The word "icon" is thrown around rather freely in the design world, but when discussing Dieter Rams and his body of work, it is the only word that sticks. Last week, on the morning after attending the opening of 60s 606 is 50, an exhibition at the New York City Vitsoe shop celebrating 50 years of Rams’ 606 Universal Shelving System, I was lucky enough to sit down for 30 quick minutes with the legend. Joining us in the dining room of the Mark Hotel is Mark Adams, Vitsoe's managing director. The conversation was less an interview and more a glimpse into a conversation between two old friends and colleagues, part of which is captured below.
How did your relationship Vitsoe start and how did the 606 come about?
Rams: I was very lucky. At 23, I met the Braun brothers and then went to work for the company. I met Niels Vitsoe in 1957 through an introduction by Otto Zapf. The concept for the 606 Shelving System was to create a place to put things. In Germany after the war, homes were smaller—everything was smaller. The old German furniture was large and ornate. I simply wanted to make more space to fit more people.
Adams: To this day, I hear from our customers how much we've changed their spaces. What we do is lift things off the floor. You see baseboards and moldings. By lifting things off the floor, the 606 makes spaces appear bigger, even if there are more things in the room.
When you designed the 606 in 1960, did you imagine it would remain in production for over 50 years?
Rams: Nobody believed this would happen. I was dreaming that it was possible though...
Adams: There is a lot going on to keep the 606 evolving. Persistence to keep the product at its best is a huge undertaking. Niels Vitsoe once said "design cannot stand still." And we are always moving. I was recently asked what parts of the 606 had changed and within 15 minutes I'd counted up 54 improvements.
Rams: The details...
Adams: Yes, a constant evolution must occur in the details. This is my zoological background here. At Vitsoe, we design for the long term. Other furniture companies are dictated by a 12 month cycle. We do not do that at Vitsoe. We use that time in Milan improving Vitsoe, not attending parties. We've stayed the same company.
How has the customer changed over the years?
Rams: Originally the Vitsoe showroom in downtown Frankfurt was a meeting place for designers. At 5:00 P.M. Niels would pull the whiskey out.
Adams: Which you never touched...
Rams: Of course not!
Do you still pull out the whiskey at 5:00 P.M.?
Adams: Not at five, but we do still believe in the importance of social relationships. They're hugely important. Once a client sees the value in living more responsibly they cannot go back. Half of our orders come from existing customers. In the United States there is a definite wariness to give out personal details. In Europe there seems to be more trust with the client. In the past 8-12 years we have started seeing a change. We have not changed our philosophy, but the wind is now blowing in our direction. The consumer is moving more and more in our direction, towards sustainability. Towards having things for the long term.
Rams: Communication with the consumer has changed so much, too. In the US Vitsoe was dependent on the trade. Today we reach consumers in other ways.
Adams: The Internet allows the relationship to be cemented. Vitsoe is a dot com. We behave as a dot com. We look like a furniture company, but we're truly a dot com. In Milan, furniture manufacturers and retailers meet. But we're more interested in the consumer relationship.
Why did you bring the exhibit to New York?
Adams: It was first staged in London and we brought it to New York to show our New York team and it was a chance to have Dieter come. And Dietrich Lubs, who loaned his 606 for the exhibit, got to come too. And yes we are showing 50 year old furniture at ICFF! It's a powerful message that we're not showing new furniture the week before ICFF starts. That's the counterculture that's always existed at Vitsoe. It is a cheekiness that's always been present in this grandfather-father-son relationship. Niels was my grandfather's age and Dieter my father's. We are purposely showing 50 year old furniture the week before ICFF, not during.
Rams: America has always been a different world though. It has changed. The first time I came was at Niels' request. He wanted to show me New York to discover any possibilities in America. I could not believe you needed an interior designer to buy furniture. They had a giant building full of designers and dealers.
Adams: They still do!
Rams: But then you needed a decorator to buy something.
Our time is nearly up and I have one last question. In one word, describe the 606?
Adams: I asked several Vitsoe employees and they listed simple, adaptable, flexible, long-lasting, life-changing, which I know sounds pretentious, but it is what customers say. I would choose long-lasting. Creating a long-lasting design colors every decision we make. It is why Vitsoe cannot be a public company. That would be impossible. You cannot design long term if money is the primary factor.
Rams: I would say space-saving. Never forget that a good product should be like a good English butler. They're there for you when you need them, but in the background at all other times. Besides a few millionaires in London, most of us don't have butlers.
The butlers of today are our products and our furniture.