Objectified 2009 ★★

I think that what designers will do in the future is to become the reference point for policy-makers, for anybody who wants to create a link between something that is highfalutin and hard to translate, and reality and people. And I almost envisage them as becoming the intellectuals of the future. --Paola Antonelli, curator for The Museum of Modern Art

Objectified is Gary Hustwit second foray into the world of design. His first, Helvetica, focused on the typeset and the last of the trilogy is Urbanized, which looks at urban design.

The goal of Objectified is to look at the world of objects, from chairs, cars and toothbrushes, and investigate the meaning such objects have in our lives, what they say about us, and what they say about those who design them. I should say up front that I have spent my entire life thinking about and discussing design, and have created a thing or two, and I found the documentary disappointing. If you have a slight interest in it then you may find it informative.

The documentary is interesting when it focuses on the design process, on the practicalities involved in creating an object. It was nice to see a brainstorming session where the goal was to design a more eco-friendly toothbrush. The question arose in the context of garbage: why throw out the entire toothbrush when only the bristles need to be replaced? One designer asked the more fundamental question: What is the future of oral health care? Wouldn't it be great if we could do without a toothbrush altogether? Ok, so I'm the one who brought up the last question, because that's always how I think about design. I tend to question the necessity of an object in the first place. I always assume it is more ergonomic and more green to not have the object in the first place, so I always imagine how we could do without it.

This particular segment would have been the perfect opportunity to look at how manufacturing and industry and marketing limit design. The throw away bristles will most likely never work. Why? Because the cost of the bristles alone would probably be more than an entire toothbrush, and there aren't enough people who are willing to pay more for environmentally friendly products just yet. But even if they were a success, it is almost guaranteed that those bristles would not be available for long. Why? Because designers will improve the handle, or make the bristle attachment a bit smaller so that it doesn't fit the handle you already have. Why? Because at the end of the day they make products for companies who want new products to sell. Have you tried sourcing razor blades to fit in that lovely expensive shaving handle you purchased just 2 years ago?

These points were made in the documentary, but they were introduced in different places, not all at once, and it made the narrative a bit disjointed. More importantly, though, these questions were not raised by a designer, but by the only journalist in the bunch: Rob Walker from the New York Times Magazine. You know there is something funny going on in a documentary about design when the guy who makes the most sense is the journalist.

There was another missed opportunity when they had background images of IKEA and didn't discuss what it is that made that company so famous. It wasn't its designs. It wasn't the quality, that's for sure. It was delivery, pure and simple. The fact that their furniture had to be assembled by the consumer meant it could be packed into small boxes, meaning that they could save on assembly and shipping and pass those savings onto the consumer. Brilliant. But it doesn't get any attention in the documentary.

Instead, Hustwit spends most of the time asking the designers how they view what they are doing. Well, I have zero patience for pretentiousness or highfalutin ideas and concepts especially when they are held to inflate one's self-importance, and there was plenty of that going on. I heard myself retort, out loud: "hey buddy, tone it down, you make chairs for a living". Unfair? Perhaps.

Good designers do reflect on bigger questions, and some do work that is truly beneficial to man's relationship with the environment. My best friend designs modern health care facilities and the thoughts and questions that go into that are seriously fascinating. But she is the first to point out that her background in philosophy has proved to be extremely useful to her. So when Paola Antonelli, curator for The Museum of Modern Art claims that designers should be the new philosophers; that they should be the "culture-generators pretty much all over the world" and that they should "become the reference point for policy-makers, for anybody who wants to create a link between something that is highfalutin and hard to translate, and reality and people" I had to laugh.

Indeed philosophy and design can share many questions and perhaps it is true that some designers should have input into some policy-decisions. I can certainly say with certainty that my friend's opinions would be very useful to health-care policy decisions with regards to hospitals. But from some of the interviews in this documentary, the last thing anyone needs is some of those designers sitting at the policy-making table. They must adore Antonelli, though. Boy, talk about boosting their self-importance.

I've have nothing but admiration for down-to-earth designers who manage to be creative working within their constraints. I have nothing but disdain for self-proclaimed artistes who think they are the first person on the planet to think outside the box. To be fair, there were more of the former interviewed in this documentary. And the documentary is quite good when it focuses on the design process, as when they interview Jonathan Ive, Senior VP Industrial Design at Apple, who explains the basic philosophies of design at Apple, and shows how a piece of aluminum turns into a keyboard. What is unfortunate is that the documentary spent too much time asking designers how they conceptualize what they do, when the more interesting question is how designs actually come to be.

3 Comments

  • Lise: this is an incredible, well thought out response (review!). I have watched this doc. a couple of times. Your last paragraph is a good summerization of what we viewed. I would disagree (very rare) with your rating of only 2 stars. There is a lot of interesting information here. I am an engineer by profession, but in later years I was very involved in manufacturing and marketing of household related products. I still sit on a couple of boards and do some focus group "stuff". I'm getting too old for much contribution. Young ideas are needed. I think many consumers would find this documentary informative, and those who have any interest in design should find it interesting at least.
    I don't have anywhere near your literary skills and grasp of philosophy or I would have more to say on this subject. I do think many would find this doc interesting and I thought it was pretty well done. Your last statement is absolutely correct though.

    This is an excellent, thoughtful, well written review girl !
    Shorten' em up though will ya'! Some of our attention spans are....... challenged. :-)
    :-)

  • Showbill, you have no idea how I tried to keep this short, but design is one of my passions and I wrote and re-wrote and this was the shortest I could come up with! I never knew what industrial design was until after I had already committed years to philosophy. When my friend got into it and described it I kicked myself so hard--it was exactly what I should have been doing all those years. There is hardly a day goes by without my complaining about some gadget or other, usually prefaced with: How in the hell can they sit around the table to discuss this thing and not think of this or that? I'm a designer's most nightmarish consumer when they get it wrong. But when they get it right, wow.

  • I have enjoyed your blogs (is that the right term?). :-)

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