All over the world, so many kids growing up, students looking for a major, and even adults angling for a career change say they want to get into “design.” But what do they mean? The word encompasses a bewilderingly wide (and ever-expanding) range of disciplines, respected and experienced practitioners of eight of which the new Netflix documentary series Abstract takes as its subjects: architect Bjarke Ingels, illustrator Christoph Niemann, interior designer Ilse Crawford, stage designer Es Devlin, graphic designer Paula Scher, photographer Platon, automobile designer Ralph Gilles, and shoe designer Tinker Hatfield.
“I can guess what you’re thinking, because I have watched a lot of design documentaries,” writes Abstract creator (and WIRED editor-in-chief) Scott Dadich. “Restrained, polished, pretty — so many of them look like a moving version of a coffee table book. You’ve got softly lit interviews, esoteric conversations, and subtle tracking shots of wide landscapes beneath unobtrusive music. Most of it is clean, minimal, and boring as hell.”
Instead, he and his collaborators have matched each of the designers this series profiles with a different documentarian with their own distinct style: the directorial roster includes Morgan Neville (who made Best of Enemies, the recent documentary on Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley) and Brian Oakes (director of Jim: The James Foley Story).
Indiewire’s Liz Shannon Miller describes the series as documenting, among other things, the workspaces of these designers in a kind of detail “on the level of MTV’s Cribs.” Though “personal lives are kept relatively out of the picture, Abstract manages to get surprisingly intimate with the creators at its center.” You can get a taste of that from the clip just above of Ingels’ episode in which he explains what his team wanted to do with the game of “urban Tetris” that was building the VM Houses in Copenhagen. “It created a lot of noise,” he says of the housing project’s daring design, one that still catches the attention of passersby today.
All of Abstract‘s episodes come out today, but before you binge on them (and if you don’t have a Netflix membership, you can always sign up for their free one-month trial), you can read this Architectural Digest interview on it with Ingels and Neville. “This show is about people who are intensely curious and trying to understand, in a very practical way, how to make the world we live in a better place, whether it’s a more comfortable place or a more efficient place or a more egalitarian place,” says Neville. And what does that require? “Understanding that life is always evolving, the world is always evolving, and that means that yesterday’s answers might be the answers to a different question than what the question is today,” says Ingels. “So it always starts with asking questions and reframing the question” — and of course, as you’ll witness countless times throughout the length of the show, venturing an answer.
Abstract is a RadicalMedia production made in association with Tremolo Productions. It was executive produced by Morgan Neville, Scott Dadich (Editor in Chief of WIRED), and Dave O’Connor, Jon Kamen and Justin Wilkes.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.