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  • Writer's pictureTiffany M. Carpenter

Abstract: The Art of Design Season 1 Review

Updated: Nov 8, 2018

Abstract: The Art of Design is now streaming live on Netflix

I started watching Abstract in the middle of a week where the deadlines seemed impossible, some Clients felt like adversaries and new ideas just weren't coming. Doorbell. Pad Thai. Binge. It was everything I needed to get up the next day and knock it out of the park.

The Show

The multi-director eight-parter, produced by Radical Media, explores the world of Design through a succession of thrilling-genius profiles and it is solid entertainment and food for the soul. Abstract bucks the convention of similar series in its spotlight and approach by looking at stage designer Es Devlin, interior designer Ilse Crawford, Chrysler’s head of global design Ralph Gilles, architect Bjarke Ingels, photographer Platon, multiple New Yorker cover illustrator Christoph Niemann, multi-platform graphic designer Paula Scher, and Nike sneaker designer Tinker Hatfield.

Miley Cyrus Bangerz Tour, set Design by ES Devlin

Among the heavyweight Directors on the other side of the camera are Oscar-winning 20 Feet From Stardom helmer Morgan Neville and Brian Oakes, who directed the Sundance award-winning Jim: The James Foley Story.

Michael Jordan discusses collaborating with Tinker Hatfield on Air Jordans

Special guest appearances are made by Michael Jordan, Museum of Modern Art curator Paola Antonelli, the equally-beloved Pentagram partner Michael Bierut and more.

The Episodes

Christoph Niemann, Illustrator

Episode 1, Christoph Niemann: Illustration

The second of the two episodes to premiere at Sundance — and brilliantly assembled by Morgan Neville — Christoph Niemann’s distinctive art comes to life not just through his many interactive projects, but also through animation and other inventive means. There’s also just enough fourth-wall breaking to capture Niemann’s unique spirit, which comes out so eloquently. Niemann isn’t entirely comfortable in front of a camera, which makes Neville’s ability to draw out his more vulnerable self all the more impressive.

Tinker Hatfield, Shoe Designer

Episode 2, Tinker Hatfield: Shoe Designer

If you’ve ever wondered why sneakerheads line up for hours on the street waiting to buy limited-edition kicks, Brian Oakes’ portrait of Nike designer Tinker Hatfield should offer a little insight. There are nuances to the art of designing sneakers, and finding innovation within an art form that’s existed for thousands of years is an impressive feat. Plus, Michael Jordan shows up(!), and the history of the Air Jordan proves to be legitimately interesting.

ES Devlin, Stage Designer

Episode 3, ES Devlin: Stage Design

Brian Oakes’ portrait of Es (short for Esmerelda) Devlin keeps things relatively simple, but that turns out to be the smartest of moves, because Devlin’s stagecraft is dazzling enough to take over the screen. A designer who’s designed sets for everyone from Harold Pinter to Beyonce, Devlin’s works are captivating, and she’s also an engaging screen presence, happily bringing the camera into her creative process.

Bjarke Ingels, Architect

Episode 4, Bjarke Ingels: Architect

Asked what kind of genre he’d like his story to emulate, Danish architect Bjarke Ingels asks for “the documentary version of ‘Inception.'” Unfortunately, this episode isn’t quite as mind-bending as Christopher Nolan’s Best Picture nominee. Many shots of Ingels’ innovative designs are shown, and we do get to follow along as he tackles a massive design challenge (an opportunity he compares to what it’s like for a comedian to host “SNL”). His designs are truly innovative and eye-catching, but Neville takes a much more presentational approach here than he does with other episodes.

Ralph Gilles, Car Designer

Episode 5, Ralph Gilles: Automotive Design

Tells the story of Ralph Gilles as he works to design a concept car for Chrysler. There are some intriguing moments, especially as Gilles and his team dig into design ideas inspired by interior decoration. And the way in which Gilles anthropomorphizes the cars he works on, right down to their expressions (cars can have “a happy face” or “a mask”), is charming to behold. But it leans a bit too hard on the innate appeal of cars to fully communicate what makes Gilles’ work so innovative. And talking head segments with car nut Jay Leno don’t have the impact of a more respected expert.

Paula Scher, Graphic Designer

Episode 6, Paula Scher: Graphic Designer

This falls into the category of “you wouldn’t expect it to be fascinating, except it totally is.” This is, in part, because Paula proves herself to be a total badass, a pioneer in the realm of graphic design and typography whose work you’ve been appreciating for decades without even knowing it. But also director Richard Press takes full advantage of her bold designs, splashing them across the screen in a tribute worthy of their eye-catching power.

Platon, Photographer

Episode 7, Platon: Photography

Your first impression might be that a man who shoots portraits wouldn’t be the most impressive person profiled in this series, but the life story of Platon — who’s taken photos of perhaps every major political and cultural figure of the last few decades — proves to be a fascinating one. When Press lays out the true power of Platon’s photography, and the real impact it’s had on world events, it’s hard not to experience genuine awe at what the man has accomplished with a camera and his deep empathy for others.

Ilse Crawford, Interior Designer

Episode 8, Ilse Crawford: Interior Design

One of the best episodes focuses on the interior designer Ilse Crawford. She’s more articulate than most on the notion of empathy as a cornerstone of design, and how the design of any given space “really affects how we feel, how we behave,” as she puts it. “Design is not just a visual thing. It’s a thought process. It’s a skill.

There’s good insight to be had as interior decorator Ilse Crawford walks us through what goes into creating a space which is both beautiful and comfortable, such as the observation that we best understand one texture when it is presented in contrast with another: “Rough feels rougher in contrast with smooth,” she says at one point. And as we see how her work has evolved from simply appointing interiors to crafting the products which furnish them, as well as exploring both highbrow and lowbrow projects (like redesigning the IKEA cafeteria), the depth of her skills becomes clear. But here’s the sad truth: In comparison to some of the other episodes, pictures of chairs and tables simply aren’t as dynamic as some of the other design projects featured.

The Wrap

A showcase of diverse talent makes you think about the gap between design that’s good and design that succeeds and raises the obvious question: What is “design,” anyway? This is a question that has been picked over for decades. Advocates of the profession—critics, curators, designers themselves—insist that the work is underestimated, if not flat-out marginalized. Because, Design is not merely an exercise in superficial aesthetics or styling, as the public may assume. It is, rather, a far more serious matter of problem-solving and experience-shaping, driven by a uniquely rigorous approach to the human-made world in all its dimensions.

What the show “Abstract” brings to this discussion is the implicit assumption that this discussion is over: design no longer needs championing. It is cool, it is functional, it is chic and glamorous. It is the center of all things.

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