Q&A: Gary Hustwit, Director of "Objectified"

November 20th, 2009

How does the design of a cell phone, toothbrush or couch affect your life? Did you ever stop to think about it? Director Gary Hustwit (“Helvetica”) looks at our complex relationship with manufactured objects, the people who design them and the creative process behind their work. Step inside the offices of the world’s most influential product designers to see how these objects influence us — often without our even knowing it. “Objectified” premieres on Independent Lens on Tuesday, November 24 at 10pm. Inside THIRTEEN spoke with director Gary Hustwit about the film.

Q. What got you interested in going “behind the scenes” into our relationship with everyday objects?

A. You know, sometimes I just look around my apartment and think, “Where did all this stuff come from? Who made it? Why did I buy all of it? Do I really need any of it?” Just basic questions that I think we all have sometimes. I also think it’s interesting how archaeologists learn about ancient civilizations mostly through the objects they leave behind. So 100 or 1,000 years from now, what will the objects designed in our lifetime say about our culture? And I was interested in the idea that we’re having a relationship with the people who design all this stuff, through the objects themselves. Maybe it’s just me, but these are the sort of ideas I obsess over!

French designers Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec

Q. So is this a film for design nerds? What will a non-designer learn from your film?

A. Well, we all buy and consume these objects, from computers to cars to toothbrushes. So I think we can all benefit from learning about the creative processes and thinking of the people who design them. I think it’s amazing that there’s so little public discourse about the design of all these products. In the mass media, all we get are buying guides that tout the latest crop of gadgets or whatever, but no real discussion about whether or not these things should be made, or how they’re made, or how they’ll be disposed of once we’re done using them.

Q. Is there an object that you came across during filming that particularly inspired you?

A. What inspires me the most are probably the objects we take for granted and think of as the least “designed”. Have you even noticed those toothpicks with the serrated edges on one end? Do you know why they’re there, and what the story is behind them? Like Henry Ford once said, “Every object tells a story, if you know how to read it.” So I enjoy digging into these little stories behind the hundreds of objects we touch every day, that usually go unnoticed.

Clock designed by Naoto Fukasawa

Q. One of the people you profile in the film has created some of the most familiar and ever-present designs in recent memory – Jonathan Ive, the designer of the iPod, iPhone, and a slew of Apple hardware. What is the source of his inspiration and creativity?

A. I think Ive embodies some of the qualities of craftsmen from hundreds of years ago, with his complete immersion in the materials and obsessive attention to detail. He’s also very focused on the manufacturing process, and the strengths and weaknesses of producing in huge volume. His team spends as much time designing the manufacturing systems that enable them to make the objects as they spend on designing the objects themselves. That’s not very glamorous, but probably a big part of Apple’s success.

Q. Objectified is the second film of a trilogy – can you tell us a bit about your first film (Helvetica) and your plans for the next film in the series?

A. I guess I just make films about things that I want to learn more about personally. Helvetica looked at the world of fonts and graphic design, which is a subject I’m fascinated by, and one that I couldn’t believe no one had done a proper documentary on. So I’m drawn to subjects that influence our lives, but that most of us don’t really think about. The third film will follow that idea as well, but I think it’s probably more ambitious than the first two films in terms of its scope. So I’m looking forward to showing it to THIRTEEN viewers a few years from now.