I’ve always adored the Braun TG 60 reel-to-reel tape recorder. Its lines and materials are pure machine–there is no wood paneling to mask its industrial bias–but its buttons make the slightest of concessions by subtly curving for human fingers. Each component on the TG 60 is placed with so much intent, as if its aesthetics were dictated as much by visual balance as underlying engineering. Some Apple designers are fans of TG 60 as well. They went so far as to skin their podcast app with TG 60 controls.
Of course, the TG 60 is only one of many, many classic Braun designs that you can see over at what very well may be the most extensive database on the topic in the world, Das Programm. Academic and researcher Dr. Peter Kapos runs the online museum and store, which grew out of his own obsession with Braun.
“Part of what’s distinctive about our offering is that it is premium quality, and all in one place,” Kapos explains. “Unfortunately for my family, that place is our home. I have boys of four and seven who have learnt not to touch anything made in Germany.”
Naturally, the collection focuses on Braun’s golden age of the mid-’50s to the late ’60s, when Otl Aicher and Hans Gugelot, from the legendary design school HfG Ulm–and later, Dieter Rams–redefined the world of industrial design through the modernist ideal of functionalism, the philosophy that design should stem directly from purpose. (It was basically Bauhaus philosophy applied to the field of industrial design, and in fact, many Bauhaus greats actually lectured at HfG Ulm.) At Das Programm, you can scan through beautiful photos of Braun icons like the SK phonosuper, the Gugelot design and most popular vintage Braun collectible that questioned the very nature of audio equipment.
As Kapos writes on the site:
Until then, radiograms concealed their technical origin beneath folds of varnished wood and panels of fabric interwoven with gold, betraying a deep ambivalence about industrial technology. The SK phonosuper exulted its productive possibilities. Accordingly, the device’s constructive principle aimed at a complete disclosure of its industrial origin. The corpus was formed from one piece of sheet steel, bent four times on a tight radius along a single axis to preserve its flatness. Grills of pierced slot openings exposed the sheet’s gauge. Users, for their part, were addressed not as fearful fantasists but as operators whose needs in relation to the object stemmed from their practical engagement with it. Ornamentation was dispensed with; controls were rationally set out in an immediately comprehensible operational hierarchy.
These artifacts are mostly quite expensive, quickly reaching the $1,000+ mark. As an alternative, Kapos recommends considering work from the “somewhat overlooked” Braun household designer Reinhold Weiss, whose unique Braun HL 1 Multiwind table fan exudes charm and understated elegance, yet runs just a few hundred bucks.
One question I’ve always had about Braun, however, is simply: What happened? Why is the midcentury so collectibly iconic compared with years later, especially since Rams stuck around for over 30 years and ran a very respected design department (with products from the ’70s and ’80s that are incredible in their own right). For this, Kapos has a very reasonable explanation:
“In ’68 the Gillette Company acquired a controlling share in Braun,” Kapos explains. “They bought with the idea of controlling the global shaving market. They really weren’t interested in audio, which Braun operated as a prestigious loss leader. So, they put a stop to the adventure. Post ’68 Braun Design remained very good, of course. But it became focused in particular designs, as opposed to existing across the entire program.”
There is, of course, another explanation of our obsession with midcentury German design–one that’s deeply culturally significant. Following the horrors of World War II, the mere acts of crafting beautiful record players and speakers enabled Germany to lift itself out of a wartime economy and mentality. And if you can believe in this idea, then you can believe that a Braun SK4 isn’t just a beautiful record player that embraces its technological roots. It’s the tangible result of the world giving Germany a second chance through the Marshall Plan, and proof that the country’s talented designers and engineers could craft inventions that delighted humanity rather than destroyed it.
“I think these objects offer hope, an image of a world that in many ways is better than the existing one,” Kapos writes. “This was the original purpose of functionalism.”