If creating products for mass consumption sounds simple or artless, think again. Gary Hustwit's 2009 feature documentary, Objectified, tackles the design of everyday objects, from furniture to iPhones to cars, and asks probing questions about everything from their fabrication to the validity of their very existence.
It used to be assumed that well-designed objects were created by an elite bunch of eccentric artists to be sold exclusively to rich people who just want to fill their light-filled homes with beautiful (and maybe useful) curiosities, and that well-designed objects have no place in the lives of the common person. Then came the idea of "democratic design," an expression so warm and fuzzy that retailers like IKEA have made it the central talking point of their brand. In Objectified, however, we meet Paola Antonelli, design curator at MoMA, who tells us, "democratization of design is an empty slogan. It really should not even exist."
But in a world where 1.2 billion of the world's people live in extreme poverty and lack even basic necessities, a lot of so-called design is nothing short of ridiculous. A relatively lengthy and at times exasperating segment of Objectified involves a brainstorming session among young designers trying to come up with the next great toothbrush. Among the suggestions thrown out are that a toothbrush handle could be made of sterling silver, and the possibility that salons could offer "mani-pedi-toothis." Hmm.
Over a series of interviews with industrial designers, critics and curators, some commonplace and widespread theories about "good" design emerge. Former Braun design director Dieter Ram explains, good design is innovative, useful, aesthetic, understandable, honest, unobtrusive, long-lived, consistent, and environmentally friendly. Most importantly, good design is "as little design as possible."
The film points out that Henry Ford once said, "every object tells a story if you know how to read it." In a fanatically connected world where "the next now" is constantly nipping at the heels of today's big thing, objects will certainly continue to reveal a lot about the people who design, sell, buy and use them.
The documentary raises a lot of good questions, even beyond the troubling issues of elitism and cost. For instance, how do you design something with the knowledge that it will most likely end up a landfills or the ocean? And, as our world moves from the material to the digital, what will the role of designers be? Let's discuss these questions, and any others you might have, in the comments below.
Documentary Club is a recurring feature in which we watch and discuss the finest documentaries available to stream on Netflix — together, as a family. Join us, won't you? For more Netflix, head to netflix.kinja.com
Andréa Ford is a journalist based in Philadelphia. She previously wrote for TIME Magazine.