Surveying the Design of Everyday Objects in ‘Objectified’

Objectified (2009) is the middle film in Gary Hustwit’s “design trilogy”, which also includes Helvetica (2007) and Urbanized (2011). All three films have been available for viewing via different platforms for a few years. Now a Blu-ray edition adds to the list of options for Objectified, which is also avaliable on standard DVD, on Netflix, and for rent or download online via the film’s website.

More than simply being concerned with elements and objects of, and by, design, Hustwit’s three films are linked by a concern with the role of design in what people do everyday, largely as part of the little-thought-about background to daily life, particularly in cities and in the postindustrial consumer societies of North America, Europe, and east Asia (of the three films, Urbanized is the one that steps the furthest outside of that geography).

Relying on a variety of informants, including designers, critics, journalists, and museum curators, Objectified addresses everyday objects, from vegetable peelers to cars. Design here is represented as a mediating practice, shaping people’s relationships to objects. One of the strengths of the film is its recognition of how complicated those relationships can be, relating to the use of our bodies, affect and emotion, and the environment, as well the more obvious utilitarian needs and wants that are filled by laptops, toothbrushes, and chairs, to cite a few of the items that get sustained looks in the documentary.

Objectified moves from more philosophical discussions of design — what is it, why is it important, what makes for “good” design — to more concrete and political considerations of the practice, notably the role of design in promulgating wasteful, and socially unequal, consumer and corporate cultures.

In her review of the film for PopMatters, Cynthia Fuchs characterizes Objectified as “illustrative rather than provocative” (24 November 2009). Another way to think about the film is as a general primer on the design of everyday objects. In serving that function, the movie is likely to prompt reactions such as, “That’s interesting”, or, “I hadn’t thought of that”, but doesn’t examine any aspect of its topic critically or deeply enough to engage in much beyond the raising of key questions on topics such as sustainability or consumerism.

The film’s final sections on the experimental designs of Dunne and Raby and on facilitating user participation in design are emblematic of the film’s limitations. Both of these subjects, because they are more abstract and speculative than others in the survey, not only merit more time and attention, but almost demand it for clarity’s sake.

The new Blu-ray features a crystal clear image and soundtrack, but having seen Helvetica in HD via Netflix on a Roku and Urbanized via a classroom computer at my university, I don’t think that the disc is essential for anyone who has already seen the film, owns it on DVD or from a download, or has Netflix streaming. Hustwit and director of photography Luke Geissbuhler select and frame images which can be insightful or humorous, and are, as Fuchs puts it, “illustrative”, in the best sense of that word, but the film’s images are also, by their natures, mundane. In that context, higher resolution is just higher resolution, not a revelation.

The Blu-ray does include additional interviews. Depending on which points of interest draw your attention, this extra material may or may not offer some satisfaction through additional depth. The disc also includes liner notes by Hustwit. Both of these supplements have been ported over from the DVD.

One arguably ironic quality of the Blu-ray, is the lack of a menu for easy navigation. On my home player at least, the only way I could move between chapters and to the extra material was by skipping between segments. Pushing the “Disc Menu” button simply reset the disc to the beginning of the documentary.

There is, of course, value in a well-constructed survey. There’s a reason that most college majors begin with one. A good survey will provide moments of insight and spark greater interest in students. But acting on those impulses and inspirations will always require additional study. Objectified may be little more than a brief survey on the design of everyday objects, but it’s at least effective in that pursuit.

RATING 6 / 10
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