“All these physical objects in our lives there is no real critique on them. Very little discussion on how these things really affect us.” So says one of the design gurus who converse with Gary Hustwit in his second documentary that takes a close look at the everyday things that most people do not think to hard about (or even think to think about.) The first chapter (at the Q&A at the Bloor Cinema during this years HotDocs festival, the director invoked the word “trilogy” and promised one more part to follow in the near future), Helvetica, took a similar look at how typeface and graphic design add such a large element to the message in all the signage and information clutter that exist in a modern urban environment. But like many a sequel, the scope gets bigger even as the overall aim remains constant. With Objectified, the mammoth subject of industrial design and its place in modern western society is tackled. Hustwit retains the crisp, clean presentation which mirrored the chosen typeface so well, and keeps El Ten Eleven on soundtrack duties who provide a wonderful musical accompaniment to the material. This may be a standard way to make a documentary, but it is best of breed.
Every object has a story. We make sense of things through narrative, and assigning personality to objects is part and parcel to this. Ever feel sad to let go of that car you had for so many years? A particular pair of shoes? Well, the documentary doesn’t really focus on those things, but the far more mundane. I doubt people get too attached to their toothbrush or potato peeler, however I do recall back in the 1990s being vaguely curious as to why we had a particular design for decades, then all of a sudden an explosion of different shapes and sizes to these objects. These are the types of things that the talking heads wax philosophically about in Objectified. And it is compelling stuff, even when it gets slightly esoteric. Designing objects solely for philosophical or semiotic questioning? Check. A Roomba as a interface for Hamster exercise? Check. But mainly the film engagingly breezes along avenues where design is comforting and perhaps even necessary for people to feel better, to be at peace.
A valid criticism of the film is that it plays as the briefest introduction to its own subject. Only minutes spent on sustainability and all the technological doodads and disposable consumer conveniences generated as each new design threatens to push out the previous (cellular phones, laptops, water bottles). I would love to see those cardboard cellular phones get accepted, not just a concept, they existed briefly before failing in the global marketplace. Or that 90% of design and material objects is aimed at only 20% of the worlds population. Or all the crap at Walmart and Dollarama that comes from China of which most is completely unneeded and in fact detrimental to living. Also, if you find the cult of Mac (or Ikea) to be baffling or offensive (some do), then you may find all the time spent on that company to be a bit much. (Yet defining oneself by their iPhone or yin-yang coffee table (as does the narrator of Fight Club) is a valid line of questioning somewhat pursued here) Although personally, I did like the insight as to how great design should be practically invisible (something hard to do with designer egos being what they are) and that must of the design these days is in the assembly of complicated components done in an automated fashion, such as a laptop chassis. Personally the film was summed up completely with the ‘sole-bag’ a ladies large purse or shopping bag with the bottom being a shoe tread. Simple, it stands up right without falling over or sagging, doesn’t get as dirty on the bottom, and looks neat without looking offensive.
At the end of the time spent with Objectified, one of the great things that a documentary (or a fictional film) can do is accomplished with flying colours (and sleek contours): You will look at the everyday world with a different eye. Now I simply cannot wait for part three.