Read the full transcript of an interview with director Gary Hustwit on his new film Objectified
Below is an edited transcript of an interview by James Pallister with director Gary Hustwit at the Boundary Hotel, Shoreditch on the 17 April, the afternoon after the London premier of his new filmObjectified. Hustwit is the director of the 2007 cult film, Helvetica.
After Helvetica what made you want to take on product design for your next project?
It was another thing I was interested in as a user and a consumer. I wasn’t sure whether it was my attitude about designed objects which dictated the film’s direction or whether it was the other way round.
In the films I’m doing that’s part of the process. They are explorations for me as much as the audience. In a lot of them I’m not trying to answer any questions. If anything I’m trying to provoke more questions about the subject. The films I like to watch are the ones that make you think rather than the ones that think for you
I don’t want to watch some boring documentary about design, I want to see the essence of these really amazing, really creative people
So there isn’t a polemical viewpoint to Objectified?
No not at all. People can - or should - read things into it. I like to think of them as explorations. The documentary is a great way for the viewer to discover more about the people and the processes behind a subject and through that revaluate what their relationship is to the subject, whether it’s graphic design or product design
The subject of your previous film - the Helvetica typeface - is synonymous with the high modernism of the 1960s. The designers in your new film Objectified cover an enormous spread - from the cool modernism of Dieter Rams to the over-the-top Karim Rashid - did the process of making Objectified change your view on Modernism? I imagine it could have been an interesting journey…
Hmm. Yeah I didn’t really approach it in that way. I didn’t say ‘you know here are the minimalists and here are the other guys’ and make it a back and forth/pro and con kind of film like in Helvetica. I’m more interested in the thought processes and the strategies behind the designers
And was there anything in common?
Yes, even if the styles are very different there is some kind of shared ground between everyone. Whether they are designing a toothbrush, a BMW or an ipod, there is a creative thread that goes through all those things and that’s what I was trying to flesh out in the film.
I don’ t think it’s changed my view on modernism or post-moderism or whatever. It’s definitely made me think about materials more and think about my role as a consumer as enabling designed objects to exist -designers and manufacturers make these things because people buy them
It’s funny because two days ago I actually moved out of my apartment in New York and I saw all the stuff that I had gathered over time.
It’s interesting for me because I really don’t have that much stuff but I have a ton of media - the books and the records and the DVDs
That emotional connection you have with these things is so complex. In a strange way you’re having a conversation with the designers of those objects through the objects.
In the end the way the film resolves itself is that it’s not really about the design- it’s about us. The story we are telling about ourselves through the things we surround ourselves with
That’s interesting that you should say that because I got the impression that the New York Times journalist (Rob Walker) character was the person saying that. He was the character who seemed self aware on behalf of the designers…
Yes sort of. And self-aware on behalf of the consumers.
Was there ever a point when you thought - actually I want to take the focus away from the celebrity designers and focus on the people working between high end design and where this meets the market - the middlemen if you like. You could argue that the designers are just the pawns in the production cycle and it could be anyone and it’s just their turn—
Sure… but it’s still their creativity which drives it. I’m interested in their creative processes. We could have done the whole thing as a critique on manufacturing and bad design and consumerism and that side of it. But that would have taken the focus off the creativity which is what I am most interested in. But it’s all part of the conversation and the film will probably provoke that conversation
But you didn’t want to make it a polemic?
No. I wanted to find our what was on designer’s minds now. What are they thinking about now? I want to know what are the challenges and use their self reflection on their role in all of this. And I think they have been doing that for years and years anyway- not just with sustainability and the economic downturn.
I think that designers - at least the people who are in this film - are always trying to make things more sustainable or more environmentally friendly or work better or whatever…
So the film was really about what they are thinking about at the moment and what they are dealing with right now. That and the creative process, blended with consumerism. There were so many others- it’s a huge topic you can’t cover it all in 75 minutes. We just did a documentary on product design and Raymond Loewy was never mentioned, Eames got mentioned once. It’s not that kind of film. It’s not a comprehensive look at the history of industrial design. It’s a look at a group of people who are working now and trying to get a little bit of a sense of their creative processes and their character and their design philosophy and their place in the creative world
It’s not a comprehensive look at the history of industrial design
Because there’s that really interesting tension between the markets’ need to have new things to sell and designers who may want to work in a sustainable way but also want to experiment and produce more things…
It’s fascinating to watch what seems to be this penultimate moment of the industrial revolution. We are producing more and more stuff every year and it’s all about growth and continuing to buy all this stuff, and that itself is unsustainable. And yes if you design the perfect chair does that mean you never need to do another one or does that mean next year you have to do it on blue?
