If you’re a designer, you already know what this is. This has always been one of my favorite design icons and in my opinion, is the most crucial product to Braun’s history. Sure, you could argue that something like the Thonet No. 14 chair is a more influential product but in the consumer electronics world, this is the apex. The SK series by Braun is our On the Origin of Species. It's the foundation of everything we believe today as creators of objects and experiences.
Braun was founded by Max Braun in 1921 and became one of Germany’s greatest radio manufacturers. In 1951, Max Braun passed away at the age of 61 and passed on the company to his sons Artur and Erwin Braun. This is when things got really interesting.
Erwin Braun didn’t see running a company as business management but more as a cultural project. He built a company that valued design and hired people like Wolfgang Schmittel to revamp the company’s graphical voice and marketing. It felt like a piece of the puzzle was missing though, and after their father passed away, Erwin and Artur began thinking about how they could change the physical appearance of their products.
One of the first product to pioneer Braun’s new industrial design language was the SK4. Hans Gugelot and Dieter Rams were responsible for designing what the company calls a “Phonosuper”; a radio combined with a record player. During this era, similar products were constructed completely of wood and lavishly decorated with purely decorative ornaments. Braun wanted to rid of these superfluous elements and design products, not furniture.
Gugelot and Rams designed a product that was constructed almost entirely from powder coated sheet metal with tasteful elm panels. Every detail had to have a functional purpose and it was designed to pioneer a new contemporary language of design. There was one problem though. The hood of the prototype unit was made from sheet metal and had the tendency to rattle in higher volumes. Dieter Rams suggested the use of a plexiglass cover and that’s when history was forever altered.
Using a clear plexiglass cover in combination with a white paint job was considered insanely progressive at in the 50s. Keep in mind that most people were used to using wooden, armoire-like devices. The SK4 was launched in 1956 and received universal praise from consumers. It was fresh, like a glass of ice water in a desert of terrible design. The SK4 scared the competitors so much that they gave it the dismissive nickname of “Snow White’s Coffin” - which only made the innovative product more memorable.
The SK4 set the stage for Braun as a progressive, innovative company. Dieter Rams (whom I've had the privilege to meet a couple of times) became the head of design in 1961 and changed the path of industrial design for the rest of the world. The company became the epitome for honest, functional products and the principles set then are still foundational to helping us fathom what good design truly is.
Like Apple does today, Braun believed in the power of iteration. The company introduced many successors to the SK4, and with each iterative update, created a more refined product. The model I ended up purchasing is the latest iteration, and the last radio-audio combination the company produced, the SK55. It was originally launched in 1963 and can be found in the collectors market for around $1000-2500 depending on its condition.
The first thing that strikes you about the SK55 is its delicate visual harmony. You immediately realize that this is the work of a master. One of the catalysts for Braun’s aesthetic refresh was the desire to cleanse the ethical and aesthetic catastrophe of the Nazi era. It’s no surprise that the SK55 comes off as being pure, warm, and honest.
Like the original SK4, SK55's body is constructed using bent steel sandwiched by elm sides. The construction methods are simplistic by today’s standards but are done with great precision. Despite being 51 years old, my SK55 still feels like new and has the solidity that’s present in proper German products. Good design is durable.
Of course, the clear acrylic cover is what makes the Snow White’s Coffin so special. It looks contemporary even after all these years and is a visual cue Apple has referenced in many of their products. The cover also has the ability to make the SK55 look more precious - like a museum exhibit, it proudly displays its internals while reminding you to treat it with respect.
Dieter Rams often speaks of the Japanese influence in his design. I think the SK55 is one of the best examples of this. There is a concise organization, restraint and functionality to its layout that reminds me of Japanese architecture. That’s not to say that it’s making a direct reference to anything though; it’s more of a translation of Japanese philosophies as expressed by a German designer using German values. It’s a beautiful thing.
The Braun SK Phonosupers marked a pivotal point in history - when electronics transformed from being disguised as furniture to becoming an entity of their own. This is what makes the SK55 so beautiful to witness; it feels like modern furniture but is clearly something that is high tech. It is the embodiment of Braun’s desire to create “faithful servants” - products that disappear into the background when you aren’t using them. The SK55 is subdued, inconspicuous and blend into the home seamlessly.
Next to my iPod Hi-Fi, something that’s 43 years younger. Both perform similar duties and have similar approaches to design.
There is a momentous feeling when opening the SK55. Playing music has become the trivial act of moving a single finger. This is obviously quite different, and the ritual starts with opening the coffin’s clear cover.
The hinges themselves are worth noting too. Super slim and integrated perfectly into the wooden sides. The hinge and screws both have a similar finish, reducing visual clutter.
To avoid sounding like a clapperboard, Braun has placed tiny felt feet to the hood. Mine have been compressed over time and don’t do much though.
The hood can be opened to two positions, around 75° and 90°. This is done using a simple stick that slots itself into multiple positions.
