Review by Rumsey Taylor
Posted on 17 March 2009
Source 35mm print
Categories The 2009 South by Southwest Film Festival
If you are reading this on a computer situated on a flat surface, take a moment to consider how the weight of this surface is dispersed. Does your desk remain perfectly level with the ground? Are the legs arranged in such a way to allow your legs to sit among them symmetrically? If it is not level, is there some sort of makeshift wedge shoved underneath one of the legs? Is this table set on carpet, thereby producing four indentations into the ground, producing a sort of signature? Is your computer screen tilted at a plane approximately perpendicular to your line of sight? Does your right index finger rest on a mouse button or the down arrow on the keyboard, poised to scroll down the page?
In all likelihood, you ignore each of these aspects as you sit and read, but each— the four legs, the levelness of the table, the tactility of your chair— contribute the experience of this very moment, an interface that initiated the instant you sat down and is, if well-designed, instantly forgotten.
Objectified is about this process and many others. It opens with a montage of a morning routine— before you’re out the door, you may interact with dozens of devices or products, many of which are designed to be invisible if not exceptionally intuitive. Gary Hustwit’s film considers the inception of each of these devices— how, for example, the shape of the handle of a pair of garden shears anticipates the size and variety of shrubbery you may trim with it— many of which are borne not of the mind of an industrial designer, but out of pure necessity.
The film is a tonal cousin to Hustwit’s previous film on typography, Helvetica, consisting of talking head interviews with industrial designers and poppy, inoffensive indie rock. These designers are filmed in the environments in which they work, which is one of the film’s casual pleasures: Jonathan Ive, product designer at Apple Computers, is in a white, austere room full of sophisticated equipment; Marc Newson, by contrast, has multiple tables full of objects and textures, which he regularly handles for inspiration; and Karim Rashid has eyewear that matches his tie.
Like Helvetica, Objectified is a visual research paper, establishing a point and reiterating it with evidence and more evidence. Although it considers the derogatory aspects of this topic, especially the issue of sustainability (products are designed to be permanent— often they’re thrown away after a year or two), it has an air of elitism: of the dozen or so designers in the film, most design high-end products such as computers and expensive cars. Each agrees on one of the intrinsic parameters of product design, to manufacture meaningfulness. And yet meaningfulness, each has realized, cannot be designed; this is ascribed to a product by the owner, and even then, only on occasion.
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