In the early 1920s, company founder Max Braun had made his entrepreneurial start by manufacturing radio componentry. By 1929 the canny Braun was producing complete radio sets of his own design. In 1934, the "A" in the center of the Braun logo (above) was shaped to resemble their art-deco-styled Cosmophon 333 radio (below).
As was and is the Braun hallmark, technical sophistication married with innovative design would mark the category. As early as 1932, Max Braun had created a combination radio-phonograph, this at a time when radios with a built-in speaker was still a fairly new idea.
But it wasn't until the mid-1950s that the company, under the stewardship of Max's sons Erwin and Artur, began forming a proper design department combining the foci of several talented individuals. Through their collaboration, drive, and relentless experimentation, the company began producing audio goods that moved firmly into what we would later think of as MoMA territory. And they would take some wild chances along the way.
1955 SK 1 Artur Braun, Fritz Eichler
This design storm began around 1955, with Artur Braun and Fritz Eichler's SK 1 tabletop radio. The relatively tiny device could be placed on a windowsill and was a sharp departure from the gaudy visual clutter of other radios of the era. There was a dial and two unlabeled control knobs set into one side of a rational grid of dots for the speaker, and the barest hint of fins on the bottom for the device to stand on. (The grid of dots, by the way, would appear time and again in a variety of Braun products of all categories.)
1955 G 11 Hans Gugelot
While the SK 1 was radical, the company had still not yet given up on the idea of using wooden-bodied radios, as was the fashion of previous decades. But Hans Gugelot's sleek G 11 design deviated wildly from the baroque "music furniture" that consumers were familiar with. It also contained a design innovation that would come to influence the product category: The side edges were completely flat and the same dimensions top and bottom. If a consumer purchased the corresponding G 12 turntable, they could stack it atop the G 11.1955 combi Wilhelm Wagenfeld
Wagenfeld's combi portable radio-phonograph, released the same year as the G 11 and the SK 1, is a clear example of Braun's design latitude. It could not possibly be more different than the unabashedly modernist SK 1 or the Scandinavian-influenced G 11, and shows that Wagenfeld—whose background in working glass is evidenced in the smooth, flowing lines—was given free rein to express himself. Designers were not forced to hew to a common aesthetic, but were allowed to cast about in search of the "correct" answer for what an object should be.
1956 SK 4 Hans Gugelot, Dieter Rams, Herbert Lindinger
The design team was getting ever closer to what that answer was for turntables. Phonographs of the era typically had substantial wooden lids. The SK 4 instead used thin, transparent Plexiglas, which was so different for the time that people didn't know what to make of it; it reportedly gained the nickname "Snow White's coffin." Nowadays everything from Ferraris to gaming PCs have transparent covers, but back then, that Disney princess' transparent sleeping chamber was the only context consumers had for such a thing.
1956 Exporter 2 Ulm Academy of Design
Just a year after the SK 1, Braun was already trying to beat itself in the minimalism department. A partnership with the Ulm Academy of Design yielded their design for the portable exporter 2, which dispensed with the grid of dots and instead instituted a neat row of lines for the speaker grid, the same design language that was in the heavier components like Gugelot's G 11. The tuning dial resembles what you'd see on another hi-tech item of the era, an SLR camera.
1957 atelier 1 Dieter Rams
It's not clear why Rams returned to using an opaque cover for this combination phonograph-receiver; what is clear is that the design team was still experimenting with form. Unlike the SK 4, the atelier 1 placed the receiver controls on a separate plane from the turntable surface. We also see that, uncharacteristically for Rams, the front panel is angled in two separate directions. Presumably he wished for the receiver panel to be tilted upwards for ergonomic reasons, or it was a nod to Gugelot's G 11. And like that earlier machine, the width of this unit was precisely matched to another unit it could be stacked on top of: A box speaker.
1957 studio 1 Hans Gugelot, Herbert Lindinger
The same year as the atelier 1 was released, the very different-looking studio 1 also came onto the market. Whereas the atelier 1 was considered an intermediate model, the studio 1--also a combination receiver-phonograph--was Hi-fi and nearly twice the price. Aesthetically it's a sharp departure from both the studio 1 and Gugelot's earlier Scandanavian-looking pieces; this one almost looks like it was produced by the Soviet military.
