Intelligent design

Objectified's subjects plot a user-friendly universe


The first world is so jammed with manufactured stuff we can't perceive most of it — even the stuff we buy rapidly and take for granted, to be replaced by each next-model thingy. This process is now our economy's bedrock, as was underlined when the government's first order of business after 9/11 was to encourage partying like it's $19.99 via those "America: Open for Business" signs with Old Glory as shopping bag. Yet the economy and consumerism's ever-more-tangible impact on our planet seem to scream, "Shop less!"

Durability vs. disposability and perennial style vs. trendiness are conflicting impulses on both sides of the buyer/seller equation. In theory we might all agree everything we buy should be functional, sturdy, and attractive enough to keep until it gives out. But this flies in the face of nearly all marketplace logic, and purchaser desire. The whole idea is to generate decisions made on what you want, not what you need. Better still if that line blurs.

The New York Times' "Consumed" columnist Rob Walker describes this drive as one for "the 'New Now,' a 'New Next'" in Objectified, the latest documentary by Gary Hustwit. Like his Helvetica (2007), which looked at the stealthily enormous role of typeface in our lives, Objectified is more an appreciation than a critique of something utterly ubiquitous in this case product design — and a few stellar personalities behind it.

Hustwit isn't interested in history or the full range of design as much as celebrating those idiosyncratic individuals whose design imprint falls within the ongoing tradition of 20th-century modernism, with its clean lines, minimal detailing, and whiff of yesteryear's sci-fi future. "Good design is as little design as possible" insists retired innovator Dieter Rams of German home appliance giant Braun. Many of the film's interviewees — mostly designers well-known within the industry by name or firm (IDEO, Smart) — muse on products rooted in the post-analog "connected world." With an item's inner workings now reduced to the microchip's all-powerful DNA, there's little need for form to resemble function anymore; practically everything can be some sort of smooth, small, amorphous blob or plane.

Still, as Objectified emphasizes in Helvetica's same alert, amused, admiring way, the best designers don't aim for depersonalizing aesthetic perfection (let alone garish flamboyance). Instead, their goal is honing every manufactured object we require or enjoy so it makes the world a mite more user-friendly. There's an ingratiating segment here observing just how much thought goes into Smart's creating garden-shear handles even an arthritic could love. Elsewhere, one colorful industry type rails that there's simply no excuse for bad design anymore. Yet another GPS no one can figure out should occasion "riots in the streets," he says.

Objectified's primary images of rhyming-row merch in consumerist temples (IKEA, Target, etc.) are "globalization" personified. Yet as one person mercifully mentions here, that neverending parade of stuff only reaches a lucky 10 percent or so. Since the other 90 percent aspire toward disposable income and luxury goods, our insatiable minority now ponders how to tell them it's all been a horrible mistake.

The designers here are aware of, yet somewhat flummoxed by, that crisis: It's the very nature of their jobs that "most of what you design ends up in a landfill." It will fall to a different documentary to chronicle how product design adopts new agendas of quasi-permanence, successive useage, and biodegradability. When and if that truly happens, Objectified might turn into beautiful detritus, an artifact from a vanished age of elegant waste.

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