And do you think the writing is on the wall for designers?
Hmm. I’m not sure. The killer question is ‘What do designers do when people aren’t buying things they design’.
There are two kind of categories when it comes to designed objects there’s the tech things that we know are going to be obsolete or break in a few years. Then there’s things like a chair or a desk that are not going to become obsolete. We might get bored of them or the style may change but a desk is still going to be as good a desk in 50 years or 100 years or 500 years if it s designed well.
There should be a real distinction between these two. I have to agree with Karim Rashid with what he says in the film that my mobile phone should be made of cardboard. That I’m going to throw it away or it’s going to break but we use this expensive materials. We always connote technology with metal and it’s got to be expensive looking and look like its bulletproof but there’s s no real reason for that
It’s a real hangover from when technology was expensive…
Yes. It doesn’t make sense to over-manufacture and use all those resources. Yes I want the cardboard mobile phone. I don’t know how the cardboard iphone would work but those things we as consumers need to demand. It’s not going to come from the manufacturer - we need to say that this is how we want it
How is that done- purchasing habits?
Yes I guess we are seeing it right now – people changing their purchasing habits. Or just being vocal about change. Consumers can voice their pleasure or displeasure through the web and the word can spread. There needs to be a bit of anger. We had a screening in New York where a guy got up and said ‘this film made me physically ill’ and you know you should be ill- you should feel sick
We are allowing this landscape of manufactured stuff to continue by continuing to buy it. So we are complicit in this unsustainable manufactured world
Because we are standing by and allowing all this to happen. We are allowing this landscape of manufactured stuff to continue by continuing to buy it. So we are complicit in this unsustainable manufactured world
But your film is very complicit in that situation: it glorifies the designer. Yes it alludes to these landfills filling up but then it doesn’t really engage with that as a subject…
But you’ve got to make that connection yourself as a viewer. I can’t do that. That’s my biggest problem with most documentaries is that your are spoon fed every opinion and what you should be thinking - versus making the connections yourself and coming to those conclusions on your own. It’s much more powerful when you think of something rather than when someone tells it to you
We could have made this an issue film but I don’t think that’s how you effect change. And also it’s kind of subversive; by the film apparently glorifying the object, the viewer - by seeing them so much in the film- starts to question why we glorify objects so much
With Helvetica there was a kind of visual game going within the film -a kind of Where’s Waldo. You see a new scene then you find the word and you see the context around it. Then on to the next one then onto the other….
If you repeat that over the course of over eighty minutes then the result is that you walk out of the theatre and you are still in the movie. So it does actually change the way you see the world, if even for a short amount of time
I think in a strange way Objectified does a similar thing. You see all these objects and then you end up noticing them more in your everyday lives and hopefully causes us to reevaluate whether we actually need all these things and what is good design
So are you an agent provacateur?
Ha ha, yes I’m still waiting for a call from some government agency -
Ha ha, the Bilderberg group or something…
- for convincing people not to buy things. What was Rob Walker’s quote saying ‘enjoy things you own and enjoy them today’
That period of time between the birth of mass production - say with Henry Ford - and the point where many people are aware about the dangerous flipside to over production is actually a really small period of history-
I know – only a 100 years – it’s a radically short period. It’s amazing that even a couple of percent of lowered demand throws the whole thing out into complete chaos. It’s political- think of all the revolution disruption and protest which is going to happen because people are out of work. And all this sprung because we had a hiccup in the western capitalist system!
And that’s the question - what is design’s role in facing up to an usustainable system? Someone like Marc Newson says ‘I design something so beautiful that it will last for ever’
And how will design react to this?
I think that good design and the things that are indispensable to us will remain. The things that aren’t critical go away— there’s a sort of purging and that’s natural.
I think there’ll be more handcrafted, more personalised, more meaningful produced that the users feel like they are involved in creating. There’s a certain emotional resonance in those things. There is a yearning among a lot of people for that relationship with things. So yes perhaps we are seeing a return of craftsmanship
But isn’t that just at the top end of the market?
