By Thomas Wagner.

Why is it like that and not like this?

Gary Hustwit is a popular documentary director in the design community, a status cemented with Rams in 2018. Objectified, the second instalment in a trilogy about contemporary design, is his 2009 homage to product design featuring a number of its protagonists.

Is this the stuff dreams are made of? In the opening scene of Gary Hustwit’s documentary Objectified the viewer sees white granulate being sucked out of a container through a hose. Shortly after, a brilliant white chair made of plastic emerges from a press machine. “When you see an object,” the narrator says, “you make so many assumptions about that object in seconds; what it does, how well it’s going to do it, how heavy it is, how much you think it should cost.” Or you speculate about who designed it.

Objects send a variety of messages. They are woven into an extensive network of stimuli, meanings and expectations. What questions are asked about a CD player playing from the wall, with a colourfully labelled record spinning on top? What about a red chair, a Leica camera, a Braun radio, a MacBook Pro? Until a router begins to cut out clean, white material with precision, until the shapes of things from the click wheel to the Panton Chair combine to form the film’s title: Objectified.

Products for millions and millions

Objectified is a documentary by Gary Hustwit about everyday objects and the people who design them. The film (the second in a design trilogy that began with Helvetica in 2007 and concluded with Urbanized in 2011) had its premiere at the South By Southwest film festival in Austin, Texas, on 14 March 2009. In piecemeal manner, it shines a spotlight on the perspectives of influential industrial designers of the contemporary era, including Chris Bangle, Ronan & Erwan Bouroullec, Tim Brown, Dan Formosa, Naoto Fukasawa, Jonathan Ive, David Kelley, Bill Moggridge, Marc Newson, Anthony Dunne & Fiona Raby, Karim Rashid and Dieter Rams.

A platform is also given to critics and journalists such as Rob Walker from the New York Times Magazine and Alice Rawsthorn from the International Herald Tribune, and museum curators such as Paola Antonelli from MoMA and Andrew Blauvelt from the Walker Arts Center. Bit by bit, the film turns the statements into a jigsaw illustrated by glossy images that are frequently shot close up. “The goal of industrial design”, according to Rawsthorn, for instance, “has always been … producing standardised objects for consumption by millions and millions of people.” Meanwhile, Andrew Blauvelt tells the story of the toothpick, with a serrated tip that can be broken off to signify being used and to create a tiny rest for the toothpick.

The complex world of things

Hustwit’s film provides insights into the system of design and into the work processes of designers, agencies and museum curators. It questions their understanding of design and describes developments, requirements, assumptions and criteria, including the ideologies they spread. It makes a point not to hide the role that design plays in the everyday life of many people. Whether an alarm clock, shower or kettle, anything that surrounds us from the moment we wake up in the morning has been designed and, as part of the world of things, deserves our attention – from the design of a potato peeler’s handle to the concept behind a car. One of the film’s strengths is the way it points out how complex the interrelationships between need and desire are, how they are satisfied and fulfilled by laptops, toothbrushes and cars; and the role that cultural and physical aspects, affect, emotion and much more play.

Rams, the bonsai and the unnecessary

The viewer sees Dieter Rams in the garden of his house in Kronberg, trimming a bonsai tree with a pair of nail clippers. His criticism is that there are very many unnecessary things today, not just in terms of consumer goods. This flows back into Rams’ famous argument that good design is as little design as possible. Afterwards, the scene switches from Braun to Apple, from Dieter Rams to Jonathan Ive, who explains how the aluminium casing of Apple computers and all their mounting features are developed and how new parts are created from the waste of a bezel. Almost coincidentally, Ive asks a question that, while not pursued by the film, targets the centre of any kind of design: why is it like that and not like this?

Materialist versus immaterialist culture

The film celebrates a refined object culture while simultaneously studying a change towards an immaterialist culture using products that no longer have a direct, determinable relationship with their functionality. Precisely because much of what this documentary shows now appears almost historic – considering the film was released in 2009 – the distinctions from the present day can be seen all the more visibly. The longer the film goes on, the clearer it becomes that we all still live in an essentially materialist culture whose prototypical representatives, outfitters and propagandists are designers. For them, almost everything is about products in the end – how they are developed, how they are designed, how they are manufactured, how they are sold and how they are got rid of when they are finished with. Is it possible that we live more than ever in a materialist culture of mass production despite the internet and digital transformation? What does that mean for the change towards an immaterialist culture?

The film continually encourages the viewer to consider questions such as these, while itself only asking them indirectly and implicitly. In this regard, its relationship with its subject is more illustrative than reflexive. It shows people as the creators of things that can be picked up with the hands, and less as figures who solely play with thoughts and ideas. The film does not address the issue of what a culture devoid of capitalism, the desire economy, mass production and mass consumption could look like and what designers could contribute to it. Chris Bangle, Chief of Design at BMW until 2009, names one of the feedback loops between designers and clients when he observes, “The car has to be a reflection of the emotional energy that the beholder wants to see in it.” Objectification as a critical category? Unfortunately, the film has little to say about what else is objectified when feelings themselves are objectified.

Are designers the generators of the future?

The cultural and methodological differences between individual designers and industries, from the furniture to the automotive and electronics industries, from working with models to Post-it note orgies at IDEO and the success of design thinking, from hardware design to interaction design, all become visible in the kaleidoscope of images. It also becomes visible how thoroughly the perspectives have changed when it comes to sustainability and recycling. The focus is now shifting more and more to things that were still the exception ten years ago. Will designers truly be the cultural generators of the future, as Paola Antonelli believes? Entities that design scenarios, instead of things, to help people understand the consequences of their choice of object?

The final part of the film shows the experimental designs of Dunne & Raby that revolve around involving the user in the design. At this point, the viewer will wish that the scene would segue into an entirely new film. To conclude, Dieter Rams leaves no doubt about how much the focal points have changed and continue to change. He says, “Design will, in the future, be measured more in terms of how it can enable us to survive on this planet.”

Objectified, 2009
75 minute
s

Produced and directed by Gary Hustwit
Editor: Joe Beshenkovsky
Director of Photography: Luke Geissbuhler

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