The controls of the SK55 are all about clarity. Ornamentation is nowhere to be found and everything is designed for ease of use. SK products before this used light grey controls that I find looks prettier but these “graphite” controls were employed to increase contrast - and therefore usability.
The 5 graphite buttons control which mode the SK55 is in. The first one powers on the device, the second puts it in turntable mode and the right three are for various radio bands, with the last one being FM. The knob on the right with the orange-red dot controls the radio frequency. Notice how the dot’s colour correlates with the indicator needle, an effort to help the user make the functional connection.
I love the way the controls visually dance above the flat surface.
These three knobs control audio. From top to bottom: treble, bass and volume.
Being a “Phonosuper”, the SK55 has a built-in radio. It doesn’t require an external antenna and seems to get pretty good reception without one. I particularly enjoy the clear treatment of typography and fine linework that indicates a sense of precision.
The radio knob is my favorite interaction point on the SK55. In our digital world, all of our inputs are translated into movement of pixels. There’s something very satisfying about turning a knob and that getting translated into the creamy movement of a needle.
Of course, the SK55 is also a record player. The tone arm is brilliantly pure in design and is made from a bent aluminum tube. The aluminum has a gorgeous matte texture that’s similar to what’s found on the Apple iSight.
This is my first turntable and I find the act of loading records a simple delight. This is the second act in this ritual.
The acrylic hood has a cutout at the rear of the unit so it doesn’t hit the record when it’s open.
Being an early phonograph, it uses a crystal cartridge for pickup. It’s an earlier technology and has more distortion than later developments. The tone arm is lifted and placed on the record using the arm that sticks out of its plastic shell. Notice how it’s made of the same graphite plastic as the knobs and buttons, an indication for the user that it’s something you interact with.
The record platter is made from a solid piece of aluminum that’s been lathed. The SK55 is the first of the SK series to use a simple rubber mat instead of small rubber protrusions. It’s not as aesthetically pleasing but the decision was a functional one.
The drive system of the SK55. I enjoy watching the delicate maneuvers that occur here.
The speed control. Notice how the slot follows the curvature of the platter. This was one of the first Braun product to remove the 78 rpm mode, which was used for older shellac records.
The tone arm has an adjustable weight that has a nice brushed texture. I found it to be inadequate in providing enough weight to prevent occasional skipping. I’m no turntable expert but I do realize that the SK55 wasn’t made to play modern records of today.
In terms of audio quality, the SK55 is fairly mediocre. The SK series was far removed from being high fidelity from the beginning though. When the SK4 was first introduced, Braun was more focused on luring consumers with progressive design than audio fidelity, which ended up being a successful plan for the company. Once the company made their name with these mass market products, they later expanded their lineup to include professional grade audio equipment. I never intended on using this for critical listening, but the simple fact that I’m using a Braun SK55 is enough to make the music sound sweeter than anything I’ve ever listened to.
The primary issue with the SK55’s audio quality is its single 3W speaker. It’s simply not able to produce enough detail or low end grunt. No surprise though.
One of the big aesthetic changes with the SK55 compared to previous models was the introduction of the center bar in the speaker grille for added structural support. Funny how a bar can be a “big change”. Reminds me of the way Porsche refines their cars.
The bottom of the my SK55 is where time has been the cruelest. It’s made from cardboard and has warped and scratched over the many years. The straightforward grid-based ventilation holes are a very “Braun” touch.
The typographic treatment on the belly is clean and functional. There’s a small plastic window that shows whether you have the unit set to 220V or 110V. A nice touch.
The SK55 sits on a strip of felt that’s wedged into the elm panels. Once again, weathered with time.
Removing the bottom panel is really simple by today’s standards - it’s held on using just six screws. There’s a ton of empty space in there and it looks like the size of the SK55 was driven by the height of the speaker and the size of records more than anything.
The back of the SK55 mirrors the front and is just as thoughtful. The black I/O panel is placed so well that it looks more like a graphical element than a functional necessity.
There are connections for external radio antennas, an output to a tape recorder and a standard German DIN speaker output jack. I’ve tried connecting external speakers but the output fidelity doesn’t seem that great.
So there we have it. I’ve reached my peak. This is it, the SK55 is my all time favorite product and there’s nothing in the world more important for me to share on this website than this. The Braun SK55, or the SK4 to be more specific, is in my opinion, the most important product in Braun’s history and therefore the most important product to the design of electronics today. It started everything. It’s what smacked us in the face and told the world that everything we were making was poorly thought out and conceived. We still live in its ethos and still have so much to learn from it. My primary reason for my recent wave of older products was to show how little we’ve progressed, or actually, regressed philosophically in the past decade. The SK55 is much older though. It’s 51 years old and has a level of purity and honesty that exceeds what we do today. I think that’s a bit embarrassing. I mean, look around you, we simply make so much garbage. When will we learn? When will we stop making shit?
Good design is
makes a product useful
helps understand a product
consequent to the last detail
concerned with the environment
as little design as possible
Back to purity, back to simplicity!