May 26, 2011 / Filmwell
Kenji Koiso has his summer vacation all planned out: he and his friend Sakuma have …
May 13, 2009
What did you do when you woke up this morning? You hit buttons on your alarm clock. You used your coffee machine or French press to brew a pot of coffee, then poured it into a mug. You put bread in the toaster. You brushed your teeth.
Unless you’re a particularly hardcore DIY devotee, you probably bought all those objects – the alarm clock, coffee machine, mug, toaster, and toothbrush – at a store, which means that dozens, hundred, thousands, or even millions of other people around the world own an exact replica of that item.
What you probably don’t consider very often (until you sit on an uncomfortable chair or try to pour coffee only to have it pour all over you) is that there are people who spend all their time thinking about ways to improve the objects you use each day. The quest to build a better carrot peeler/toothbrush/telephone/vacuum is counterintuitively epic. It involves some heavily contested philosophies and aesthetic questions. And with it comes the question about what to do with all those products once they’ve been discarded.
Gary Hustwit’s new documentary, Objectified, explores the world of these objects and the people who spend their time thinking about how to improve them, change them, eliminate them, or otherwise fiddle with the familiar. Hustwit is known for his 2007 documentary, Helvetica, which became a cult hit for designers, artists, sociologists, and those who love them the world around.
Hustwit’s documentaries are made for the thinking moviegoer. He imposes no narrative on the film. The filmmaker is virtually absent. Instead, Hustwit’s participants speak of their ideas and sometimes disagree with one another, but because nobody points out the disagreement for you in case you missed it, you have to pay attention. The presenters are treated with respect and a measure of objectivity: nobody is painted as the bad guy or the good guy. Since all are eminently qualified and well-spoken, it’s left up to the viewer to decide who is right.
If you haven’t delved deeply into the world of design, you might be surprised that there’s much argument about it. But it’s a touchy subject. The question of how humans should interact with their objects – should form follow function, or form, or should function follow the form? and infinite permutations thereof – is intricately linked to not only cultural ideas about the purpose of things and the value of aesthetics, but the way we construct the identities we represent to ourselves and each other.
Hustwit’s film interacts with some of the big players in the product design industry – from Apple, Ikea, Muji, and Braun to much lesser-known but just as influential designers – and lets them speak for themselves about their design philosophy. Items as disparate as vacuum cleaners, cars, and wall-mounted CD players make appearances to help point out not only the value of good design in everyday life, but the different ways that ideas of good design have evolved over cultural and class distinctions.
One of the most important questions provoked by Objectified is that of sustainability and “stuff.” When we’re designing things, how do we make them and consume them with an eye to the future? I won’t go so far as to say we’re entering a post-consumer age, but the average American consumer – and producer – has become more aware of the effects of mass production of objects that are built to become obsolete and have filled junkyards. (Let me point out the eerily prophetic world painted in WALL-E.)
Objectified addresses this by talking about acquisition, as well as the effect of quality vs. price and some emerging thought on designing for sustainability. This is an idea that deserves to get outside of industrial engineering classrooms and into the cultural stream: what you buy, and use, and wear out, has profound consequences on the world that our children and neighbors inherit.
While this film isn’t quite as strong as Helvetica – it does drag a little in the middle – it’s a thoughtful, serious look at a world that’s often overlooked. And if nothing else, it makes you look at your couch, your television, your fork, and your toaster with a bit more intentionality.
Alissa Wilkinson teaches at the King’s College in New York City and edits Comment. She and her husband Tom like the brunch at Dizzy’s in Brooklyn best.