Unlike its title suggests, Netflix’s 2017 documentary series Abstract doesn’t focus on the abstract, but rather the tangible and representational product of the world’s designers at work. In 8 episodes, viewers watch the processes of artists’ in each of their respective careers, and surprisingly, there is art in some unexpected places; we see abstract creativity formed into concrete reality over a spread of fields. The art of design isn’t just about having great form (with which it is more commonly associated); from comics, architecture, propaganda, and engine design, to museum exhibits and sportswear, a design focuses more on its function, so that the form may be informed and then properly materialized in inexplicably creative ways.
The series makes this eccentric view on design personal, interviewing well-known designers such as stage and show designer Es Devlin, Nike designer Tinker Hatfield, architect Bjarke Ingels, and New Yorker cover artist, Christoph Neimann, among others. The first episode opens with Neimann explaining how art-making works at his studio: it’s never perfect and there is no perfect formula; you go to work, and don’t wait around for inspiration. Otherwise, it never happens. From spider-web connections that spread over lifetimes to uprooted memories, it all sways a design product and piece of art. Technology, parenting, consumerism, and rebirth all have a place in the world of design, all of which the series explores. Take the day’s vision, good and bad, or parts of your backstory, sweet and sad, and refigure the design until it squarely meets its intent.
The neat thing this show does is that it doesn’t stop at the usual fields filed under “Art”. Director Morgan Neville interviews Chrysler designer Ralph Gilles as he works on a concept car. His electric minivan appeals to a vast consumer pool, but the project also requires the image be innovative without being too odd. He looks to designs of classic Italian cars to achieve a beautiful modern form, so the design is just as much about change and trends as it is classic looks and eternal styles. Mirrored by their work, the artists change with time; their popularity and styles fluctuate, and their success is never instant, or it pops up in unexpected places, a concept honored in this intimate glimpse at the artists’ histories.
The first series of the show is available on Netflix, and is 8-50 minute episodes.
Why It’s Worth the Binge: Insight on design challenges for each career; intimate and often quirky interviews with the artists; well-coordinated presentation and format appropriate for a design documentary
– Kelly Gatewood
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