Arts and Culture

Design made easy

Nadine Botha

Filmmaker Gary Hustwit's documentary about everyday things we take for granted shows at this year's Design Indaba Film Festival.

‘Ten or 15 years ago, fonts were just for professionals, for people who did design only. Now everyone’s online—little kids, even our parents—and everyone uses fonts. People now have opinions about fonts, even if they don’t know why they like them,” says director Gary Hustwit over a stuttering Skype line.

Based in New York, Hustwit has become a headliner in a slew of recent films engaging with the ubiquity of “design” in our contemporary world—and its demystification.

Although his first film, Helvetica (2007), initially drew a niche audience of typographers and graphic designers, the reported flash mobs across Europe at his openings brought it to the attention of the mainstream press and broader audiences. Suddenly everyone knew what graphic artists actually do for a living.

Hustwit is en route to South Africa for the local premiere of his second film, Objectified, in which he has extended his investigation into the physical world. Phones, computers, chairs, tableware, cars ... everything tangible around us.

Helvetica mesmerised us, highlighting the urban typescape in which we live. Almost half the film was dedicated to contextual city shots of the legendary font on billboards, street signs, clothing, bags and posters.

Objectified looks inward. It evokes a more personal interrogation and appreciation of every object on your desk, in your room, in your apartment and in your garage, examining one’s design choices.

“People have an opinion about why they like a certain shaped chair or mobile phone or gadget, but they’re not really sure why,” Hustwit says. “The average person doesn’t really have a vocabulary to describe in a critical sense a product or industrial design.

“I like to explore what is behind those things that we take for granted—be it the design of a laptop or a typeface.”

Festival of film
Hustwit’s thoughts are echoed in Design Indaba founder Ravi Naidoo’s motivation for launching the first Design Indaba Film Festival: “The word ‘design’ is ringing all over the world from the front pages of Business Week, Monocle and Wired to blogs like Coolhunting with cult followings. The design audience has grown bigger than a profession.”

Running at the Labia on Orange in Cape Town for two weeks starting from February 19, the film festival aims to gratify South Africa’s own audience of design enthusiasts. “While the professionals are catered for by the Design Indaba Conference, through the film festival we are giving a lot more people access and enhancing the experience by having the directors in attendance for post-film discussions,” Naidoo says.

“Documentaries are designed objects themselves,” Hustwit says. “I’ve learned as much about design through the process of editing films and putting them together as I have in interviews with designers.”

Talking about his previous runaway success, Hustwit says he made Helvetica “because I wanted to watch that movie and it didn’t exist”. Initially, the film was funded by credit cards, friends and family. But things began to look up when Hustwit sold about R577 990 worth of Helvetica merchandise off his website before he left the editing suite.

The proceeds from Helvetica funded Objectified and the proceeds from this will, with luck, be ploughed into the third work in this “design trilogy”.

In a New York drawl Hustwit talks about his earlier years, when he started out: promoting concerts, releasing records and being a band manager of his college friends’ bands. After driving various independent record labels and media projects himself, in 2001 he founded Plexifilm, “which is pretty much like an independent music label, but for films”. Through Plexifilm, he has released up to 50 films, including producing I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, about the band Wilco; and Moog, a documentary about electronic music pioneer Robert Moog.

Helvetica was Hustwit’s first foray into directing. In the process he found himself on the doorsteps of some of the world’s most outspoken designers: Massimo Vignelli, Hermann Zapf, Stefan Sagmeister, David Carson, Dieter Rams and Bill Moggridge.
He also spoke to Jonathan Ive at Apple and Chris Bangle at BMW. As a result, Hustwit’s name is almost as renowned in the design world as the people he interviewed.

“My goal is to make the documentaries not seem like a set-up. I would want to hear from these designers whether I was making a film or not.

“But unfortunately you can’t just ask Dieter Rams out to lunch,” Hustwit, says with a chuckle.

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