Note: images are publicity stills and do not reflect the picture quality of the Blu-ray under review.
If you've ever asked yourself questions like "How did toothbrushes ever go from straight to angled?" or "Why does my potato peeler have a chunky handle?" or "Why did they make the iPhone look more like an Apple product than an old-style telephone?", the probing documentary Objectified will suit your needs. The film serves as a nice primer on what makes the industrial design profession tick. More importantly, it demonstrates that a lot of thought goes into the making of every object we use.
First released in 2009, Objectified served as the middle child in director-producer Gary Hustwit's trilogy of design-focused documentaries. While Helvetica (2007) explored the world of graphic design and Urbanized (2011) dealt with cities and urban planning, Objectified brings its subject closer to home by examining the back-end planning that goes into basically every physical object we buy and consume. The film was cannily timed to coincide with the early 2000s ascendancy of companies like Apple and Ikea, which use refined design asthetics as a selling point to hawk smart phones and shelving. It's gratifying to note that the film isn't merely a showcase of beautiful design, choosing instead to use its subject matter to explore the deeper impact that design has on society. Provocative ideas are explored, such as: does "good design" signify that we're evolving as a society, or is it just another excuse to sell more crap?
Mostly focusing on industrial design in the here and now, Hustwit's approach follows a rigid format with an aesthetic that follows the highly functional, minimalistic vibe of the very objects under review. In segments that serve as part talking-head spiel, part candid observation, the film's eight or nine segments get acquainted with a single expert or designer - each of whom address a specific aspect of the design industry. For instance, the opening segment has British journalist Alice Rawsthorn discussing how 20th century design trends paved the way for the aesthetics we have today. In the most substantial segment, Dieter Rams of German design giant Braun espouses the "good design is as little design as possible" philosophy that drives companies like Apple. Other segments visit with the industrial design equivalents of rock stars - people like Jonathan Ive (Apple) and Karim Rashid (whose sleekly retro-futurist designs, so trendy circa 2000, already look kinda dated). Observing the way people use objects, automotive design as a signifier of personal identity, and sustainability issues also get the once-over.
I have to confess something here. Although the designer in me totally dug Hustwit's Helvetica, which examined earth's most misunderstood and over-exploited typeface in a fresh, funny way, Objectified left me feeling more than a bit cold. As information, the doc serves its purpose well. The speakers Huzwitz assembles here are, for the most part, articulate and well-informed. There's even a few profound insights - especially from New York Times columnist Rob Walker, who has the presence of mind to discuss design's greater place in society over the trend-hopping, narcissistic wankery that many of the film's other figures espouse. For those with a casual interest in the subject, however, it can often come across as dull and lecture-like. It's also a little too comfortable in presenting designers as a self-important bunch. While the film doesn't plumb the depths of ridiculousness seen in the "we created the Got Milk? campaign, therefore we're modern-day Michelangelos" advertising documentary Art & Copy (2009), it comes dangerously close.
The regimented, speaker-oriented structure of Objectified brings its own problems, but I think what ultimately makes it a film best suited for designers and not a mass audience lies in Hustwit's rigid, sterile presentation. The film tends to keep everything at arm's length, which is frustrating - when it should be engaging, it often comes across like a museum display equipped with signs that say "look but don't touch." There are a few fascinating segments that briefly look in on the design process, such as computer-aided prototype making, designers testing out gardening shear handle variants, and a think-tank with several people (students?) discussing ways to develop a more Earth-friendly toothbrush. These vignettes make me interested enough in the director's work to want to check out the third part of his trilogy, Urbanized. The fact that they make up only a small portion of the film puts it at a huge disadvantage to the much more accessible and lively Helvetica, however.
The digitally-shot photography on Objectified is given a good presentation on Swiss Dots' Blu-ray edition of the film. The 1.78:1 picture is ideally calibrated for the lucious close-ups of elegantly designed objects that the director seems to favor.
Being a straightforward documentary, Objectified's soundtrack serves its non-showy function well. It likely won't blow you away, but the sound (available in 2.0 Stereo or 5.1 Surround) is clearly balanced with crystalline sounding dialogue and judicious use of music. Although the packaging indicates a variety of spoken languages and English subtitles, the notation refers to the globe-spanning variety of speakers in the film (there are no alternate audio or subtitle options).
One hour of bonus interviews with the film's subjects, a holdover from the DVD edition of the film, counts as the disc's main extra. The interviews are selectable from the Blu-ray's floating menu, and they also play automatically after the film's final credits. The footage varies by speaker and is generally unnecessary, although one part does offer a tantalizing peek at one man's cool fake food collection. A 4-page booklet with a written statement from Gary Hustwit completes this austere, black-on-silver package.
Mildly interesting, filled with good insights, but oddly sterile and overly reliant on talking-head pontificating, Gary Hustwit's industrial design documentary Objectified serves as a decent primer on what goes into the objects we use, covet, and throw away. While serviceable enough for those who already have a passing interest in the subject, Hustwit's previous doc, 2007's Helvetica, is still the one for everyone check out. Objectified's blu-ray edition is a high-def rehash of the DVD. Rent it.
Matt Hinrichs is a designer, artist and sometime writer who lives in sunny (and usually too hot) Phoenix, Arizona. Among his loves are oranges, going barefoot and blonde 1930s movie comedienne Joyce Compton. Since 2000, he has been scribbling away at Pop Culture weblog Scrubbles.net. One can also follow him on Twitter @4colorcowboy.