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From “Abstract” by Netflix: In an elaborately made animated scene, Christoph Niemann dreams himself away from his studio and into a park in Berlin – and back again.
Photo: Kase Film © Netflix
From “Abstract” by Netflix: In an elaborately made animated scene, Christoph Niemann dreams himself away from his studio and into a park in Berlin – and back again.

Heroes’ stories with ruptures

The Netflix series “Abstract – The Art of Design” is an entertaining take on designers at work and at home. In passing, it discusses what design is currently understood to mean.
by Thomas Edelmann | 3/7/2017

When a renowned anchor on Germany’s ZDF channel was once asked why design was hardly a topic for TV coverage, she answered: “Simple, not enough buzz.” There have repeatedly been TV documentaries on design. But after fast and furious starts, most of them petered out. That applies to both the series “design 360°” that CNN once broadcast and to the documentaries Arte ran on specific objects, and which now are deployed to plug gaps between programs as they are cheap out of the can. Most recently, US documentary maker Gary Hustwit caused an international stir with films on design and architecture. Hustwit first came to fame with his film on the “Helvetica” (2007) font and “Objectified” (2009), an historical snapshot of product design in the age of globalization. Today, he tends to opt for monographic presentations. For example, he is busy preparing a documentary on the life and work of Dieter Rams. Hustwit uses a mixture of local presentations, financing from Kickstarter, and online distribution for his products.

Sport as the meaning of life: Tinker Hatfield has been designing sneakers since 1985, among others for Nike and Michael Jordan.
Photo: Bruce Ely © Netflix
Sport as the meaning of life: Tinker Hatfield has been designing sneakers since 1985, among others for Nike and Michael Jordan.

Even historical material is becoming available again. For instance, FSB, the reputed maker of door handles, hinges and window fittings, recently digitized several films by Peter Schubert that mainly traced the history of the foundation and impact of the Ulm School of Design (HfG) during the 1980s. The films of the HfG graduate will be released as a DVD edition and be shown at local screenings.

Even discerning documentaries, which public TV channels tend to banish to absurd broadcasting hours or specialist sub-channels, are now becoming more popular thanks to competition from the streaming services. And now, international streaming service Netflix has launched “Abstract,” the first season of a documentary series combining personal portraits and stories relating to the history of design. Initially, eight celebrities will be presenting, with the focus on their life, work and inner drive. All the protagonists of the first season are world-famous mainly in their respective specialist field, be it auto design, interior design, illustration, stage-set design, graphic design, photography, architecture, or even sneaker design. Each of the instalments of about 40 minutes centers completely on New York. The directors and producers serve up visually appealing surprises, such as illustrations or stage sets that suddenly expand from two dimensions into the filmic space. Without any major attempt to define the parameters the contributions, on their own and taken together, present what design is today. The emphasis is on experiences, traditions, and emotional states that get shaped, changed or rearranged by design. By contrast, mass-made brands and products take a back seat.

Stages for theaters, Pop and fashion: Es Devlin has even designed sets for the Pet Shop Boys, Lady Gaga and Kanye West.
Photo: Laurence Cendrowicz © Netflix
Stages for theaters, Pop and fashion: Es Devlin has even designed sets for the Pet Shop Boys, Lady Gaga and Kanye West.

The series tops previous attempts to “demystify” design simply by virtue of its immense reach. Worldwide, the streaming service had about 94 million users in mid-January 2017, 49 million of them in the USA, where Netflix started back in 1998 as a DVD mail-order business. It is growing so fast that by the end of March the subscriber figure is expected to reach 99 million, and their loyalty needs to be secured with fresh material. In 2017, Netflix intends to offer its subscribers up to 1,000 hours of material produced in-house, twice the figure for last year. And at least in Germany, the first season of “Abstract” is high up in the popularity rankings. The main producers behind the series include Morgan Neville, who bagged an Oscar in 2013 for “20 Feet from Stardom,” his documentary on background vocalists – and designer Scott Dadich, until recently editor-in-chief of “Wired” magazine. The series sets out to present “the best designers in each field.”

So who are they? And how do they get selected? These are questions that do not get answered, but the mixture seems exciting and coherent. It starts with a piece on illustrator Christoph Niemann, who lives in Berlin and works for “The New Yorker,” among others – his first cover illustration for the magazine came out on the day of his wedding. In the film, (each one always highlights personal aspects of the creative minds portrayed and explores what their incentive has been) Niemann asks whether they want to show him brushing his teeth in the bathroom, only to skillfully subvert the process.

The businesswoman of graphic design: Paula Scher, partner at Pentagram in New York, browses archives with her early LP cover designs.
Photo: Barbara Nitke © Netflix
The businesswoman of graphic design: Paula Scher, partner at Pentagram in New York, browses archives with her early LP cover designs.

If you hold a particular picture of an elderly gent with a hat under the nose of young dudes on Times Square they immediately rave: “Oh my god, that’s Tinker Hatfield!” Small wonder, as the man on whom the second episode focuses not only revolutionized the manufacture and look of sneakers; he made them a status symbol for an entire subculture. The film devotes a lot of space to his initial contact with sports teacher and Nike co-founder Bill Bowerman as well as his later collaboration with basketball star Michael Jordan, for whom he devised new shoe models each year.
The widespread prejudice that there are no women of international stature in design gets thoroughly trashed in three of the episodes. British stage designer Es Devlin, who works for theater, for Pop stars from Beyoncé and Kanye West to Adele, introduces us to her world. Her stage sets create a new type of communal aesthetic experience, be it for a performance of a Shakespeare play or for a Pop concert, and are a far cry from the customary proscenium aesthetics.

Although what we get are basically heroes’ stories, the portraits repeatedly reveal ruptures in the narrative. In the cases of both auto designer Ralph Gilles and graphic designer Paula Scher, their dads felt that they should simply study engineering. In fact, the parents (and they are consulted now and again) play a special role in the series. As do events that upset the applecart and yet first make a new approach visible. For example, there was the brutal attack that left Platon Antoniou severely injured as a young man, beaten up by some xenophobic thug. “I now know what it is to hurt,” he says in the film. His pain becomes the launchpad for his extraordinary sensibility, something that characterizes his work and has made him the world-famous photographer Platon, who regularly contributes the image for the “TIME” magazine cover.

Likes comics: "Abstract" portrayed the architect Bjarke Ingels - as like as his parents.
Photo: Morten Germund © Netflix
Likes comics: "Abstract" portrayed the architect Bjarke Ingels - as like as his parents.

There is no set pattern to the eight episodes, which were made with various directors and teams. Architect Bjarke Ingels fits into this sequence. Starting with his fascination for comics, he develops new design visions and realities. He creates dense living spaces and visible buildings in extra-urban no man’s land, be it on the outskirts of Copenhagen or slap bang in the middle of Manhattan. The piece on him is especially interesting the moment his parents talk about him or he wanders across their land. The episode does not shy away from showing commentaries accusing Ingels of being a charlatan whose works are simply cheap, although what is lacking is some sort of guidance as to whether this is one of the typical shit-storms of the day or justified criticism.

For all the slight differences in quality from one episode to the next, the series is definitely worth watching. There are already blogs suggesting that specifically company owners should take a look at them. As they are considered to have particularly hard-to-shake prejudices about design.

Trailer of "Abstract" auf Youtube