Hot Docs 2009: Objectified Review


Directed by Gary Hustwit
USA, 2009

Official Hot Docs Synopsis:

From telephones to toothpicks, nearly everything that fills our world is designed. Objects look and work the way they do because someone made them that way. Director Gary Hustwit examines industrial design’s sweeping cultural impact with the same curiosity and cinematic craft of his graphic design hit, Helvetica. International stars including Karim Rashid, Marc Newson, Apple’s Jonathan Ive, and Braun’s Dieter Rams share their philosophies and fab products, bringing the driving forces of the field into perfectly composed focus: “good” industrial design makes the product supreme, but the design invisible. In an age where forms cannot possibly resemble the myriad of functions they now perform, however, what will our world look like? How does design’s drive for “new and improved” reconcile with environmental sustainability? And how do individuals express themselves through mass-produced “stuff”? Objectified is a fascinating look at our relationship with objects and the people who design them. Myrocia Watamaniuk.

Have you ever wondered why the handle of your potato peeler is shaped the way it is? Well after watching Gary Hustwit’s documentary Objectified you won’t be able to stop thinking about it. You’ll also start looking at all the everyday things that surround us in our lives, questioning whether or not they are useful, and asking how we got so attached to them in the first place. This follow-up to the well-received documentary Helvetica is actually the second in what Hustwit now says will be a trilogy of design-related films. Considering the multitude of issues and questions that he managed to squeeze into this one, however, I am not quite sure that he has anything left to explore.

When I saw Helvetica a couple years ago, I was blown away. I thought that the idea of making a documentary about a font might have been kind of gimmicky, but by using the typeface as a springboard for discussions about graphic design and visual communication in general, Hustwit ended up with something both brilliant and captivating. Objectified works in almost the opposite way. It strives to cover just about every possible facet of industrial design, but with a 75 minute running time, there are a lot of ideas that don’t quite get all the attention that they deserve. Which is not to say this isn’t a fascinating documentary, only that it flies by so fast that it’s hard to grasp and fully digest all of the questions being asked.

Interview subjects for Objectified include a veritable who’s who of the design world, from Dieter Rams (Braun) to Chris Bangle (BMW) to Jonathan Ive (Apple). While many of these names will not be recognizable to the average viewer, these people all have insightful things to say about the role of design in our world, and most have quirky personalities that make them that much more interesting to watch. At times they are talking in high concepts that can be a little hard to connect with, and I do wish there were few more concrete examples and analysis of specific objects. That said, there are some privileged looks behind the scenes at how some of these design teams operate (at IDEO, for example), and it boggles the mind just how detail-oriented these people must be.

It was cool to see Bill Moggridge talk about the design of the first ever laptop, the Grid Compass, which surprisingly looks very similar to the laptops being used today, over 25 years later. Also, Apple fanboys will easily lose their minds over the segment featuring Jonathan Ive in one of their top secret design labs where he talks about the production process for a Macbook and how design can become an obsession.

A lot of people have mentioned the fact that Objectified lacks the central debate that Helvetica had (ie. good design vs bad design). While I didn’t find that to be very problematic, I did feel that there was a bit of a missed opportunity with regards to the tension that did exist in the film: good design vs wasteful products. Towards the end of the film, the topic of sustainability is brought up, but it merely scratches the surface of this massive issue. The movie clearly wants to be a showcase for well-designed objects, but it also wants to warn us that these objects are just taking up space and resources on the planet. Fortunately, New York Times columnist Rob Walker did provide some scathing criticisms of consumer culture.

From an aesthetic point of view, this movie is every bit as beautiful as the products that it fetishizes. The cinematography is gorgeous, and Hustwit packs the soundtrack full of minimalist electronic and futuristic indie rock once again (yes, El Ten Eleven feature prominently). I did kind of miss the slick montages of music and images that were found throughout Helvetica, but maybe they would have been a little inappropriate this time around.

Objectified is a movie that will open your mind to the hidden world of design that influences virtually every aspect of our lives. Gary Hustwit has once again taken a mundane concept and made something both compelling and artistic out of it. If you’re at all interested in design, this is a must-see film, and although some of the conversations get a little esoteric, it does deal with a subject that anyone can relate to. There aren’t very many movies that leave you wanting to go out and buy some cool new furniture while simultaneously giving you the urge to clean out your garage. — Sean