An Independent Spirit
Gary Hustwit's documentaries zoom in on design, from fonts to furniture
Annie Block -- Interior Design, 3/1/2009 12:00:00 AM
A childhood avocado stand and a teenage encounter with punk rock may seem altogether unrelated. But they're not in the world of Gary Hustwit, the filmmaker best known for Helvetica, a 2007 documentary about graphic design. His latest, investigating product design, is called Objectified, and it just debuted at the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas. During the filming, he took a break at New York's Norwood club to connect the dots of his fascinatingly circuitous path to design-oriented moviemaking.
Hustwit grew up in Newport Beach, California, and attended what he describes as a "one-room hippie elementary school, very humanities-based. We studied music, painting, calligraphy but not much math." He honed his arithmetic skills by operating an avocado stand, he recalls: "I sold four for a dollar, and I cleaned up." That first venture also foreshadowed his adult penchant for starting distribution-related businesses.
Attending San Diego State University, he majored in journalism, but he didn't finish. "My education really came from touring with bands. Learning how to release a record. The punk movement's philosophy," he says. Citing Black Flag, Sonic Youth, and the Minutemen as favorites from the early 1980's, he explains punk's do-it-yourself attitude: "It's about empowerment, about pushing your boundaries. If there's something you want, don't talk about it. Don't wait for someone else. Just do it. That viewpoint, that self-confidence, informs my work today. If I'm interested in seeing a movie about fonts, I'll make it."
Make it he has. After moving to New York in 1999 and setting up Incommunicado, an independent publishing company named for a William Carlos Williams poem, he went on to an executive position at salon.com. It was around then that he bought his first DVD player. "Collecting DVDs like a maniac," he says, he noticed that independent films, especially documentaries, weren't readily available on disc. "It dawned on me that someone needed to start something like a record label but for DVDs." His Plexifilm launched in 2001. Among its first releases was a feature on the band Wilco, and he was the producer.
He produced five more documentaries before directing one, Helvetica. "Ever since my first Mac computer gave me access to Times New Roman, Arial, essentially graphic design, I've been captivated by typography," he says. The publishing business furthered his immersion. "One day, I realized Helvetica was everywhere," he continues, noting the sans serif logos of the U.S. Postal Service, Crate & Barrel, and Con Edison. "I was curious to know why—and what professional graphic designers thought about it." So he traveled to 15 cities in nine countries, questioning the likes of Lella and Massimo Vignelli of Vignelli Associates, Paula Scher of Pentagram, and Neville Brody of Research Studios. Their answers, captured on video, raise awareness among viewers, which is ultimately the thrust of Hustwit's work.
A self-taught student of Bauhaus history and contemporary design, he says he hopes that Objectified "makes people think about what and why they buy." Viewers are introduced, in a cinema verité style like Helvetica's, to a curated coterie of designers and experts, Dieter Rams, Jonathan Ive, Marc Newson, Hella Jongerius, and Paola Antonelli among them. Interviews and studio visits took place during 100 hours of shooting, and the 80-minute final cut is set to an invigorating sound track that includes, of course, punk rock.
"By learning about the designers—their personalities, their philosophies, their inspirations—we not only get a crash course in industrial design, but we can also understand consumption better," Hustwit says. "If people leave the theater without more curiosity, without more questions, I'll consider it a failure." Surely, there will be at least one question on everyone's mind: What will Hustwit's next movie be?