Chairs on Film

Chairs on Film


Directed by Gary Hustwit
IFC Center, 323 6th Ave.
Opens May 8 

Gary Hustwit’s new documentary Objectified is a primer that tells you much of what you already know: Everything in the man-made landscape is designed by someone, and much of it isn’t working or good to look at.

As he interviews design titans from the forthright Dieter Rams of Braun (on fundamentals of aesthetics, usefulness, and understandability) to Jonathan Ive of Apple (on the separation of function from form), what is most striking is Hustwit’s assumption that his audience suffers from design illiteracy. 

He dwells on process, as Dan Formosa and Davin Stowell of Smart Design recall crafting an ergonomic handle for a peeler, beginning with the problem that a conventional peeler, which hadn’t evolved in years, was a struggle for someone with arthritis. And, in general, Hustwit lets his subjects sound off with their objects nearby: Karim Rashid wonders out loud why digital cameras still look like cameras through which film moved.

The conversations in Objectified are more aggregation than argument or debate. Yet the film’s best asset isn’t Hustwit’s analysis, but his eye. His film (shot mostly by Luke Geissbuhler) can make you feel the impact of design, whether it’s observing a product on a work bench, or viewing it in the landscape, which can be an office, a city street, or a landfill.

And that landfill, warns Mark Newson, is where most design—by him and anyone else—will end up. Who will then take up Rashid’s dare to design mobile phones or laptops in cardboard? In the film’s exquisite opening credit sequence, a CNC router cuts the word “objectified” into white plastic, slowly and deliberately. Typefaces in the form of products are rendered in three dimensions. The waste from that process is brushed off-camera, a hint of the industrial waste crisis that still awaits design resolution.

That sequence also points to the film’s shortcomings. Hustwit has an aesthete’s eye, but he suffers from an aesthete’s ear. He only talks to designers and those in the clubby circle who write about them. That’s not to say that Rob Walker of The New York Times Magazine isn’t eloquent, pleading for objects that have stood the test of time. We just miss other parts of the design equation.

In a candid moment, Mark Newson says, “I just wish people would be more critical of design, and of designers, who are responsible for designing some pretty nasty stuff.” Where are the consumers who might feel that way? And no corporate decision-makers respond to David Kelley of IDEO, who says, “Bad design is where the customer thinks it’s their fault that something doesn’t work. People should demand more from the things they own.”

The sequential interview approach made for fascinating testimony in Helvetica, Hustwit’s first feature documentary about the transformative effect of a typeface. In Objectified, you feel there’s more to the problems facing design than what you hear from the creators of high-end consumer products, the most glamorous sector of industrial design. Something is surely astir in the trenches.

Also, like so many products that are overtaken by the new, Objectified has been eclipsed by the now. Since the film was finished, the automotive sector in the United States has collapsed. So has finance, which was nothing if not a field of purely designed products. (Eerily, the designers at SMART discuss creating red ATM kiosks for Bank of America, which has now gotten at least $45 billion to stay afloat from the government.)

If it’s true, as the designers say, that this is a time for opportunity and vision, by the film’s end you’re impatient for them to get beyond the familiar generalizations.