Saturday, January 16, 2010

Objectified, fetishized, and sexualized - and that's just the toothbrush

Objectified: every object is sexy.

Are you taking your toothbrush for granted? For shame.

I got Objectified today. Not in that way. I downloaded Gary Hustwit's very cool documentary about the functionality, serenity, power, mystery, and magic in a toothbrush, a chair, a potato peeler, and every object on Earth that's designed by anyone.

The movie examines our relationship with these objects and the value we bestow on them by going deep into the world of the people who design them for a living, and who regularly must consider such existential questions as, "What do we want from a chair?"

It's not as simple an answer as you might think.

The film opens with a mass-produced plastic chair coming off an automated assembly line - the process is hypnotizing, so it's a little surprising when a human being becomes involved, carefully whittling away the excess plastic to make sure that each chair looks right and does what it's supposed to do.

Mass production meets craftsmanship. Let's party!

Gleeful nerds unite!

Hustwit also made the excellent documentary, Helvetica, about everyone's favorite typeface. Objectified, like that film, is full of clever artists, eccentrics, geniuses, and gleeful nerds, who can laugh at themselves for deeply contemplating the minutiae that most of us wouldn't give a second thought.

Maybe they take the bullet so we don't have to.

I love any documentary where smart and thoughtful people speak at length about anything, and Objectified doesn't disappoint:
  • French designers and brothers Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec speak about their divergent natures - one's hidebound and moody ("the porcupine," they say) and the other is more diplomatic ("the fox") - and passionately opine on one of their inventions: a chair that not only looks great, but serves its purpose well: to allow drunk Australians to plunk themselves down without hurting themselves.
  • Braun designer Dieter Rams provides good advice for designers, writers, and advertisers everywhere: "Good design should be about as little design as possible." (While you're at it, check out his awesome Ten Principles for Good Design).
  • Designer Karim Rashid suggests that, because laptops only last a few years, they should be made out of sugarcane. Sign me up.
  • Designer David Kelley says that the goal for all designers should be to design things that don't wear out, but get better with use: like the briefcase that his father gave him and looks better and better every day he uses it.
Objects and the environment

As the film progresses, it expands its scope from "stuff" to sustainability, advertising, and psychology: what are the objects you would take with you if your house was on fire and you only had a few minutes to get out?

Of course, there's an inherent conflict between designer and marketer: a good designer should consider what will happen to an object when it wears out or gets thrown away, but a good marketer wants people to buy and consume his or her product in greater quantities all of the time.

Consider, for instance, what a toothbrush would look like if it was designed to last a lifetime. In the film, we see a group of designers doing just that after one of them discovers a toothbrush that they designed washed up on a secluded beach in Fiji.

Future advertising assignment!

Leave it to my favorite advertising columnist and author, Rob Walker, to come up with some of the film's wisest insights, not to mention a future assignment for my ad class.

Walker openly dreams of an ad campaign that would get people to enjoy the things they already own.

"We have so many things we don't even think about," he says. "At the end of the day, what really has value?"

I'm not sure. But I do know that I'll never take my toothbrush for granted again.

Objectified is available on DVD, and for download on iTunes and Apple TV.


  1. That sounds really interesting. Especially the thing about laptops being made out of sugarcane. It'd definitely limit the waste being produced by them.

    And you've reminded me that I really need to see Helvetica. A friend of mine told me to watch it ages ago but I haven't gotten around to it yet.

  2. Yes, if I could eat my laptop after I'm done blogging, it would be a great day!

  3. Y'know, I've gotta watch this again, because I saw it at Cinematheque, and I wasn't feeling it, and I really wanted to like it, because I thought Helvetica was outstanding.
    It came off rather monotone to me, while Helvetica had a touch of humor and well, characters, like Erik Spiekermann, and Michael Bierut (what a memorable rant).
    Yeah, I really have to watch it again.


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