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May 21, 2009

Director Gary Hustwit’s films examine the underlying aspects of everyday life that most people miss.

By Rachel Fernandes

We take a lot for granted. To function effectively, many of the activities we do to survive have become afterthoughts, undertaken as routines and habits that keep us going from day to day.
Things like walking, talking, eating and driving are done without thinking, freeing us to focus on more pressing matters, like paying taxes and making vacation plans.
But what happens when we take the time to examine these semi-conscious acts more thoroughly?
In two documentaries, filmmaker Gary Hustwit delves into this question by exploring the significant, yet often unnoticed role that design plays in our everyday lives.
His first film, Helvetica, focuses on the immense impact and long history of the once revolutionary typeface.
Hustwit’s latest work Objectified (the second in what will eventually be a series) extends this investigation of the “mundane” by focusing on a diverse range of manufactured items, from cars and toothbrushes to household tools and ergonomic chairs, and the designers who create them.
“We have so many objects in our daily lives, and I wanted to know more about the people who design all this stuff…why they do it and what their process is,” he remarks. “Why do we think we need all these things?”
Through interviews with some of the world’s most innovative industrial designers, Hustwit engages the viewer in a lively discussion about consumerism, waste, and how the quality and design of the products we choose affect what we do, how we do it and how we feel about ourselves.
Objectified is an extremely ambitious film, but Hustwit and his team are able to sum up this complex subject by focusing less on dry historical facts and theories, and more on present-day methodologies and innovations.
At times, the film comes across as something of a love letter to the craftsmen and women who take such enormous care in ensuring that your gardening sheers are arthritis-friendly and your phone is sleek and sexy.
But it’s not all compliments and praise. At one point, the film critiques the design world’s tendency to place innovation above sustainability. After several sequences highlighting the evolution and beauty of Apple’s computers and gadgets, Hustwit confronts viewers with the sobering image of piles and piles of discarded computers and electronic parts.
It’s a stark contrast that brings us back to one of the film’s core questions: how can good design help prevent waste while still striving for improvement?
Hustwit, whose background lies more in the world of punk rock than graphic or industrial design, does not pretend to have the answer.
“Both Helvetica and Objectified are really just movies that I wanted to watch as a viewer, because I’m such a fan of design,” he says. “I was never a professional graphic designer…but design has always permeated everything I’ve done, from back in the days of designing friends’ record covers.”
Before making his last two films, Hustwit helped run a record label, started a music-DVD production company called Plexifilm and produced a slew of “rockumentaries,” including the award-winning expose of alt-country rockers Wilco, I Am Trying to Break Your Heart.
The fact that Hustwit is a bit of an outsider to the design world injects the subject with a fresh sense of perspective. At the same time, his innate curiosity combined with immaculate organizational skills give both Helvetica and Objectified an infectious spirit that will inspire viewers to take a little extra time looking at that corporate logo or really feeling that pair of scissors before purchasing them.
They say the devil is in the details, but for Hustwit, the real evil is over-looking them.


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