Tuesday, January 26, 2010


Two ideas from the world of literature came to mind at a recent screening of Gary Huswit’s Objectified at the Philoctetes Center in New York City. Objectified is Hustwit’s sequel to his first film on design, Helvetica.  (When asked in the post-interview with design guru Steven Heller about the third film of his proposed trilogy, Huswit was elusive, but did reveal that it was about something that was an integral but largely unnoticed part of our daily lives—Water? Vapor? Roads?).
Ezra Pound said, “Make it new,” and T.S. Eliot talked about the “impersonality of the artist” in his in his famous essay, “Tradition and the Individual Talent."  Apple designer Jonathan Ive coalesces both ideas in demonstrating how the design of the MacBook makes advances that don’t call attention to themselves yet maximize the efficiency of the object.   
At one point Rob Walker, design columnist for the Times, encourages consumers to appreciate the objects they have, rather than constantly searching for the new.The camera cuts to several venerable old alarm clocks and a rugged chest of drawers that is clearly an heirloom. There is something mournful in this riff, and Heller alluded to it in the post-film discussion, invoking William Morris and the Arts and Crafts movement in l9th century England, which resisted industrial design in favor of handmade objects.

Objectified communicates the exponential obsolescence that is the quintessence of modern industrial design. To cite another literary source, modern design is the opposite of Keats’s Grecian urn, conforming rather to Moore’s law, which dictates that smaller and smaller chips will achieve ever-higher capabilities. Of course the quantum chip working on two atoms is the ultimate arbiter. Design has surmounted the old Bauhaus equation. Form may no longer follow function. But where does that leave the rest of us who are doomed to spend our lives trying to figure out how each new gadget works?

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