to enter as listeners14. Something for idiots15. Even ‘classical’ music composition itself has changed character. Works are no longer set constants in a canon but parts of an ever shifting stream – prompting Johannes Kreidler to dub the celebrated Arditti String Quartet the ‘Arditti Stream Quartet’. ‘Realtime composition’, as exemplified in the increasingly popular podcast medium16, is in this day and age apparently easier for listeners to take in and creators to take on17. Since we rarely consume them with undivided attention it makes sense that there is a certain lightness to the process of their creation18.
Nevertheless, there are attempts to manage the chaos of the web and create spaces more conducive to contemplation. Jared Sinclair, whose ‘comical amounts of white space’ sprang to mind when viewing the Interbau buildings, describes the thought behind his RSS app as follows:
I’m a paper subscriber of The New Yorker magazine. I like to read it in a comfortable chair with the magazine folded down to a single visible column. When held that way, it looks remarkably similar to a screenful of clean RSS paragraphs. Reading on an iPhone should feel just as satisfying.
I made Unread because I wanted to get back to a more deliberate style of reading. I designed it for times of quiet focus. With warm typography and a sparse interface, it invites me to return to the way I used to read before I fell into the bad habit of skimming and forgetting. —Jared Sinclair
And then, impressed as we are by the open spaces and feats of modern design, we probably, if we can, nevertheless choose to place that comfortable reading chair in an apartment along a street that exhibits the cosiness of the Elberfelder Straße.
Although I think my father had one of their famous shavers. ↩
This is perhaps also one of the great advantages of this collection over Museum presentations – the possibility of hands on interaction with the items on display, and in the case of HiFi products, being able to listen to them. ↩
The owner himself excused the web presence of his collection – the internet wasn’t quite his thing, as he explained. ↩
Some, such as the wonderful Gropius building have recently been renewed and the entire project has been awarded landmark status. ↩
The use of wooden enclosures for Braun’s televisions is of course not strictly speaking skueomorphic but rather a question of taste relating to customers thinking of these devices as pieces of furniture. They relate to skueomorphic tendencies in that they involve packing the new in forms that are familiar. ↩
In terms of music and instruments see, or rather listen to, Gregory Taylor’s discussion with Darwin Grosse on the Art + Music + Technology podcast. ↩
The balance between features/inclusivity and singular design experience is something open source communities particularly are grappling with. ↩
I’m only hoping that Apple, in its distant future, doesn’t end up in the same quagmire that Braun did after Rams’ departure as lead designer. ↩
The same might be said for food and drink: Nevermind your latte macchiato with locally sourced biologically produced (soya) milk – just give me a coffee! ↩
Ethan takes up the positive aspects of not doing too much in his closing talk for Responsive Day Out 2. ↩
@adactio hehe… We pay in time… There’s no way to return time… But yeah, love your RSS feed… :)— Nitin Khanna (@nitinthewiz) July 22, 2014
One might say that the Braun “phonosuper” doesn’t control the content of the radio shows one listens to on it, or the records one plays, but those too were highly produced and costly both in terms of the time and the resources that went into making them. They were more “thought-out”, more thoroughly designed, finished and rounded. ↩
The elaborate chaos of the web perhaps makes it all the more important that the app itself and the “internet-connection-device” it runs on is as thoroughly thought out as possible. ↩
Listening is a masochist endeavor. To do it right you have to put everything down…You have to use your full attention, registering everything that you see and hear. You have to slow down your self-perception and focus on the outside, on what you do not understand.
In the ancient Greek sense of someone acting in a self-defeating way by trying to do complicated things on their own ↩
Myke Hurley, for example, explains why podcasting comes more easily to him than blogging on episode 100 of CMD+Space ↩
There are of course highly ‘composed’ podcasts but the majority of them are created on the fly. That doesn’t diminish the careful research and preparation that goes into many of them. ↩
See, or rather listen to, John Roderik’s discussion with Brett Terpstra on the Systematic podcast. ↩
Thanks to Lars Kynde and Rosa Isaldur for their valuable feedback and suggestions.
If you have any comments or responses you can find me on Twitter – or send me an email.
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