The things this product-design junkie has been anticipating: the purple crocuses that mark the start of spring, the Milan Furniture Fair, and Objectified, a documentary about industrial design by Gary Hustwit, the man behind the captivating Helvetica. My thinking was that if he can make a film about a font exciting, he’s going to blow the top off product design. After all, there are so many oversized personalities to interview and stories to tell that he’s not going to need to do much work. So I was like a kid with a chocolate bar when I got to see a preview of Objectified on Wednesday, in advance of its premiere over the weekend at SXSW.
The film is an ambitious effort, but it doesn’t cover any new ground.
The film is structured around extensive interviews with the big names: the Bouroullecs, Marc Newson, Hella Jongerius, former BMW Group design chief Chris Bangle, Dieter Rams, Naoto Fukasawa, Karim Rashid (who avoids his usual semiotic voodoo and actually says sensible things), Jonathan Ive (who walks viewers through his design of Apple’s Air), and MoMA curator Paola Antonelli. Three talking heads—the excellent Alice Rawsthorn, the Walker Art Center’s Andrew Blauvelt, and Rob Walker, who writes the Consumed column for the New York Times Magazine—provided the structural commentary.
There are lovely cinematic moments. There’s Ronan Bouroullec discussing how his brother, Erwan, is a porcupine and he a sly fox, because he has to discretely smooth things over with the engineers when Erwan yells at them. (Cue Erwan smoking and making faces as the story is told.) Then there is Erwan poking fun at Marc Newson, whose segment followed theirs, and the iconic Rams in his garden, trimming his Bonsai plants. Finally there is Bill Moggridge, the father of interactive design and co-founder of IDEO, driving his 1940s GMC truck in his backyard, then booting up a GRID Compass laptop he designed in the late 80s.
The designers featured continually echo the theme of reduction. Their aims: Make a design so subtle you don’t see it, eliminate anything unnecessary, design for longevity. That message is partially a result of the people Hustwit chose to include, as all favor an ultimately minimalist style. I would have loved to see Jaime Hayon or another practitioner of Baroque weigh in for an alternate opinion. Another takeaway was how, unlike, say, mid-century Modernists, who are the gold standard of industrial design, today’s practitioners have to think about the eventual disposal of their products in addition to considering the best materials for the job. Plus there is the dematerialization of design. The invention of the microchip also means form no longer follows function. You can’t intuitively guess what a computer does by looking at it, unlike a chair, whose use is obvious.
But there are shortcomings. Hustwit uses very successful—and deep-pocketed—designers that don’t have the client and economic constraints younger and less established talent have. There are few surprises on his interview list: Anyone who has followed the field has heard plenty from these talking heads already. There is an over-reliance on agencies, with a segment on Smart Design and no less than five IDEO bigwigs featured. (By the time the IDEO brainstorming session rolls across the screen, it starts to seem like a gratis commercial for the firm.) And what’s with all the Brits? Are the Italians—let alone talent from emerging design powerhouses like Spain, Belgium, and China—not relevant?
Objectified is meant for the layman, and for the uninitiated, it will be a window into a formerly unknown world. But for us who live and breathe design, there’s still a film on the subject left to be made.