1958 T 3 Dieter Rams, Ulm Academy of Design
This elegant portable transistor radio, designed in conjunction between Rams and the Ulm Academy of Design, has been naively touted by the blogosphere as "the inspiration" for the original iPod; side-by-side photos even depict the T 3 deceptively rotated and scaled to the iPod's dimensions. What most do not realize is the actual scale and orientation of the T3, which you can see in the video below:
The key thing the T 3 has in common with the first iPod is a perfection of form and function; they contain the precise design elements they need to achieve their purpose, nothing more and nothing less.
1959 studio 2 Dieter Rams
By 1959 Rams had created a complete stereo system—phonograph, receiver and amp—that seems at least 20 years ahead of its time. The thought that someone could drive a 1959 Cadillac to their house where this system was waiting inside indicates there ought to have been a time machine between the garage and the living room. The dials and the sleek metal surface look like the controls of precision laboratory equipment.
1959 TP 1 Dieter Rams
The same year as the studio 2 came out saw the release of this peculiar, portable, battery-operated device. The smaller part of the bisected object is a transistor radio, while the metal circle is actually a hub where the user could mount a 45 record. The rectangular aperture to the side of it slid open to reveal a needle on an arm, which would play the underside of the record. Rams reportedly had a personal motivation for designing this, as he was beginning to learn English--and wanted to be able to hear his lessons while traveling. This, if anything, had more in common with the modern-day iPod (albeit some 42 years before its release) than the T 3. And some 20 years before the release of Sony's Walkman, the TP 1 provided a portable way to listen to your own media while on the road.
1961 T 52 Dieter Rams
Here we see a rare example of a Braun audio component designed to live in two worlds. Rams' portable T 52 radio had a handle you could use to carry it from the living room out to the driveway. In an era when radios were not yet standard components of car dashboards, the T 52 was meant to take up the slack.
1961 RT 20 Dieter Rams
1961 would be the last year Braun would produce a tabletop radio; the product category's demise had perhaps been brought about by Rams himself, with the studio 2 system he'd done two years previous. In any case, Rams sent the category off with whatever the minimalist version of a bang is. The nearly monolithic RT 20 was all about reconciling circles with the rectilinear: The row of lines for the speaker grid is enclosed within a circle. The circular knobs are aligned in a vertical row, the circular buttons, in a horizontal one.
1961/1962 Hi-fi system: PCS 5 turntable, CSV 60 amplifier, CE 16 receiver Dieter Rams
Here we see the shift taking place towards a modular "tower" system for stereos. At first blush the differences between the Hi-fi system you see here and the studio 2 of 1959 may not be obvious, but as always with Rams, it's all in the details: The phonograph's face has been completely stripped of the controls (moved up to the turntable surface) and even the fastening screws have been banished, providing a clean, unbroken surface.
1962 T 41 Dieter Rams
The SK 1 and the exporter 2 of earlier years had all of their controls on the same face as the dial and the speaker grid. But with the T 41, we see Rams conducting experimentation similar to what he'd done with the PCS 5 record player mentioned above: The controls are migrating from the front to the top of the unit, providing a clean face.
1963 T 1000 Dieter Rams
The T 1000 was a sophisticated, portable, and gorgeous short-wave receiver. The speaker cover's grid of dots from the SK 1 make an appearance, though they have been staggered in a hexagonal pattern similar to the previous year's Sixtant BM 31 electric razor foil (see our previous entry on Braun shavers). As with the T 3/iPod analogy, the T 1000 has been compared to Apple's Mac Pro housing of today; however, we feel a modern laptop is a better comparison—the controls are exposed with the lid open, and with the lid closed, it becomes a sleek and monolithic device. The chunky lid, by the way, is of the thickness it is for more than protective reasons; it was designed to hold the instruction manual, which was reportedly extensive.
1965 PS 1000 Dieter Rams
Of all the audio components of the time, the record player is the only one which required access from the top; hence it was always, in the new stereo tower order of things that Braun had helped pioneer, the crown jewel of the stack. The intensely minimal, sleek, and beautiful PS 1000 was a design worthy of this position.
Rams eschewed the pick-up arm's usual shape and instead opted for steel tubing, which provided the same strength for less bulk and weight. An elegant cylindrical counterweight ensured the pick-up arm had the perfect balance. The Plexiglas cover could be removed for an active listener cycling through a lot of records, while an auto-off feature accommodated the opposite type of user who'd prefer to fall asleep listening to music.
With the PS 1000, Rams nailed what we call the Pictionary result that the Sixtant BM 31 had also achieved: If you were given the cue "electric razor" or "turntable" in that game, these are the objects you would draw. After the general public had seen the PS 1000, it was difficult to imagine a turntable that looked like anything else.
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