Fads, fetishes and the future


on May 07, 2009 by Matthew Nestel

Before machines conquer us all, there are still a few clicks of daylight left for pre-cyborg Homo sapiens to start speculating on how far we’ve come and where we’re heading. Objectified compulsively gazes at the mainframes beneath must-have goods to which programmed consumers cling and then, ultimately, discard. This is an offering for those that can spot the beauty in objects from beamers to toilet bowl plungers. Expect a solid base of closet design buffs to come out of the studios and lionize geekdom in this cerebral piece of visual hardware.

Every object has a story: the door handle at Ikea, the contact lens and the handy bulbous case in which it rests, the pacemaker keeping arrhythmia at bay. Still, it’s not as if Nintendo Wii is going to replace gravediggers anytime soon by making a virtual cemetery for gamers. Guy Hustwit bravely turns a camera on creatives—one or two of them may have actually invented the damn device by which this film industry devotes its existence.

The film gets up close with the machines that mass produce plastic chairs or deliver a prototype of gardening sheath handles. Each egghead interviewed is throwing the bank at what feels like a sort of quest for that one indispensable idea. It’s the drug that pumps through the nervous system and the legacy that solidifies their brain trust. And while we chat with the smarties, the analysts get a fair bit of face time too; dosing why it is the masses are craving something new and how the design practice may someday go from transcending widgets to shaping Washington D.C. policy.

A spectrum of innovators are introduced. One that really gets through the noise the most is Dieter Rams, the former design head at Braun. Rams is the Yoda of Objectified. While he carefully attends to his bonsai trees (designing nature), he streams a sort of rant about good design. He hastily barks, “We have too many unnecessary things everywhere.” To Rams, good design is aesthetic, unobtrusive and long-lived. He even goes so far as to say that good design is applying “as little design as possible.” When it comes to a company practicing this approach only one comes up and it’s an American company: Apple.

The California-based tech goliath permits one of their top design gurus, Jonathan Ive, to speak freely. It’s a nice gesture because the Brit-tongued idea man is all about recapping the painful nights and days trying to devise fixtures to assemble a paper-thin laptop or a do-everything phone. Karim Rashid is a furniture maven who is distinctly flamboyant (the Sunny Crockett white blazer doesn’t help) about his tastes. Rashid’s got a beef: there’s no excuse when it comes to square-shaped digital cameras or uncomfortable chairs virtually everywhere you take a load off. He is baffled that when we can get to the moon and do all this high-tech stuff computers we still rely on horse and carriage principal to be the blue print for the next big thing. In some regard, Rashid indirectly tells the audience that we allow ourselves to be complacent with poor quality and bad design in our daily lives.

Other schools of thought combat this. For Bill Moggridge of inventing house IDEO, there is something about the sound of a cherry engine in a vintage car or a fondness that grows with scratches in a briefcase or wrinkled leather chair. The character in these items adds some sentimental value that is hard to pinpoint for a designer throwing darts at a board.

An amalgamation of thinkers and doers compliments the film’s greater purpose, which is to get us to rethink what we need and what we want. How to deal with the problems of sustainability is another added headache (or thrill, depending). Yeomen could just play with materials (who wants to take a big whiff of asbestos or fiberglass??) that may have done you in years ago, but now you can build a masterpiece of a building or loveseat with.

Filmmaker Gary Hustwit did a fine job breaking through the clutter and self-proclaimed narcissism that would be the obvious kneejerk to come out of some of these people-behind-the-people. Let’s call it what it is, Michael Jordan can only fly because designers (and a heck of a lot of young factory workers in Indonesia) are making him sneakers. So this would be their chance to say: ‘I am the one who thought of that.’ But even in the most vain moments the subjects collect their thoughts and manage to evoke a very sober assessment to the crazed business of their babies; inside the den of the inventor of the laptop computer there’s nothing awkward about the man who’s object is responsible for taking the office outside.

Without a doubt the film travels far reaches (Tehran, Iran was listed as one of the shooting locations) and conveys the feeling of being spoken to without patronizing, as has been the case in other attempts trying to get through to the intelligentsia. What’s more, while there are certainly frontiers of design missing here, the picture doesn’t feel half-empty by any stretch. It’s a slice and should be taken in as a starting point. No film can possibly water every leaf. But for a tough context where the subjects are no slouches, when it comes to how stuff works, asking questions and getting straight-talk answers is akin to getting a refund on the wedding dress a day after the reception.

Distributor: Swiss Dots
Director/Producer: Gary Hustwit
Genre: Documentary
Rating: Unrated
Running time: 75 min
Release date: May 8 NY

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