Thursday April 20, 2017
Ever heard of Dieter Rams? He was the design director of Braun from 1955 to 1995, the decades when it built its über-purist appliances, record players, radios, clocks, and watches. Even if you’ve never used one of his creations, you’ve definitely felt his influence in the objects you see and touch every day. We got in touch with the watch and clock designer that worked with Rams, the man behind the no-nonsense AW 10 and AW 50 watches, which were just reissued at Baselworld 2017, to get a little more insight into these truly timeless designs.
The Braun watches AW 10 and AW 50 embody simplicity. Just as do the clocks and electrical appliances made by Braun, they truly follow the “less is more” dogma that (arguably) stems from the Bauhaus school. Or, as Braun likes to put it: Less but better. Design has been at the core of the brand for seven decades, and its watches and clocks were designed by a team headed by two men: Dieter Rams and Dietrich Lubs.
But first, let’s rewind a bit. The former owner of the company, Erwin Braun, who expanded the family business after the WWII, had a radical attitude in an overly ornamental era. Because human beings are so diverse, he thought, the best way for a product to gain wide appeal was for it to be as neutral as possible. To embody his vision, he hired a young Dieter Rams in 1955 after seeing Rams’s outstandingly pure, naked, and plain sketches of an office interior. Six years after proving his skills through iconic creations including the combined radio and phonograph unit SK 4 – often lovingly referred to as “Snow White’s Coffin” thanks to the white metal and Plexiglas cover – Braun made Rams the company’s design director, a position he would hold until his retirement in 1995.
The brand’s pure creations came out in an era when minimalistic purity simply did not exist. As one of the designers on the team expressed it: “Of course there was a lot of work – but it was really quite easy to make good design since we for a long time were the only designers around working in this direction,” Dietrich Lubs told us candidly.
Ok, we do love all that pure stuff, but what about the watches? Bear with me. Before we get to the watches, it is important to realize that Dieter Rams was intrigued by ideas about modularity, which also led to creating genius minimalist shelving systems and modular chairs and sofas for Vitsœ. Thanks to Braun and its furniture, he has often been called “The Designer’s Designer” and is hailed by professionals of today thanks to his 10 principles of good design, a manifesto well worth Googling.
Among Rams’s disciples – in a kindred spirit kind of a way, to my knowledge they never worked together – you will find superstar designers like Jasper Morrison, Naoto Fukasawa, and, of course, Jony Ive. If you’ve ever touched an Apple product, Braun should feel extremely familiar.
A Plane Start
Braun’s first venture into timekeeping came about due to a chance encounter on a plane.
In 1971, the boss of Braun ran into the boss of a clock movement production company. At the time, Braun didn’t have clocks in its program and both bosses were traveling to increase business, so why not do something together? This airplane encounter led to the Analog Digital Phase 1, which was followed by Phase 2 and 3, as well as digital clocks like DN 18 and DN 42.
In 1975 came what for most people is the travel clock, the AB 20 showing time zones on the protective lid, which also served as a support. This also gave birth to one of the most striking details of the Braun clocks: the yellow seconds hand. If you ever wondered where Jasper Morrison got his inspiration for the Rado 5.5 seconds hand, look no further.
Two years later, in 1977, came the first Braun wristwatches. “First we made DW 20, but it was anachronistic to make a round watch with a digital, square LCD typeface,” says Lubs. “We did have a reason: When we made it, we only had access to round movements.” DW 20 was an instant success regardless, which offered the possibility to invest into having a rectangular movement made just for Braun. The DW 30 was released the year after. The designers wanted to put an integrated metal band on it, a very popular thing in this era, just a couple of years after Genta’s iconic models. But at Braun’s price level it was simply too expensive with a bracelet in the end. Instead, the designer went for the segmented leather band, which gives an extremely ergonomic fit.
A total of roughly 10,000 pieces were sold of the two models, which is not bad, considering they were only offered in appliance stores. Seriously. Prices at the time were 340 Deutschmark, and today on Ebay you would pay around €500-600 for a well-kept specimen. And even though the DW 30 retailed at 50% more back in the days of chest hair and roller disco, you could expect to pay the same for one today. But, collectors beware – there is a special thing to look for: Approximately 100 black DW 30 were made. They were never sold for a reason, but they are out there. “We wanted to give it an eloxan treatment, just like with the DW 20, on which the case was made of brass. But with the square DW 30, whose case was made of hard-pressed aluminum, the eloxan treatment wouldn’t last. This didn’t comply with the Braun quality standards,” Lubs says. “That’s why we couldn’t put it on the market.”
Comeback Of The AW 10
If the clocks had an unlikely start, the story of the analog watches is almost even more unlikely: In the late 1970s big clients of Braun, business clients buying several pallets of appliances, were sometimes rewarded with a little gift. And somebody within the company had gone for the trend in the 1970s of plastic Japanese giveaway watches with your company logo on it. When Dietrich Lubs first saw such a “Braun watch” he got very upset. “Such flimsy watches were just not Braun-worthy. ‘This is just not right!’ I said to Rams, who simply replied. ‘So, make a proposal for an analog Braun watch then?'”
Thus frustration over a plastic throwaway watch developed into a serious undertaking for Lubs, who was largely inspired by watches like the Juvenia 21 from the late 1960s and early Patek Philippe Calatravas. Lubs’s goal was to create a watch that displayed the time in the most functional way possible. Rams was, as always, on the sidelines to help Lubs; he was friendly but also critical and questioning, an attitude that brought out the best in the other designers.
“We settled for a 33.35mm case. Today this sounds small, but this was another time – and to me that is still the perfect size for a watch. Watches today I find too bulky and confused in typography and impression. Today’s huge watches around 45mm or even 50mm, plus a big crown jutting out on top of that…I just don’t get it. To me that is not a good solution.” The 8mm-thick AW 10 which came out in 1989 had a black protection ring of fiberglass-reinforced plastic. “This was pressed onto the case. It was optically interesting and also very practical. It was really a good protection for the watch,” Lubs says.
Another interesting design detail is the crown. When you look at it from the side of the case, it is not centered on the case wall, but lower, almost at the bottom of the case. That could, of course, be very uncomfortable if it weren’t for the fact that the protection ring covers it. And the case does have a groove, so that you can easily get it out for setting the watch.
“Add the yellow second hand, which already came on the table clocks, and of course our other sign of recognition – our Akzent Grotesque typeface,” says Lubs of Braun’s now signature details.
Two years later came the AW 50 – a reduction of the reduced. Lubs: “This has no numbers, just a few lines and the strong red arrow by the date. I wanted to mark the date, because otherwise it can blend in with the other typography. If AW 10 was the everyday watch, the AW 50 was more elegant, more clear, more sober with its black dial.”
As Braun only wanted a small and overseeable watch program and available quartz movements of the right quality were to be had at the right price, the brand never considered mechanical watches, even though Lubs had also designed a few automatic watches for the company LACO.
In 2009, Braun’s watch department was sold to Zeon in England. After an explosion of references – a rather un-Braun thing to do – the company is now downsizing the number of models, and all designs must be approved by the Braun design team in Kronberg, Germany. And, what’s more: in 2017 two of the most iconic analogue models are being remade in close collaboration with Lubs himself – the AW 10 and AW 50. Both watches, re-editions without contemporary additions, go along with the Braun idea of being integrated in the room like a silent servant. When you are not needed, you should be invisible, but as soon as you are needed, you should just be there.
“A good watch design is strict, geometrical, and pure in its typography. Without any additional schnickschnack! [a mix of bullshit and small talk],” reflects Lubs. “A watch should read the time, that’s it – not play with any other symbols.”