Film Review: Objectified

Compilation of filmed interviews with industrial designers who talk about the philosophy of design, rather than the objects they designed.

If you have ever wondered why Apple laptops have a “Delete” key that’s actually a “Backspace” key, or why kitchen equipment by Oxo has that testosterone, toolbox look, Objectified offers some answers, although not specific ones. Like Helvetica, Gary Hustwit’s first documentary, Objectified is mostly talking heads, in this case a dizzying number of industrial designers from around the world. The objects they design—which include chairs, toothbrushes, cars, cameras, coffee-makers and computers—are flashed on the screen in brief montages, but Hustwit rarely asks about a specific object. Nearly all the interviews are about the philosophy of design or the individual designer’s philosophy.

In some cases, Hustwit’s approach is enlightening, for instance when Karim Rashid (he designed the ubiquitous plastic bathroom pails with cut-out handles on each side) explains why the design of digital cameras should become more “self-contained and human.” There is no reason for a camera to be an inverted rectangle, he says—that shape came about because the camera had to accommodate roll film. In another instance, a Dutch designer, Hella Jongerius, talks about the Antipodean impulses inherent to industrial design which must be resolved in order to produce something people want to buy. All the objects are meant to be manufactured, she explains, yet designers and users want them to look handmade. She solves this dilemma by adding a pattern to the objects she crafts, one that trumpets their origin in human hands.

Mostly, Objectified is a lot of blather about architect Louis Sullivan’s “law,” which is that form follows function. The principle is easier to understand when it isn’t followed, and Apple provides a ready example: In Hustwit’s interview with the company’s designer, Jonathan Ive, their legendary indifference to users is explained—although not why MacBooks and iPhones lack a standard keyboard. In an interview with iconic German designer Dieter Rams, we learn that good design is “as little design as possible,” but not how he thinks the classic Braun products he crafted articulate that credo. Australian Marc Newson proclaims that “form begets form” and “design is the search for form,” but Hustwit never asks Newson how that philosophy is articulated in his “Embryo” chair, which looks like an amoeba with legs.

Objectified refuses to consider the objects, which is the real measure of each designer. Bill Moggridge is the one exception: During his interview, he punches keys on the first laptop, which he designed. He explains that initially, he did not realize the role software would play in the laptop’s operation, launching into the documentary’s best discussion of form and function. Hustwit reacts by editing the sequence to within an inch of its life because he doesn’t know what else to do. He’s not a filmmaker. He’s an interviewer, which gets to the larger issue of why Objectified’'s appeal is limited: There’s no aesthetic, no evident discriminating consciousness behind the documentary. Ironically, Hustwit’s objectivity, his inability or unwillingness to discuss the relative beauty and utility of these objects, makes us indifferent to them.