Accessibility links

For anyone who thrills to the sight and sound of mechanical reproduction, Gary Hurstwit's new film Objectified contains scenes that will be moving: milling and tooling and injection-moulding and even the movie title itself routed out of plastic before your very eyes. All the virtues of Blue Peter's through-the-round-window footage of milk-bottling plants and Soviet moving-image paeans to industry and technology, framing anew the objects our times (cue Magis chairs coming off the production line).

For anyone who thrills to the sight and sound of mechanical reproduction, Gary Hurstwit's new film Objectified contains scenes that will be moving: milling and tooling and injection-moulding and even the movie title itself routed out of plastic before your very eyes. All the virtues of Blue Peter's through-the-round-window footage of milk-bottling plants and Soviet moving-image paeans to industry and technology, framing anew the objects our times (cue Magis chairs coming off the production line).

I've often puzzled that designers never make it onto celluloid. Doctors, lawyers, soldiers, captains of industry, explorers, priests, teachers, athletes - they all find their roles accross the gamut from the romantic comedy to the epic, but where are the form-givers of fiction? You might cite saturnine, God-playing Howard Roark of The Fountainhead, or Fred Astaire as a cheery art director in Funny Face, coaxing Audrey Hepburn's winsomely cropped face from the developing fluid; but I never believe anything until you've given me three examples. Neither is there really much hair- or even eyebrown-raising gossip about designers, as far as I can tell. Too tidy-minded, I muse; the grandeur of their destiny constrained by commercial reality, and with the outstanding exception of Robert Brownjohn, lacking in essential decadence.

But in Objectified design stars; designers and their critics have the screen for a full 90 minutes. It's a serious and thoughtful investigation of product design, wholly resisting the cliches of aesthetic allure in order to examine what is problematic about it. The starting point is semiotic, as Andrew Blauvelt and others extemporise on the "story embedded in every object" (cue traditional Japanese toothpick). We then hear from Dan Formosa and colleagues at Smart Design in New York; about how they don't design for the average person but for the people at the extremes: the inclusive question (cue Oxo Good Grips potato peeler). Lovely scenes with Dieter Rams advocating so wenig wie möglich (as little design as possible: cue various Braun electronics) and another with Johnny Ive nicely describing a designers' compulsive pathology, asking constantly "why is it like this and not like that?" (cue Apple keyboard). So far, so innoccuous, but  then Alice Rawsthorn comes in with a great one-liner about how the microchip "anihilated the whole principle that form follows function" and the "tensions" in design start to build. Marc Newson appears to speak with the slightly forkèd tongue that is the essential cultural paradox: on the one hand we should be designing things to last forever, on the other, we all want new stuff don't we?

Chris Bangle of BMW and Hella Jongerius  - strange bedfellows indeed - are the ones who really talk about design's ability to express you as a person. One talked of personal stories, memories and using the familiar in mass-produced products; the other deflated the idea of your "audience" as a consumer by adding "Truth is, on the highway, no-one cares". I believe Rob Walker of the New York Times gets the last word in the film, improvising on exactly this theme: for in the end, what would you take from your burning house? Only the things that express your "personal narrative" (cue his collection of Barbie dolls sitting in a row).

In between we get to the really interesting idea that design can provoke people's creativity. Natao Fukasawa puts it slightly opaquely: restraint, he posits, "only what's there," is what stimulates people. Obviously the copounded examples of Japanese minimalism and Muji really do the talking here and I only sort of got what he meant by design "dissolving in thought in a world of subconscious actions". More accessibly, Jane Fulton-Suri of IDEO asks question we've been asking at the RSA: "What can we do with people's creativity, to help them do more for themselves?" 

Paola Antonelli says a champion thing, super optimistic, about designers being the reference point between what is high-falutin and what is reality. They should have the status of philosophers in France, she says, the people policy-makers naturally defer to. Amazing to imagine; I hope she's right.

Alice Rawsthorn gets to be the one who brings up sustainability, with great effect as we watch the mountains of landfill rise, and Bill Moggeridge puts it in context by saying that in some ways "life was simpler for Charles Eames". Actually Bill Moggeridge is mostly there to talk about interaction design. Describing vividly the moment when he realised the design challenge was not the laptop but the interface, not the object but the ether, he appears to hold a germ of the clue to sustainiablity.

This is ironic given what I said earlier about design's inadequacy as a medium for fiction and narrative pathos, but late on, and compounded by Dieter Rams prophecy that "the value of design will be measured in how it can help us survive," Objectified takes on a dimension you could even call tragic.

Comments

Be the first to write a comment

Please login to post a comment or reply.

Don't have an account? Click here to register.