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


The eight-part docuseries premiered last week on Netflix. Don’t miss it. 

I’ve only seen about half the episodes in the series so far, but my favorite so far, by far,  is the profile of graphic designer Paula Scher. From Curbed magazine, I’ve excerpted a few segments of Alexandra Lange’s review.

Alexandra Lange writes:… 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. … (more)

… 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. … (read more)

via Curbed

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