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Thursday, February 29, 2024

Review: “Abstract: The Art of Design”

Creative energy unleashed

Understanding design in a holistic sense requires both visual comprehension and knowledge of the behind-the-scenes design process. When acknowledging design in a gallery, in our buildings or even in household appliances, it’s easy to see a finished product and lose sight of the integral struggle that a designer goes through on an everyday basis. The eight-episode series “Abstract: the Art of Design,” however, which launched on Netflix in February of 2017, reveals the behind-the-scenes element experienced by some of the world’s greatest designers. 

The production and intent of the series can be likened to a design-oriented version of the well-known “Chef’s Table.” It walks the audience through the designer’s mental process and opens a window into their artistic personality and mantra. Creator Scott Dadich sets the tone for the series with the first line of the show: “I’m trying to figure out the big picture things. How, aesthetically, to tell your story and, before that, what your story is.” 

From set makers to shoe designers, the series pieces together snippets from some of the world’s most established design virtuosos. The most distinguished guests include Tinker Hatfield, Nike’s sneaker visionary; Bjarke Ingels, a daring and world-renowned Danish architect and Ralph Gilles, the former head designer for Chrysler Motors. Although I enjoyed all eight episodes, I selected three to highlight that I found to be particularly insightful and enjoyable.

The first episode of the series features Christoph Niemann, an enigmatic and quirky illustrator known for illustrating over 20 magazine cover pages for the New Yorker. The director gives Niemann free reign over how the episode unfolds, allowing him to dictate the story as well as the episode’s layout and visual direction. 

Niemann’s signature drawing skills are on full display. The episode continually toggles between Niemann’s physical world in New York and his abstract cartoon illustrations. At times, when artists or designers describe their process, listeners can get lost in esoteric, seemingly nonsensical language, but Niemann’s illustrations work to bridge that gap. The dynamic animations guide the audience through Niemann’s dialogue, giving the audience a better glimpse of what he means when he says, “The idea of abstraction is about getting rid of everything that is not essential to making a point.”

The overarching tone of the episode is best described as intimate, but not in the sense that the audience learns about the intricacies of Niemann’s personal life. It mixes a common interview format with Niemann’s zany artistic world, inviting the audience to become acquainted with his process and creative tone. By the end of the episode, the audience understands both Niemann’s design motto and the personality and outlook that informs it.

Also noteworthy is this episode’s soundtrack. The songs blend seamlessly with the episode’s character, as is the case with one song in particular, “Lick Your Wounds,” by Andy Schauf. The song’s melancholic clarinet and cooing vocals complement the production’s introspective tone. Niemann is a self-proclaimed control freak and this shows in the details. The song choice is one of many other perfectly crafted choices that beckon the audience into immersion.

The series’ next guest, Tinker Hatfield, takes a completely different approach to his creative process. His own personality and perspective are expertly worked into the episode and, much like Niemann, he gives the production an entirely new spin. Rather than focusing on the emotions behind and aesthetic quality of his work, he directs his attention to problem solving as the main intent of design. 

“As a designer, it is not the ultimate goal to become self-expressive,” Hatfield says, contrasting Niemann’s emotional drive. “The end goal is to solve a problem for someone else.” 

Hatfield runs through the application and performance that underpins the design process of his work. As Hatfield describes his latest project on electric adaptable reaction lacing — E.A.R.L for short — which is meant to facilitate an athlete’s blood flow, it becomes clear that performance is the focal point every step of the way.  

Background and storytelling are central in the episode. Hatfield and Dadich lead the audience through the progression of Hatfield’s life as a former athlete and mentee of Nike co-founder Bill Bowerman. He outlines the unplanned and unpredictable nature of his career, learning to draw as an architect at the University of Oregon, while helping Bowerman flesh out shoe designs as an injury-plagued pole vaulter. Hatfield emphasizes how his personal experience as an athlete who underwent trauma informs how he designs exclusively with athletes’ needs in mind.

 In addition to Hatfield’s comments and demonstrations, the team is able to pull together interviews about the experiences of different sports celebrities, like Michael Jordan, who have worked with him. This particular portion of the episode is especially compelling, as the audience begins to understand the collaborative qualities that make Hatfield a maestro at his craft. Within the span of 50 minutes, Hatfield and the production team succinctly and engagingly detail his ascension to designated sneaker design legend. 

The final episode that I found to be fascinating follows the rise of Danish architect Bjarke Ingels, who is also the leader of the architecture firm BIG. Asked what he wanted to make of his episode, he said, “it should be the documentary version of ‘Inception.’”

Elaborating on this thought, Ingels said BIG, like “Inception,” is making the seemingly impossible possible and is, in essence, making his dream world a reality. 

This bold declaration sets the stage for outlining Ingels’ rise to stardom as one of the youngest and most sought-after architects in the world. The episode frames Ingels’ early beginnings as an illustrator turned big-eyed architecture student turned design trailblazer.

Ingels’ seemingly obsessive and headstrong personality is complemented by descriptions and images of his groundbreaking and controversial buildings — one of the most astonishing projects is the Copenhagen Amager Bakke Waste-to-Energy Plant, an energy plant and ski-slope all wrapped into one. On top of that, in typical Ingels fashion, BIG implemented a massive smoke ring tower on the roof that puffs pollution-free smoke rings above the city’s skyline.

 Regardless of interest in architecture, the audience can’t help but feel excited at the end of this episode. Ingels’ optimism for possibility is contagious, and the production team harnesses that energy and packages it into an episode that is both educational as well as enthralling.

When describing the processes of design and the world it shapes, “Abstract: The Art of Design” is a perfect starting point. Combining relevant and applicable knowledge with insightful, compelling content, the show is a must-watch for any aspiring designer or artistically-inquisitive mind.

Written By: Andrew Williams — arts@theaggie.org 


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