AS I WATCHED this film, I remembered that Susanne K. Langer once wrote "Art is the objectification of feeling." No doubt this came to mind because of the title, but also—as producer Gary Hustwit explains (in a preface that comes in the case with the disk)—because one of the purposes of the film is to question our attitudes toward standardized, mass-produced objects, which we treat in a way that is different from the way that we treat things called "art" (which purports to thwart standardization). "Why is an object shaped the way it is," asks Hustwit, "and how does that shape affect its function? What's my relationship to the objects I buy and use, and to the people who design them? Why do we have an emotional connection with certain objects in our lives?"
Hustwit is already known for an earlier interesting film, titled Helvetica (2007), which dealt with the clash of the attitudes of Late Modern graphic designers (associated with "less is more" and the ubiquitous Swiss sans serif font called Helvetica) and the currently fashionable canon that's linked with Postmodernism (think tattoos, grunge fonts, low-hung pants). Helvetica was a resounding success, to nearly everyone's surprise, since few would have guessed that such a wide audience (designers and non-designers alike) would not only sit through, but delight in, a feature-length film on the nuances of a European sans serif typeface. The answer of course is that that film is broader and far more compelling than the title might at first suggest. The success of Helvetica, writes Hustwit, made him decide that he ought to produce Objectified, a parallel look at industrial design. Then, in the process of making this film, he decided that he should go on to a third. So, Objectified is the second installment of what will soon grow into a triadic series—but at this point he doesn't seem willing to say what the focus of the next part will be.
For myself and other graphic designers, among the delights of Helvetica was its cast of characters. It was so wonderful to see on-screen and to hear the voices of (and to share this with ones students too) so many leading participants in the painfully drawn-out development from Modernism to Postmodernism: Massimo Vignelli, Wim Crouwel, Matthew Carter, Michael Bierut, Erik Spiekermann, Lars Muller, and various others—each of whom, without exception, came off as well-spoken, thoughtful and worthy. In much the same way, among the great strengths of Objectified are the vibrant, insightful remarks that occur in its interview clips.
The subject being industrial design, the doyen in place of Vignelli this time is German designer Dieter Rams (think Braun coffee maker), who imparts his terse ideas as he nips off the buds on a miniature tree. In design today, he laments, there are too many unnecessary things. His ten commandments of design (which he would most likely refer to as the attributes of "good design") are (to paraphrase) innovation, functionality, aesthetic form, understandability, honesty, unobtrusiveness, durability, consistency, sustainability—and the use of as little design as possible.
In Helvetica, I knew about nearly every person interviewed. In Objectified, I knew very few, in part because I am less familiar with industrial design, and it may also be that its cast is more international. In this film, not only are leading designers extolled, but attention is also directed toward leading edge design firms, IDEO in particular, and well-known corporations that "take design seriously," companies such as Apple, IKEA and Target. One of the highlights was Jonathan Ive's discussion about the ingenuity (and attention to not being wasteful) with which the component parts of an Apple laptop are manufactured.
This film is 75 minutes in length, in the course of which it touches on the widest range of enormously difficult questions: One designer, for example, talks about the likelihood that nearly everything he has designed is now in a landfill. Another mentions style shifts, and how things that were once fashionable are made to look unfashionable, in order to market new products. Designing cars, one person notes, is the industrial equivalent of sculpture. And Dieter Rams returns to say that the true test of design will inevitably be: To what extent will it enable us to survive?
I found all this fascinating, but I was also exhausted by it, and, unlike my response to Helvetica (maybe because I'm a graphic designer), I eventually found myself asking how much time had elapsed, while only halfway through the film. I hadn't lost interest—not at all. It was just that, for only a moment, I simply wasn't certain how long I could (or would want to) continue the pace. Fortunately, I did continue, and I soon came away convinced that the second volume of Gary Hustwit's "design trilogy" is surely a worthy companion to the first. I'm looking forward to the third.—RB
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Objectified. A film by Gary Hustwit. 75 mins. DVD, Color, 2009.
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From reviews of  CAMOUPEDIA
“[It is] a leading contemporary source book.”
“[It is] an encyclopedic presentation of a vast body of findings in camouflage…[it] opens doors to new frontiers in a number of understudied areas of art and military history.”
“[It is] worthy of unspoken praise.”
“…it is an essential reference for anyone interested in the subject and its broader context.”
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