James Pallister speaks to Gary Hustwit, the director of Helvetica about his new film, Objectified
I’m in Shoreditch with independent film maker Gary Hustwit, a day after his new documentary, Objectified, premiered to a packed crowd of celebs and design geeks at London’s Chelsea Cinema (a transcript of the interview is here). The film is Hustwit’s first release since Helvetica, the 2007 cult hit which propelled him to fame in design and film circles alike.
Whereas Helvetica looked at the meaning behind the ubiquitous typeface, Objectified, which opens at selected cinemas from 22 May, sees Hustwit panning out further to explore our complex relationship with manufactured objects. Buoyed by the success of Helvetica, Hustwit has managed to pull in the big guns for Objectified. Dieter Rams, famed for his work for German manufacturer Braun, Apple’s star product designer Jonathan Ive and International Herald Tribune design critic and former Design Museum director Alice Rawsthorne are among the 20-plus interviewees.
The fast-paced footage is a mixture of talking heads and shots showing individuals interacting with products ranging from cutlery to iPods and mobile phones. The film takes the viewer from the intimacy of the home to the hustle and bustle of a Tokyo subway via stops in studios, streets and factories on a tour around the developed world. Midway through, the film shifts gear with footage from a giant electronics recycling plant. It then tackles the role of the designer in what Hustwit reckons is an unsustainable economy.
‘It’s fascinating to watch what seems to be the penultimate moment of the industrial revolution,’ he says. ‘We are producing more and more stuff every year and it’s all about growth and continuing to buy, and that itself is unsustainable.’ You could argue Hustwit’s film – with its lingering shots of the brushed aluminium of the latest iBook and the cut crystal of a glass – is complicit in this unsustainable set-up. Shouldn’t there have been fewer box-fresh product shots and more overflowing landfills?
‘No,’ he responds. ‘You have to make the connection as a viewer. It’s much more powerful when you realise something for yourself, rather than have someone tell you.
‘In Helvetica, you constantly saw the type and continued to do so when you left. Objectified does a similar thing with the minutiae of design.
‘You see all these objects and, one hopes, re-evaluate what you actually need. For a short period of time, it changes the way you look at the world.’ Hustwit’s world is one in which the designer is a benevolent force. He says: ‘The designers in the film are always pushing and re-evaluating themselves and that’s why they’re at the top of the field, not because they got lucky and sold a chair for £1 million at auction. They are always trying to make things great, solve problems and make people’s lives better. I truly think that is their goal.’
In the film designer Karim Rashid points to the absurdity of having a disposable product like a telephone made out of hard-wearing materials such as metal – surely they should be made from cardboard, he muses.
Others fall in with the position claimed by designer Marc Newson – that he makes his designs sustainable by making them so beautiful no one will chuck them out.
‘Consumers can voice their pleasure or displeasure. There needs to be a bit of anger’
For Hustwit, the real power lies in the hands of the consumer. He says: ‘Consumers can voice their pleasure or displeasure. There needs to be a bit of anger. I’m not anti-consumer; I love having nice things. But I don’t like the arbitrariness of the “buy buy buy” mentality.
‘I think it’s dangerous that we get into debt to accumulate objects. We had a screening in New York at which a guy got up and said “this film made me physically ill” and, you know, you should be ill; you should feel sick, because we are allowing this unsustainable landscape of manufactured stuff to grow by buying it.’
But the bulk of our ubiquitous mountain of stuff isn’t designed by the people featured in Objectified. Was he not tempted to challenge the designers who cater to the mass market, who churn out, as Alice Rawsthorne says, ‘the other 99 per cent’?
‘No,’ says Hustwit. ‘We could have done the whole thing as a critique on manufacturing and bad design and consumerism. But that would have taken the focus off creativity, which is what I am most interested in.’
While Hustwit charges consumers with great responsibility, the film he has made is not demanding of its viewers. It is full of interesting insights into the designers’ world – Dutch designer Hella Jongerius giving instruction in her studio, Newson’s handwritten note on his studio table (‘Marc’s Stuff! Do not move! Seriously!’) – which are very engaging. It is accessible to the layman, but includes enough geeky bits to keep the design nerds happy.
Hustwit’s record guarantees this film a following, but whether it can appeal beyond the geek audience remains to be seen.
While his optimism sometimes feels naïve, it is infectious, and the subtlety of approach raises uncomfortable questions.
Resume Hustwit’s film praises and condemns design in equal measure