Patterned rugs, white plastic chairs, and prefab houses are all elements that evoke domesticity, but these design subjects have even more in common upon closer examination. They appear in hotel hallways in New York City, a bustling cantina in Mexico City, a post-war apartment complex in the outskirts of Prague in a trio of films that center on their common design lineage. Cast as protagonists, these architectural elements offer deep meditations on design and its consequences. Carpet Cowboys (2023), Notes on the White Plastic Chair (2019), and Prefab Story (1979) all follow their chosen design objects through our fragmented systems of mass production that span the globe. Industrial rugs, plastic, and concrete weave in and out of the 20th century’s cultural shifts, showing how design vocabularies shape our everyday environments, and delineate what becomes domesticated.
Vera Chytilová’s Prefab Story is a stylistic departure from the bold visual style first cultivated in her cult classic Daisies (1966). The focus shifts from opulent dining rooms and crumbling cakes to raw, semi-finished gray concrete structures of Jižní Město, a massive housing estate in the southeast of Prague during its construction in the 70s. Through dramatic portrayals, the film accentuates the rapidity, efficiency, and adaptability of these structures. It immerses us in the cluttered landscapes of a society on the cusp of “modernity,” a world of concrete panels and their residents navigating the daily struggles of modern life. Women drag their strollers through the mud, visitors aren’t able to reach their intended addresses, and other serendipitous encounters set the building as the antagonist. Amidst this mass-produced landscape, the film exposes the lack of infrastructure, community disconnect, and the erosion of agency within the estate. Chytilová echoes Jacques Tati’s kaleidoscopic storytelling, inventing loosely related characters who guide us through the intricacies of the apartment complex, unveiling the multifaceted perspectives of residents at both human and architectural scales.
Notes On the White Plastic Chair is a short by APRDELESP and friends, architects and filmmakers known for their ethnographic approach to storytelling. Notes also casts a design piece as its main character: The monobloc chair is the singular protagonist of this 16-minute essay film. It employs visual montage to navigate 11 vignettes outlined in an accompanying PDF of the designer’s notes, acting almost like a script. The film and writing can be enjoyed simultaneously, but they don’t have to be for viewers to understand the chair’s multifaceted nature. This “perfect object” of the white plastic chair in a myriad of settings: from Kahn’s famous 1971 University of Pennsylvania lecture to an Amazon review, to a bar in Malinalco, Mexico. Delving into its evolutionary journey, numerous aliases, and specific details such as its whiteness and negative corners, the film underscores the chair’s complexity and global omnipresence.
If Notes on the White Plastic Chair renders the monobloc chair to be a “context-free” object, Carpet Cowboys does the opposite. The film by Noah Collier and Emily Mackenzie transports us to Dalton, Georgia—dubbed the “Carpet Capital of the World”—to explore the origins of carpets. We embark on a journey through the ubiquity of carpets in spaces such as hotel hallways, casinos, and convention centers, defining flooring materials as “the canvas on which all the other arts rest.” The film then takes viewers on cinematic tours of factory towns and production facilities. Through interviews with local creators, including visionary carpet designer Roderick James, we witness the industry’s rise and fall since the mid-20th century. It paints a picture of decline due to a shifting culture: Practitioners have moved from a more community-oriented practice to one that mechanizes the body. This is bleakly yet comically captured as we witness users in testing facility spend hours walking in circles. Nevertheless, the film offers a hopeful narrative. Using documentary as form, filmmakers Noah Collier and Emily Mackenzie capture the complex history of global carpet manufacturing and its personal, humanistic aspects.
While globalization and industrialization processes can often reduce design to mere technological and utilitarian values, the films uplift their utilitarian objects—whether rugs, white plastic chairs, or bloc housing—and hold spaces for them to be seen as softer, more nuanced subjects. Eventually, what these movies collectively offer is a possibility for film, as well as design, to borrow anthropological and ethnographic methodologies. These lenses into practice allow the filmmakers to dive deep into the world of design, revealing rich tapestries of history and intimate stories beneath the surface.
Catherine Lie is a designer and researcher. Interested in the notion of commoning, she collaborates with human/non-human others to explore alternative histories.