No. I don’t think that at all. Things like ——-really connecting people. Say I’m in a farmhouse in Maine and I’m making wooden sculptures, I can connect to someone who wants them. What the web does is somehow make everything closer so that relationship can be enabled by the web- have a direct relationship with the producer wherever they are.
What about getting away from mass production completely? Marc Newson is one of those designers whose work has occupied the sphere of fine art, Design Art if you like …
I think some of them are artists. Hella Jongerius is a great example. Is she a designer or is she an artist who happens to work in objects? I think a lot her things, if you put them in a gallery tit would work. You can’t compare her to Dieter Rams. There’s a similar thing in graphic design there’s the art side of it, people who are doing expressive paintings and there are people who are doing train timetables. And they are brilliant on both sides but it’s almost like they are two different things
And do you think that is about the designers work or do you think that is about how they position themselves in a marketplace?
I think a little of both I suppose. I think a lot of times the designer is completely dependent on the manufacturer and doing the one chair takes years. So maybe doing limited edition ‘Design Art’ is sometimes a way that designers can instantly see their designs made, either for themselves or for small runs for a gallery. An outlet of frustration of the designers with the traditional manufacturer- designer-outlet role
And you know as with any group of creative people they want to express themselves in as many ways as possible, you know all graphic designers want to be DJs and all product designers probably want to be film-makers, and I’m a film-maker and I’d love to be a product designer! People who find a way to express their creativity in one field, want to try to express it in other ways,
And did you find it difficult to retain a kind of distance from your interview the film is very affectionate…
If anything it’s the opposite, the interviews were really conversational, casual, as much as I can make them, in the structure of an interview which is always contrived. Going in there and trying to pull out of them what project they’re working on and get them to clear their head about what they do and about design in general is the hardest thing.
Everybody’s really busy. So I tried to interview, well the thing is, I really want to know, like I’ve just flown half way around the world on my own dime, and I’m sitting here with you and I’ve got my, I want to know what you’re thinking and I think the future…
They somehow respond to that and the fact they’re being interviewed and that’s when the best stuff comes out. You get the humour and get to see hopefully what they’re thinking. I spend a lot of time thinking about that, it’s so hard not that print journalism isn’t hard, but, what I’m looking like, what my facial expression is right now is not going to matter to whatever you write
There’s so much more going on in film…
Exactly, sound, the ambient sound, lighting, their mood and their facial expression and what they’re wearing, how they’re sitting, all those things factor in so it’s really hard. I have a very low tolerance for watching something that comes over as fake
That’s one of the things I enjoyed about the film, in the interviews you manage to convey an impression of the designers characters, in a much better way than say with a Q and A, even though they were there obviously responding to set questions
Well part of that is the editing. I can be interviewing for 3 hours and I can get 3 minutes. As far the film-makers and audience know, the other 2 minutes, er 2 hours 57 minutes could all be crap.
Luckily that’s not the case, the designers, they all love what they do, they love to talk about what they do, they love it when somebody’s really interested in the minutiae of what they do and everyone gets to sound off and for us it’s hard to kind of edit down and cut out…
It’s much more about what we don’t put in a film than what we do put in the film, so many more decisions about what to cut uh, and that’s what got me into documentaries, as a way to show, in a minute, someone’s character, get information about whatever we’re talking about, insight into their motivations and their passions, also the environment.
Great writing does it too, but it’s easier in documentaries because I can just a show a few things on in the bookshelf you know and then you get a sense of that person’s
Yeah exactly. I love talking to people and having conversations, and facial expressions and that, you can get that on film where you can’t in other media.
Somebody was just telling me that they had a film class a teacher in a film class, speaking about, I don’t know, documentaries, and they watched Helvetica and they were like, ‘There are 27 different talking heads, you can’t do that in a film!’ But I love seeing people talking. I try to put more people talking in films, my editors always want to like keep it back to almost 2 minutes. I’m like ‘It’s fascinating! they are like, ‘Let it go!’
You said that documentary films are a great way to raise questions. Taking your film-maker’s hat off and putting on your Citizen Gary hat on for a moment what answers do you think you might come up with regards to what you call is the industrial age’s penultimate era? If you had your £2m budget to do an advertising campaign (the film asks NYT journalist Rob Walker what slogan he wouldspendthison in an imaginary ad campaign), what would you do?
