Netflix UK TV review: Abstract: The Art of Design
James R | On 18, Feb 2017
“You’re looking for a moment when you feel you’re as close to the soul as possible. That’s what good design is.” That’s what photographer Platon argues in Netflix’s new original series, Abstract. The show promises to give us an insight into eight of the most imaginative minds working in the world of design. It certainly doesn’t skimp on the design part.
The series turns the art direction up to 11 right from its opening credits – opening credits that, rather neatly, vary to match each designer. The opening chapter profiles Christopher Niemman, a cartoonist with a hefty volume of New Yorker covers under his belt, and so the titles are full of bright colours and flowing lines, while another focusing on Danish architect Bjarke Ingels – who was behind last year’s Serpentine Pavilion in London – is full of scale models and angular photos. The music changes too: there’s a feeling throughout that each documentary is tailored to its subject, more a collection of mini films than a single series.
“What should your movie be like?” Ingels is asked at the outset. “The documentary version of Inception,” he answers, with a smile.
While Inception was a movie that dazzled with its ability to take us inside the dreams of its characters, though, Abstract, as it title suggests, spends most of its time on the surface. And so we get a lot of experts commenting on the importance of each designer’s work, plus their own accounts of how products or work came to be, but all that surface doesn’t always leave room for much depth.
In the case of a standout episode featuring Es Devlin, there’s spectacle to found in her stage productions, which combine rain, light and projections beautifully. Director Brain Oakes captures a sense of the mechanical and physical accomplishments behind such feats; from Pinter to Beyonce, the variety of work alone is enough to keep you hooked. The fact that Devlin is an engaging, open presence is a bonus. In the case of Tinker Hatfield, though, who conceived Nike’s Air Jordan trainers, it sometimes feels more like a shoe commercial. The appearance of Michael Jordan to chat about his relationship with Nike has some candid intrigue, but that appeal eventually wears off.
The whole programme is exec-produced by Morgan Neville, who helmed 20 Feet from Stardom, and he ensures a welcome level of gloss to proceedings. That recalls Netflix’s other documentary series, Chef’s Table, which profiles chefs around the world with sumptuous shots of food porn. The crucial difference, though, is that Chef’s Table gives us some insight into the technical know-how that goes into the dishes we see, or communicates a broader sense of what the culinary scene in each cook’s country or city is like and how that influences them. Perhaps it benefits from the fact that we all know roughly how to cook food, whereas we don’t know all know how to design buildings, or draw cartoons, but Abstract, on the other hand, never quite gives us a feeling of full knowledge or understanding; it’s happy to settle for admiration instead.
It’s telling, perhaps, that the best episode may be its opener, which is directed by Neville himself. Niemman talks to him about the challenges that the shifting technology involved in the media presents: tasked with creating an augmented reality cover for the New Yorker, he goes through his rationale behind drawing different front and book covers to create the illusion of stepping through a door into a picture, before actually bringing it to animated life in the magazine’s app. Neville does well to draw these comments out from his subject, partly due to his shy persona and partly due to the intricacies of these mental workings. Niemman theorises that every idea has one point on the spectrum of simplicity to complexity that suits it best – a philosophy that governs his decision to use a certain number of lines or colours in his work. The whole series, though, doesn’t always find that sweet spot. The result is an attractive guide to everyday objects that we might have taken for granted. It’s brilliantly designed. If only it got closer to the soul.
Abstract: The Art of Design: Season 1 and 2 is now available on Netflix UK, as part of an £9.99 monthly subscription.