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‘Abstract: The Art of Design' review: Netflix series is fast, funny, and without critique

The eight-part docuseries premieres February 10

Courtesy of Netflix

Forget Woody Allen (if you haven’t already), illustrator Christoph Niemann is here to represent the urban neurotic creative. With pictures! Niemann is one of eight subjects of the new Netflix documentary series Abstract: The Art of Design, which premieres February 10.

Niemann’s episode gives him the screen as his sketchbook to talk about his process, to play with Legos, to explain the very concept of abstraction via an animated “Abstract-O-Meter.” He feels less like a documentary subject than director Morgan Neville’s collaborator (or maybe hijacker), willing himself into and out of situations as a grown-up Harold with a purple crayon.

Abstract brings newfangled technology to the age-old task of explaining what designers do. It’s delightful to see so much money thrown at people who, almost unanimously, think best with a pen and a pad of paper.

At its best, Abstract illustrates that work through building tours, crits, and portrait sessions, augmenting everyday reality with animation and digital transformations, making designers into action figures and superheroes. At its worst, it swamps the screen with imagery, trusting us to be impressed without offering criticism or context for the subjects’ glossy portfolios.

The shadow of magazine publisher Conde Nast hangs over the whole project. Scott Dadich, the series’ creator and executive producer with Neville and Radical Media’s Dave O’Connor, was until recently the creative director and editor in chief of Wired.

In an editor’s note in the February 2017 issue he writes that the show “isn’t Wired on Netflix,” but in the Bjarke Ingels episode, at least, Abstract shows Ingels’s 2015 Wired feature and interviews Andrew Rice, the author thereof. Niemann draws for the New Yorker (as well as the New York Times, Instagram, the App Store, the world), the photographer Platon makes pictures for the New Yorker, set designer Es Devlin and architect Ingels have both received the full New Yorker profile treatment.

The only talent I had not heard of before was Ralph Gilles, Head of Design for Fiat Chrysler, and the man we have to thank for Chrysler’s recent low-slung, snub-nose swagger. Gilles, as a Canadian-American of Haitian descent, brings a small quantity of racial diversity to a roster of designers that is, much like the design profession as a whole, white and located along a Portland–New York–London–Berlin axis.

If I were Los Angeles, current capital of graphic, photogenic, and groovy interiors, I would be offended. The heat in interior design today is in the playground shapes of office landscapes, or in the gleeful branding of retail environments—nowhere to be seen in the absolute tastefulness of British designer Ilse Crawford’s segment. Surely the producers could have found a different woman to illustrate a more of-the-moment take on interior comfort.

When approaching such an omnibus project, I always count the women, and three is a comparatively good yield. The focus on individuals rather than partnerships remains problematic, though I appreciated the glimpses of the various designers’ young teams, lit by the glow of their giant Apple monitors.

Abstract uses outside talking heads sparingly but these, too, had a reasonable level of femaleness, a handful of people of color, a soupcon of new faces. Architecture critic Paul Goldberger and Museum of Modern Art curator Paola Antonelli are both excellent at talking about architecture and design, but they don’t need to be in every single show on those topics (rest assured, the equally-beloved Pentagram partner Michael Bierut does appear in the graphic design episode).

Dadich’s Wired editor’s note also offers a blanket critique of everyone else’s design documentaries: “Most of it is clean, minimal, and boring as hell.” Hear hear! (I suspect Dadich may have been thinking of the last design documentary I saw, Eero Saarinen: The Architect Who Saw the Future, which fuzzily applied the template of Nathaniel Kahn’s My Architect and ended up making a short, exciting life dramatically inert.)

Christoph Niemann
Courtesy of Netflix

Abstract is equally uncritical and worshipful, but it is also fast and funny. The first thing that will strike you is how filled with color and movement it is. And that movement is not Ken Burns’s slow pan across a historic photograph. The camera rides in cars and drones up the sides of buildings, giving us a perpendicular view of the courtyard at Ingels’s pyramidal VIA W 57 in Manhattan and the bright yellow mat at what I’m guessing is Nike’s pole vault test track on its campus in Beaverton, Oregon. (The series is sparing with IDs.)

In Niemann’s Berlin, we glimpse a stick-figure version of the man himself cycling along the real street; in Devlin’s Rye, in East Sussex, England, she plays herself as a child, sitting on the gabled rooftop of a model of her childhood home. The effects are delightful, developing, as they do, out of the designers’ words. The illustrated slideshow one assumes is always playing in their minds is, here, brought out into the open air.

When Nike designer Tinker Hatfield cites the Centre Pompidou museum, with its color-coded utilities hung on the exterior, as the inspiration behind the exposed technology of the Air Max sneaker, we cut immediately to Paris and Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers’s rainbow behemoth. When Pentagram partner Paula Scher tells us she watches classic film while painting her detailed, infographic maps, we switch to split screen, with Scher repeating dialogue in sync with other straightforward dames like actresses Bette Davis and Joan Crawford.

