Tuesday, 5 May 2020

TV review: Abstract: The Art of Design, season 2, Netflix (2019)

This Netflix original is a documentary show that gives a look behind the scenes of design, each episode focusing on a different individual. The range of disciplines is broad: from a visual artist who is also involved in architecture (Olafur Eliasson) to the designer of Instagram’s user interface (Ian Spalter), and from a materials design guru (Neri Oxman) to a costume designer who works mainly with filmmakers (Ruth Carter).

In order to give an idea of the process each of them uses to arrive at his or her goal – it might be something people know that they need, or it might be a completely new type of object, the use of which is yet unknown – each episode has footage of the person speaking. There are also interviews with people associated with the subject, who might be family members or colleagues.

The trick with this kind of thing – as with all journalism – is to give enough detail to make the enterprise worthwhile, but to simplify it so that it will be digestible for the majority. You run the risk of either going too fast or of dumbing down the ideas that motivate your subject. I thought that the filmmakers did a good job in each case, though with Eliasson I would have liked more information about the artist’s ideas. The episode concerning Cas Holman, who designs toys for children, was very comprehensible and had an added facet addressing the subject’s gender preference. In Oxman’s case a bit too much emphasis is given to her role as a manager, and I would have liked to have learned more about the things the team actually makes in her lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In Spalter’s case the mini-history of user interface design was very incomplete and missed out on a range of things that existed independent of or prior to the productisation, in the early 70s, of the PC; there is no mention of time-share computing, bulletin boards (BBs), automation and control systems, or even of the basic research that resulted in the introduction of such things as touchscreens.

On the other hand, Eliasson’s wry comment about the extended glosses that institutions such as galleries and museums sometimes attach to artworks was refreshing. I have often commented to friends, when talking about art, to the effect that a work of art should be able to communicate what is necessary to the viewer without any added commentary. In this sense, while watching the first ep in the season, I felt a deep affinity with the artist.

The language used by the inventors is something, in all episodes, I found fascinating. They are, I fact, word porn – in the case of New Yorker Jonathan Hoefler, letter porn (it’s a joke; he designs typefaces) – along with some incidental video. I’m kidding, obviously but, when you think about it, in order to come up with ideas and then make objects to embody them, the practitioner must employ a sophisticated vocabulary and attendant syntax which are able to delineate the outlines, and colour in the gaps between them, of something that has not yet appeared in the world. This is a kind of magic, a conjuring out of nothing, using materials and code, of something both original and useful.

That’s the challenge these people face in their jobs. Communication skills are just as important as technical competence because a lot of what happens is inexact. It is iterative and success is contingent on partial results; changes have to be made by a team at different points on the journey towards completion in order to make something beautiful, something that brings joy. Good art takes a lot of thought plus time and patience, and the same applies with design.

Hence the subtitle. The international flavour of this nerdy show is also entertaining. In Holman’s case an Asian link is uncovered when one of her designs is appropriated by an organisation in China. In Spalter’s case there is a strong Japanese connection. Eliasson is from Iceland but lives in Germany. Oxman is Israeli but works in the USA.

Season 2 started up automatically when I selected “play” at the program’s home page, but I’ll probably get around to watching the first season, too.

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