606 Universal Shelving System

Icon of the Month

Dieter Rams’ 1959 modular shelving system has grown old gracefully, living up to the German designer’s high ideals of enduring simplicity, harmony and flexibility
Icon magazine issue 99

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If you only ever bought one set of shelves in your life what requirements would they need to fulfil? Practically, they would need to be strong and well built. You would need to be able to dismantle them and reinstall them easily in different spaces. You should be able to repair them or replace elements if they got damaged. Aesthetically, they would need to look good but in an unshowy way; it is your books that are on display here, not the shelves. And they would need to be neutral enough to fit with changes in colour scheme or architectural style. In other words, you should be able get on with your life and your shelves should get on with being shelves.

Vitsoe’s 606 Universal Shelving System designed by Dieter Rams in 1959 is just such a piece of classic furniture. It’s a plain-looking, wall-mounted assembly of beautifully engineered and proportioned powder-coated steel and lacquered plywood components hung on extruded aluminium E-profile tracks. It is quite extraordinary in its ordinariness yet it fulfils all the requirements outlined above and more. Jasper Morrison has gone so far as to call it the “the endgame of shelving systems”. It does its job so perfectly that “there is no point in trying to design another”.

Dieter Rams was 27 when he designed the RZ 60 (later known as the 606) shelving system. Four years earlier in 1955 he had joined the German electrical appliances manufacturer Braun as an interior architect just as they were in the process of revolutionising domestic-appliance design. In an atmosphere of almost idealistic postwar optimism, Rams was rapidly pulled into the product-design team alongside older, former Bauhaus disciples and Ulm School founders including Fritz Eichler, Otl Aicher, Herbert Hirche and Hans Gugelot. Within months he was designing and co-designing record players, radios, slide projectors, flashguns and razors for Braun. By 1961 he was head of design for the whole company. But he wanted more…