It’s big budget, it’s anti-nostalgic, and, thanks to the filmmakers’ embrace of greenscreens, the designers get to play glamorous versions of themselves. I’ve joked that in the 21st century you have to be telegenic whatever you do—and here’s proof. The best episodes of Abstract focus on people who don’t need to be drawn out: they have already processed their experience and lay it out, tick tick tick, for the audience. It will undoubtedly serve as a primer for design’s up-and-comers.

Scher takes us up to her archives and shows us the giant book of American wood type specimens that launched her work for the Public Theater, and we realize that the line of bold, hand-carved Rs, diminishing in width, look like dynamic type long before Scher controversially used it for the New School’s rebranding in 2015. Sadly Scher doesn’t make that connection and neither do the producers, though her segment, directed by Richard Press, does the best job of inserting history into a frame that wants everything to be about right now.

She talks about husband Seymour Chwast and his pioneering work with Pushpin Studio, about the disastrous Palm Beach butterfly ballot, about the “dumb” 1976 Boston record cover that she fears will be the first thing mentioned in her obituary, and the episode animates her short tutorial on how the placement of the arm in an upper-case E can make it look automatically moderne. So much knowledge, so little time, and a demonstration of the way generosity—Scher’s desire and willingness to talk about something other than herself—makes for a much more entertaining 40 minutes of television.

I have to admit, during several other episodes, my mind wandered at about the 20 minute mark. Why? Blame Twitter, my constant TV companion, but also the formulaic nature of the classic magazine profiles: Here are our three minutes with the parents, brother, children. Here is our example of early artistic promise.

Paula Scher
Courtesy of Netflix

A passive-voice “Ingels-has-been-criticized” moment illustrated by Bjarke’s many, many magazine covers undercuts the show’s own nod toward critique by visually suggesting negative commentary might just be jealousy. Ingels and his talking heads offer little context for his success, repeatedly referring to his work as “revolutionary,” stressing his youth. Ingels also refers, unchallenged, to architecture as “a field where there is almost zero innovation.”

I believe Ingels learned from the verbal and visual provocations of Rem Koolhaas, for whom he so famously worked, and yet no one mentions Koolhaas. The origin story is too perfect to complicate, but it means that the viewer doesn’t learn about architecture, just this architect.

The shallowness becomes especially apparent in the episode on car designer Ralph Gilles, who comes across as low-key (though he is clearly an intense boss and husband), but is less of a professional charmer than Ingels or Scher. It’s fascinating to see the teenage car sketches that first brought him to the attention of Chrysler. He tears up, and takes a long pause, while reading the encouraging letter then-Chrysler design chief K. Neil Walling sent back in response.

It’s a perfect opening for a vroom-vroom visual history of car rendering, or a look at Detroit’s most influential stylists, including the legendary Harley Earl. When Gilles’s employees put tape on a life-size wooden model of a car, carving new lines in the air with their hands, they embrace the tradition of men like Earl, but no one cares to tell us that.

Es Devlin’s episode suffers from a different version of the same problem: She’s charismatic to the nth degree, but I didn’t know anything about stage design before I watched it, and I don’t know more now. We don’t hear from clients or team members or directors, and we are shown only the briefest clips of U2 concerts and Benedict Cumberbatch playing Hamlet, Kanye and Jay-Z facing off, and Beyonce taking center stage. The zippiness of the editing won’t stop to let Devlin’s work breathe.

Maybe it was too much to hope for one of those stars to appear, but director Brian Oakes could have done more to help the viewer see her work with our own eyes, rather than through monologue. Does she have a storehouse of giant acrylic boxes somewhere? Who actually makes these things? I understood more re-reading Andrew O’Hagan’s New Yorker profile of Devlin than I did seeing the snippets presented by Abstract.

Platon
Courtesy of Netflix

The most moving episode by far is the one devoted to portrait photographer Platon Antoniou, also directed by Press. From his first voiceover, Platon (who generally goes by first name only) makes the argument for photography as an abstract art, controlled, composed, and structured like a religious icon. I do believe all that, though I don’t think that photography is actually design.

Nonetheless, Platon proves to be a wonderful guide through his own influences, his own biography, and his own work process. The combination of casualness and focus that allow him to connect, even for a single shutter click, with a world leader and an abused refugee, comes across from the first moments.

His episode benefits by having a through-line: The episode periodically returns to a photo session at his studio with former Secretary of State Gen. Colin Powell. We see Platon making Powell comfortable, changing the backdrop, chatting him up in real time, and the episode ends with the powerful result.

The made-for-TV moment that will stay with me, though, is when he says to Powell, of the padded wooden box he’s sitting on for the session, “Gaddafi sat on that box, and Putin.” Powell jumps. And the professional is there, ready to capture the moment of unguarded truth.