My biggest issue is complacency among consumers. You know; getting on through life and working and buying things and after 5 years you look around and you’re surrounded by this stuff. Why did you buy it?
Did you really need any of these things, do any of us really need any of these things? So much is taken for granted when it comes to our manufactured world.
So I think it’s more kind of getting people thinking more about the world around them, and that’s what Helvetica is about too - realising that there’s a whole world of people and work and creativity behind all these things.
I’m not anti-consumer, actually the opposite, I love having nice things. I’m pro-considerateness, I don’t like the arbitrariness of just ‘buy buy buy’, whether you can or you should, if you’re poor, you go shopping.
I think it’s dangerous that we spend and we lie to accumulate objects and get into debt to accumulate things and we have no reason to do that. A lot of it is marketing, a lot of it is just pride or pressure I guess, again I just want people to consider, consider a little bit more. and don’t just kind of blindly go on and continue to be a target audience
When we did a Q and A in New York, Karim Rashid again, had a realy great quote; ‘In the end we don’t need any of these objects, we just need each other’. We don’t need any of this stuff, I think that’s really the point
Ok and with the ‘I am not a target audience’ we’ve got that applied to the consumers, what about the designers? I write for an architect’s magazine, our readers are designing, they’re involved in the designing process, do you think you could answer..
From the designer’s point of view?
Yes - what would your marketing campaign be, what are the answers or lessons you’ve learned?
It’s complicated, because for the designers, the group of people that we are taking about, here in the film, they’re always pushing themselves, and re-evaluating and that’s why they’re at the top of the field they’re not because they got lucky and they sold a chair for £1m at auction.
They always are trying to make things great and solve problems and make people’s live better. I truly think that that’s their goal. And that doesn’t change in this economy or any economy. They still just want to make great stuff. That’s how they contribute. By making things that make our lives so much better, that is the reason that we need design, that we have design.
Again there’s got to be a good reason for a new product to be made, we can’t just be changing the shape a little bit and making a new colour…that’s where consumerism is totally evil because it’s unnecessary and wasteful and people spend their money and they work just to buy stuff that they don’t need.
If the design of something is such that it does really improve the focus or improves the way that us privileged capitalist western contributors think or improves the lives of people in developing nations, that’s when I think design is at its best because design is for everybody…the problem is that there, I’m talking about 1% of the designers in the world, the 99% of designers are doing it for a pay cheque.
You know the manufacturer says be need a new widget this year, and you redesign last years widget, there’s almost no difference but you get it out there. Again without the consumers enabling it by buying them, those companies wouldn’t exist, so I think its about educating the consumer about design and making them a little bit more discerning about what they buy
The consumer is more powerful than the designer?
Yes. We’re the enablers. I think there’s so much crap that’s flooded the market too that it’s hard to differentiate the good design from some of the products that are out there…I don’t know what else to say!
There’s a funny little in-joke moment within the film, I think it was in the IDEO offices where they are looking at typefaces and someone says ‘Was that Helvetica?’ and their colleague replies ‘Yes that was Helvetica’…
I wasn’t even in the room when they got it but then we saw the footage…you know you’ve got to have that, I, because I’m a generally good natured person and the film somehow reflects that, like I don’t want to watch some boring documentary about design, I want to see the essence of these really amazing, really creative people and I like to celebrate that.
There’s also lots of little moments: the woman braiding her daughter’s hair on the subway in Japan, these little snapshots of our world. How design goes with that I don’t know, I just love to capture those little moments, somehow it’s my obsession with design and also my fascination with the world around me, that I think I’m trying to distil into these movies
There’s so much crap that’s flooded the market too that it’s hard to differentiate the good design from some of the products that are out there
There’s a really nice bit at the beginning where there’s a breakfast scene with the bacon and the eggs
That’s my friend’s squat over here in Old Street, I just filmed him making us breakfast and then we sat down just me and him eating and at the end there’s a, well that’s about how many things you touch in the morning, before you even leave the house you touch a hundred different objects,
If you went up to outer space and looked at us bustling around with all our little things that we’re touching all day long, it’s hilarious. I mean I think it’s pretty strange, when you stop and think about it, that’s it, how many of these things do we really need and why are they all around us?
And you said the next film will make up the trilogy of films focussing on design, What’s the subject?
Oh I’m afraid that’s top secret right now! Ha ha.
Thanks for taking the time out to speak to me