There's a moment, at the beginning of the documentary Objectified, where Jonathan Ive, Apple's head of design, takes his iPhone out of his pocket and wipes it along the hem of his shirt to remove the fingerprints. This made the 1000-odd SXSW attendees who watched the film's premiere at the Paramount Theater in Austin squeal with glee. Apple designers, they're just like us!
The second design-interested film by director Gary Hustwit has plenty of moments that will resonate with design wonks. (His first, Helvetica, swept graphic designers and type freaks off their feet in 2007; he hinted at the premiere that he has another design film in the works, but his lips are sealed.) Objectified covers both those lust-worthy objects and the origins of our desire, and throughout the film it's tough not to keep a running inventory of the featured products: Got it, want it, want it, want it, got it...ooooh, want it! But it also offers real insight into the design process as well as the cultural impact of our designed life. The film opens with the jarring manufacturing process of a Magis chair (with the title of the film being CNC-milled into what looks like the same plastic material). By the time it lands on the factory floor, we're exhausted. It took all that to make...that?
The stars from the design world come at us fast and often. Alice Rawsthorn, beautifully composed on a couch, her black hair swept precariously across her face, is our design historian. The folks at Smart Design, including Davin Stowell and Dan Formosa, serve as tour guides through ergonomics and prototyping stages. Dieter Rams, German design master, is the guru, reciting his Ten Commandments of Good Design over a montage of products he designed for Braun (later we see a Braun coffee maker left out on the curb and it's as sad as seeing an abandoned child). Marc Newson is the visionary: "I want to be able to have things that don't exist." Bill Moggridge, who coined the term "interaction design," walks us through the moment that he first noticed it wasn't about the cool GRiD Compass laptop he designed, but what was on the screen that mattered. And Paola Antonelli is the eternal, ebullient advocate, preaching for designers as policy-makers in government and social issues.
Hustwit's cinematic style is as crisp and modern as a Design Within Reach catalog. An exuberant trip through Ikea promotes feel-good consumerism like a Swedish indie rock video (we hear it was actually filmed by strapping a camera down to one of Ikea's carts and wheeling it through the showroom). Target and MUJI also get nods for their focus on design with shop-n-rock sections. The opening montage quirkily highlights how many things are "designed" with all the playfulness of a film by Charles and Ray Eames—and alludes to almost all the products covered later in the film.
Only one section is, predictably, painful to watch. At a electronics disposal facility, wires are snipped like tendons, beige towers of computers splinter under their own weight. IDEO handles the sustainability segment using the now-famous "toothbrush incident" recounted by Valerie Casey in her story about founding the Designers Accord, where a toothbrush designed by IDEO washed up on a beach on Fiji. IDEO sucks up a ton of screen time design-thinking their way towards a better toothbrush, but in the end we're left with David Kelley talking about his father's leather briefcase, which actually gets better with age so he plans to pass it down to his kids. Can designers design a toothbrush like that? Probably not. Has it been made even more horrifically obvious how difficult it will be to solve this problem? Definitely. But perhaps there's something in the words of Karim Rashid, his hot pink aura radiating around him, who wishes that everything was made from biodegradable cardboard or sugarcane since we're just going to toss it anyway.
The best lines in the film are not spoken by a designer but by a cultural critic, columnist and author (and FC contributor) Rob Walker. Although he explains plenty about the tyranny of obsolescence, over shots of quirky tsochkes (which Walker told us was not his stuff, even though it feels like the camera's just waltzing through his own home) he says he'd really like to see a campaign for "things you already own, why not enjoy them today?" This leaves us with an emotionally-resonant end to the film: "The hurricane is coming," says Walker. "What do you grab first?" Throughout the film, the designers each labor to explain to us how human-centered their designs are, yet it's the misshapen clay figurines and cheap handmade toys that truly define who we are. Although I'm pretty sure if the hurricane was coming, you'd still grab your iPhone.
Related: Gary Hustwit's "Objectified" [video]