A well-designed doc – Winnipeg Free Press

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This article was published 28/11/2018 (1523 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

There’s a common misconception that design is some kind of fancy-schmancy extra for people who buy $8,000 chairs. American filmmaker Gary Hustwit argues, passionately, that design is an integral part of everyone’s daily life.

Everyone’s. Not just the people with the $8,000 chairs.

Hustwit first grabbed our attention in 2007 with Helvetica, a delightful little documentary that featured design wonks getting worked up over typeface. He followed with Objectified (2009), about the design of manufactured objects, and later Urbanized (2011), about urban design and how our cities do (or don’t) work.

Dieter Rams’ 10 Principles for Good Design.

This trilogy examined design’s importance in our neighbourhoods, homes and workplaces, as well as its central place in the urgent social, economic and environmental questions facing the world.

Hustwit’s new documentary looks at German designer Dieter Rams. (This Manitoba première, screening tonight only at the Park Theatre, is sponsored by the Winnipeg Architecture Foundation.)

Even if you don’t know the man, you probably know his work. One of the most important designers of the 20th century, Rams worked with Braun, the German manufacturing company, to design small appliances and audio products and with Vitsoe to develop a light, flexible, modular system of wall storage.

Rams’ influence on later designers has been big. His 10 Principles for Good Design, which includes such precepts as “Good design is as little design as possible,” is treated almost as a religious decalogue by many designers working today. Jony Ive at Apple is a huge fan.

The 86-year-old Rams is a private person. While thoughtful and gracious, he seems somewhat reluctant to let a film crew into the home where he has lived for over five decades with his wife, photographer Ingeborg Rams.

One gets the feeling Rams consented to this project not because he wants to talk about his past but because he wants to talk about design’s future. Rams is particularly dismayed by the idea that design has become increasingly complicit with rampant consumerism. His maxim has always been “less, but better.”

Hustwit sets Rams’ career within the context of 1950s Germany. As the country attempted to recover from the devastation of war, an idealistic young generation believed good design could be part of a better and more democratic world. “We had to clean up the mess, in the truest sense of the word,” Rams recalls.

His work for Braun, intended for modern postwar kitchens and offices, was clean-lined, simple and functional. He famously tried to eliminate instruction manuals, believing products should be so legible the user would intuitively know what to do.

His approach is rational and sober but not cold. “You cannot understand good design,” he tells us, “if you don’t understand people.”

This is Hustwit’s most conventionally structured film. His other works were organized around concepts and ranged all over the world. Here he concentrates on one man, focusing on extensive interviews with Rams himself (in German, with subtitles), as well as talks with colleagues, curators and historians.

Rams is, for the most part, a careful, guarded, rather austere documentary subject (though, at one point, he does let slip a sick burn of French designer Philippe Starck). Even with this restraint, however, the documentary becomes increasingly poignant.

Rams’ gadgets were cool — so, so cool — but they were also functional and durable. (I’d just like to give shout-out to my unkillable 1980s Braun coffee grinder.) After Gillette acquired Braun, Rams felt that marketing — and its need for what he refers to as “newfangledness”— started to drive the design.

He now has grave concerns about the state of design. Apple, for example, delivers a very similar esthetic to Rams’s early work, but the company’s ethos is very different, creating products that require almost constant replacement. In this important and affecting doc, we have an old man looking back on his life and work, doubtful — and sometimes sorrowful — about the world he helped to create.

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Alison Gillmor

Alison Gillmor

Studying at the University of Winnipeg and later Toronto’s York University, Alison Gillmor planned to become an art historian. She ended up catching the journalism bug when she started as visual arts reviewer at the Winnipeg Free Press in 1992.

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