In a decidedly secular spin on the theory of intelligent design, Gary Hustwit’s “Objectified” riffs on the premise that everything in our man-made environment has been deliberately preconfigured. In contrast to his 2007 “Helvetica,” which expanded the notion of a simple typeface to encompass the universe, the helmer starts with a totality of objects to arrive at basic precepts. Interviewing influential designers of everything from potato peelers to iPods, Hustwit poses fascinating questions about what George Carlin irreverently dubbed “stuff.” This witty, engaging and exquisitely crafted docu, which opened May 8 at Gotham’s IFC Center, could achieve wide ancillary appeal.
While designers from around the globe articulately espouse their philosophies and approaches, Hustwit’s camera frames chairs, coffee pots and spoons like objects found on an alien, quasifuturistic landscape, where even huge factory machines appear sleek and spotless. The camera roves through consumer displays in huge department stores in Tokyo, Stockholm and Berlin.
Some designers seek to improve existing products to make them more user-friendly, while others are inspired to fabricate something that has never before existed. Some, backed by commercial interests, want to create the ultimate “now” model of infinitely disposable techno-gear, while still others value sustainability. As one preserves tradition by sewing buttons on a boxy divan, another questions why we stubbornly cling to outmoded ways in a microchip world that renders those concepts obsolete. In one designer’s view, we simply cannot keep producing more stuff for 10% of the planet when 90% lack even basic services.
Consultants’ free-form brainstorming leads from a bristle-replaceable toothbrush to every conceivable variation on dental care. A computer designer waxes poetic on the multifunctionality of a plastic keyboard grid. A car engineer likens automobile models to classical sculptures while, to another, they symbolize drivers’ visions of themselves.
But the biggest sea change in the nature of design comes from ecology and accompanying problems of recycling and disposal. As the camera roves the streets of Hoboken, N.J., past rows of discarded appliances half-covered in snow, Hustwit’s film shows how artistic, sentimental, environmental and commercial priorities struggle for pre-eminence amid concerns for planetary survival.