"Your movie made me physically sick," one audience member told Gary Hustwit (left), the director of Objectified, the eagerly anticipated film about industrial design, last night at a screening in New York.
Far from being miffed, Hustwit grinned. "Maybe that's what we were trying to do," he said slyly.
The film, which chronicles the back story of the people and processes that create the vast array of designed objects that surround us every day, was screened before an audience largely made up of the very folks who toil in front of CAD programs and rapid prototyping machines to churn out those products.
But there's an essential tension at the heart of this story. On the one hand, Hustwit, who created the hugely popular film, Helvetica, celebrates the masters who have created some of the most successful products of our time—Jonathan Ive of Apple; Bill Moggridge, the "father of interactive design;" David Kelley and Tim Brown of IDEO; Karim Rashid of Dirt Devil fame; and Dieter Rams of Braun.
On the other hand, he shows us the legacy of our consumption-driven culture: stacks of dissembled computers on their way to the smelter. TVs, furniture, all manner of goods, abandoned on the curb for trash day. Then frenzied shoppers, filling up their carts with new cheap goods at IKEA.
When a freshly-designed toothbrush washes up on the shore of some remote idyllic beach—and the boss sends a picture of the barnacle-encrusted artifact back to the office—the folks at IDEO are forced to confront the dissonance behind what they do. We watch them struggle to resolve the dilemma: we need to keep our teeth clean; the objects we use to do that pollute the planet. What to do?
This is an issue with acute resonance for all of us right now. We got ourselves into this economic meltdown at least partly because we've been on a buying binge for more than a decade, often using the equity in our houses and the generous limits on our credit cards to fill our homes and closets with stuff. The hangover has nearly killed us.
But the unintended consequence of our new frugality is a global recession. Retail sales reported yesterday are still dismal. Detroit is on the ropes. Circuit City is bankrupt. Linens 'n Things is gone with the wind. Unemployment is rising, China is a basket case. To get us out of this global slough of despond, we need to start buying again. Cars, houses, carpeting, electronics, dresses.
But if we succumb to the impulse to buy, we contribute to the further trashing of the ecosystem—not to mention our credit status. It is, as John Maynard Keynes wrote, the "paradox of thrift."
After celebrating the genius of industrial design in its first half, Objectified ends by showing designers grappling with the problem. "Most of what we design ends up in the landfill," says IDEO's Tim Brown ruefully. "We have to take that into account."
Karim Rashid suggests that anything that has a shelf life of 11 months or less—electronics, etc—should be made of cardboard, for maximum disposability. The New York Times columnist Rob Walker suggests shopping in your own closet, for stuff you bought and rarely used.
What's unspoken in this film is the role that marketing plays in the endless round of product introductions—the need to goose the bottom line with a new gizmo with a new, marginally better (or not) feature—to satisfy earnings expectations on Wall Street.
The role of design in all this? To create the products compelling enough to seduce us to buy. And then to relegate our old stuff to the landfill. And the beat goes on.
Thanks, Gary. I'm now feeling a little queasy myself, caught between my enduring affection for the Tahari sample sale, and the censorious example of my own bulging closet.
Objectified will have a series of screenings across the country over the next month, many followed by Q&As with Hustwit. Maybe somebody will come up with a solution to the film's central conundrum.
[Objectified official website]