By David N Rose
The best way I can think to describe the experience of watching ‘Abstract: The Art of Design’ is that it’s like David Attenborough’s ‘Our Planet’, but for the creative arts.
As informative as it is visually captivating, this Netflix original documentary series drips with integrated animations, slick title sequences, cinematic establishing shots, and plenty of footage of creators practising their craft. Executive producer and former Wired editor-in-chief, Scott Dadich, even boasted of the equipment used to film the series.
I came across this docu-series just shortly before the second season was released in September of this year, and was delighted to find the latest instalment as mind-bending as the first.
Each episode focuses on an individual in a particular art or design field, someone at the height of their powers with the enviable job of executing their creative dreams. Some episodes follow a loose narrative around a particular artistic project – a New Yorker cover for illustrator Christopher Niemann; a personal portfolio installation for stage designer Es Devlin; the now infamous apparel worn in ‘Black Panther’ for costume designer Ruth E Carter.
Some of these disciplines will be familiar to the viewer, like architecture (Bjarke Ingels) and photography (Platon). Even the more obscure fields of footwear (Tinker Hatfield) and interior design (Ilse Crawford) are not too “out there” to alienate. Season 2, however, takes a sharp turn for the niche, with lesser-known the lesser-known design practices of typeface (Jonathan Hoefler), digital products (Ian Spalter), and a personal favourite of mine, bio-architecture (Neri Oxman).
Aesthetically pleasing as the show is, it puts the creatives at the forefront. I find the most enjoyable moments to be those when the artists and designers wax lyrical about their craft, as they tease out their own philosophy of art and describe their creative processes.
“When you design typeface, you’re designing raw materials,” says Hoefler of his vocation. “We do nature-inspired design and then we do design-inspired nature,” explains bio-architect Neri-Oxman, though even “bio-architect” is a word too narrow to describe what she actually does at the intersection of design and life itself.
Speaking on her process, Devlin, the stage designer had this to say: “Until I know what the space is that it’s going to inhabit. Because as soon as you have a frame, of course the first thing you want to do is start breaking the edge of it.”
For me, one of the highlights was Olafur Eliasson, an eccentric Icelandic installation artist who likes to mess with light, mirrors, sound, and even with the format of documentary itself. At one point he holds up a mirror to the camera to demonstrate the construct of watching TV on a screen, where he is talking to a film crew and not to you, sat in bed on a Friday night watching documentaries about design. This is a man used to breaking the fourth wall and any other dividing structure he comes into contact with.
Olafur Eliasson’s feature was the highest rated episode on IMBD (jointly with Platon’s), and the series as a whole received a not-too-shabby 8.4. But not everyone was pleased. I came across Anne Quito’s scathing review of the first season on Quartz, and she hated pretty much everything that I enjoyed: the photography, the narratives, the artsy introspection. As a seasoned design reporter, perhaps Quito was not as taken in by the bright lights and magic tales as the uninitiated and curious, such as myself, were.
I appreciate that not all who watch this series will find such joy in it as I have. For all its juicy frames and mystical ramblings, it will seem quite slow and ponderous compared to, say, Riverdale or RuPaul’s Drag Race. If you like non-fiction podcasts and a good old-fashion longread, then you’ll likely get on very well with ‘Abstract’.
It should be obvious by now that this isn’t a review. This is a eulogy, as there is nothing that I don’t like about the two seasons of ‘Abstract’. The only drawbacks I can think of are that it made me green with envy to see creatives at the top of their game and doing what they love for their work. That, and I struggled to convince my wife to watch with me.
To be sure, I don’t like each episode equally, but I could probably still watch it on repeat until a third installment is released. Considering the two year gap between the existing series, this could unfortunately be a long way off.
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