Tom Strong’s 50-year obsession with the German electronics brand Braun began innocently enough. Soon after he got married, his wife purchased a few household appliances designed by Dieter Rams for Braun. As the years went on, Strong, a graphic designer, became more fascinated with them and became a full-fledged collector. Eventually, he accumulated over 250 classic Braun products, many of which are now on view in an NYCxDesign-related exhibition at Vitsœ’s New York showroom.
Dieter Rams-designed Braun products are now part of museum collections around the world and fetch tens of thousands of dollars on eBay. They’ve become outright design fetish objects thanks in part to the influence of Apple–the tech company’s early products were indebted to Braun–and the rise of minimalism. But to Strong, they were just good, functional products that fulfilled a need. He lived with, and used, these designs everyday.
The Strong Collection features clocks, radios, razors, stand mixers, coffee makers, clocks, record players, and more, some of them with their original packaging. Braun standards manuals and magazines targeted to collectors–which Strong used to inform his own collecting–are also in the exhibition. Strong became fascinated with how thoughtful Braun products were to the user, especially how they were designed to be held and operated by one’s hands.
“When you admire something that’s well-conceived and well-executed, when the graphics and packaging are thoughtful and seductive, not bombastic, but clever, you say ‘I want to know more,'” Strong says. “I didn’t think Braun would be significant beyond my own compulsion.”
Strong often purchased different iterations of a product to track how its quality improved or declined. He bought many of them new when they were on sale at department stores. Most of the products in Strong’s collection date from the 1960s to the 1990s, when Rams was head of design at Braun. When the company began competing with cheap manufacturing in Asia and its products’ quality began declining, Strong stopped collecting new pieces and focused on the older ones, often sleuthing rare vintage objects from dealers in Germany and collectors all around the world.
“The beauty of collecting Braun is you could never know the entire field,” Strong says. “There were always surprises. Like anybody on the trail, the heart beats faster when you discover something you never knew about.”
One of his most prized possessions is a T1000 shortwave radio (which is part of the installation). “I carried it in my lap on the flight home,” he says, adding, in reference to stricter rules on what electronics are permissible in airplane cabins that he “probably couldn’t get away with that today.”
I asked Strong if he thinks living so closely with so many products that are emblematic of “good design” positively impacted his life, seeing as how modern designers believe they’re making life-changing products. He said yes, but not for the reason I expected: He really enjoyed meeting other people who shared his interest.
“Part of the joy of collecting is there’s a world of other people you could potentially get to know,” he says. “The field has a lot of sympathetic people who are on similar quests. It leads to great discoveries of people.”
Strong, who is now 77, decided to downsize recently, which is what led him to donating his entire collection to Vitsœ.
“If you look at all the products displayed so neatly on their Dieter Rams shelving compared to how I stuffed them in my closet, you’d feel sorry for me,” Strong quips. “The problem with collectors is you don’t know when to stop.”
After the exhibition concludes, the objects will be packed up and shipped to the U.K. to become part of a study collection at Vitsœ’s headquarters where people who are interested in the products can handle the objects.
“As a collector you say, ‘Why am I doing this? Am I totally nuts?” Strong says. “I couldn’t ask for a better outcome.”