June 18, 2009

Sleek, Shiny and New


Much like Helvetica, his endearing 2007 ode to the ubiquitous typeface of the same name, Gary Hustwit’s new documentary, Objectified, is a well-made, highly entertaining foray into the world of design. This time Hurstwit has his sights on the most precious consumer products and their creators. All the heavy hitters are featured, including Jonathan Ive of Apple, IDEO, Smart Design, Dieter Rams, Hella Jongerius, and Karim Rashid, and their voices are nicely supplemented by the scholarly observations of Andrew Blauvelt, Paola Antonelli, and Alice Rawsthorn. But where Helvetica was sharply focused on a single piece of the designer’s large palette unfamiliar to most non-practitioners, Objectified seeks to explain the manufactured allure of these everyday objects that we all covet, purchase, and use. The film’s wider scope also affirms that reflective insight on one’s work and how it truly functions in the world is not the designer’s strong suit.

As a design practitioner myself, I readily accept that a certain degree of salesmanship is required to usher a work into the light of day. I admonish my students for not being prepared when they present their projects, reminding them that part of what adds value to their designs is how they frame them through words, whether written or spoken. What’s inevitable in this process is that to sell the idea, there is some shaving off the rough edges to make one’s project seem ideal. Perfect. Unassailable. As if no other solution could possibly have been proposed. It’s the classic art of pitching, that others lovingly call the art of bullshitting. And in the client meeting, in the boardroom, this is what’s needed to ensure the project sees the light of day.

Where the testimonials in Helvetica felt heartfelt and honest, the designers interviewed in Objectified sound like they’re still pitching, trying to sell the viewer their singular vision of design. They often come off as unflinching members of a cult, spouting their gospels and manifestos, as opaque as their designs’ sleek shiny surfaces. Not to say some of this proselytizing isn’t interesting or valuable. Who can really argue with Dieter Rams’ Ten Commandments of Good Design which include pithy truisms like “Good design is innovative” and “Good design makes a product useful”? That IDEO’s designers seem more engaged in the societal phenomena that surround their designs and how they’re used (rather than simply the preciousness of the artifacts themselves) is also refreshing. Objectified, though, touts (in its trailer at least) that it will provide a forum to discuss how these objects affect us. Unfortunately, any critique—whether around the topics of consumerism or sustainability—is muted (if it’s discussed at all) when coming from the same people who create these objects.

So when actual critique does appear, mostly from The New York Times Magazine “Consumed” columnist Rob Walker, its frankness is jarring (not to mention Walker’s boho writer look deviates greatly from that of the finely groomed, fashion-plate designers). Near the end of the film, Walker remarks that if he had a billion dollars, he’d spend it on an advertising campaign urging people to enjoy the things they already have. Not surprisingly, these words come off as the most honest, relative to those of the practitioners talked to here. Maybe Hustwit has had the bad luck of starting this documentary in a boom economy only to have it released in the recent wake of a bust. Certainly there is more humbling talk now amongst designers about doing work “that matters”, “that is necessary,” and one can hope that they, that we, mean it. I greatly enjoyed Objectified, and I still covet mass produced products. Yet, in our new urgent age of transparency and responsibility, this beautifully shot, hermetically sealed film already seems like a relic from a bygone era.

Objectified screens at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, June 24-28.

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