And the Winner for Best Film About Design Is...

Even if you don't care a Spanx about the Academy Awards, Oscar-winning films can serve as a kind of visual barometer of our cultural values. The...

Even if you don't care a Spanx about the Academy Awards, Oscar-winning films can serve as a kind of visual barometer of our cultural values. The last few years have seen the issues of winning documentaries tie directly into the issues of the day: When An Inconvenient Truth won in 2006 or The Fog of War won in 2003, it almost seemed like the Academy was voting against climate change or yet another Middle Eastern military engagement. This year, it seems that our gastronomical zeitgeist is behind Food, Inc., which is nominated for best documentary. It's a pretty compelling and well-executed film that I think should probably win. But it makes me think about what an issues-oriented design film would look like-how could a documentary help convey the value and meaning of great design (designing!) to a wider audience?Can great design films educate even as they entertain? More importantly, are they actually interesting to non-designers? Last year, I saw more films about design than I ever had before, which leads me to believe that we're inside a movement that will bring even more design films to the screen. So I've chosen five from last year that I love in the hopes that more filmmakers-and designers-are inspired to make the next great design film. Here are my picks. I mean, and the nominees are...\n\n\n\nObjectified. This is the middle film in what could loosely be described as a design trilogy: Director Gary Hustwit made another design-focused film in 2007, Helvetica, and is supposedly working on another design-focused film right now (but he won't tell me what it's about). Objectified works hard-and beautifully-to tell the story of design on so many levels. Hustwit always takes the "curious user" approach to his films, starting with recognizable objects and using their designers to explain to someone who might not know a lot about design how they came to be that way. For designers, it's also a smart film about the process of industrial design, featuring its most legendary designers like Dieter Rams, Bill Moggridge, and Karim Rashid. And with the planned obsolescence of all these pods, phones, and pads landing on our desks (and in our landfills) at an alarming rate, it's also a cautionary tale about sustainability and waste. A DVD version also includes a public performance license for schools or other groups to screen it for their organizations.\n\n\n\nCitizen Architect: Samuel Mockbee and the Spirit of the Rural Studio. Explaining the value of good architecture is one of the toughest parts about my job, but that just got a little easier with a new film about the Rural Studio, a program in Alabama where architecture students design and build houses for people who can't afford them (this was the same place I traveled in 2007 to write about Project M's Buy a Meter initiative for GOOD). Citizen Architect, which was initially called the far-more provocative Snakebit, tells the story of Samuel "Sambo" Mockbee, the founder of the program who died in 2001, and how his vision has been carried into the present day by students, teachers, and volunteers. This is an incredible view of how architecture should work: Each home is custom-built for the family who will live there, and you can watch as architect and client work together to find sustainable, affordable solutions for living. But more importantly, the role of architecture itself is debated in interviews that pit people like Cameron Sinclair ("it should help people") against Peter Eisenman ("it should challenge you"). For those of you headed to SXSW next week, Citizen Architect will be screening at the festival.\n\n\n\n3) Visual Acoustics: The Modernism of Julius Shulman. This film actually came out in 2008, but it was in 2009 that the film earned most of its accolades and saw a wide release (hey, these awards aren't official, so I can make the rules). And of course it also deserves an acknowledgment here since 2009 was the year that its star, architectural photographer Julius Shulman died at 98 (he did see the film before he died, and loved it). Shulman's passion about his craft is evident, but it's the way he explains architecture-and specifically modernism-that makes him this perfect ambassador for design. Not being an architect himself, he's able to explain it without any of the jargon-y, academic-y fluff that tends to cloud architect-talk. And the stunning, seductive images-because a film about good design should look good, too!-will make anyone a fan of architecture. The film is still screening at festivals, and its director, Eric Bricker, is currently writing a series for GOOD about his next film.\n\n\n\n Art & Copy. This another intriguing film that, like Objectified, takes us inside an industry-in this case, the ad industry beginning with the era portrayed in Mad Men (which all the creatives say was not really like Mad Men, but judging from the lack of women in this film, it seems like the male-dominated part is true). Director Doug Pray, whom GOOD interviewed here, and who previously tackled an estranged family of pro surfers in Surfwise, turned his attention to the campaigns that we know and love (and hate, but mostly he focuses on what we agree to be good-looking, provocative, or funny advertising). Although he does address the ethical issues of visual clutter and consumerism, what Pray does an amazing job of is bringing these creatives' personalities to the forefront-showing how marketing translates into a (sometimes quite beautiful) message. This film is worth it for watching George Lois, the expletive-spewing art director widely considered to be the greatest editorial designer of all time. Art & Copy is still screening around the world.\n\n\n\nHandmade Nation: The Rise of DIY, Art, Craft and Design. Director Faythe Levine traveled 19,000 miles to dozens of craft and design shows to gather profiles on the re-emerging DIY culture in the United States. The makers like Jennie Hart, Jenine Bressner, the collective Knitta'-and their studios-are predictably inspiring, and there's plenty of evidence for why this movement has gained momentum in recent years. But there's something about how the film was made that also evokes the handmade, hands-on aesthetic, and that truly brings craft to life. The opening titles are an incredible stop-motion jaunt through Levine's craft closet, and Levine's band composed and performed the soundtrack, with Levine on the saw. If you spend a lot of time on, you'll feel right at home in this film. The DVD is out and it's also available as a book, and Levine is now working on a film about sign painters.But wait, you say, a design-centered film actually is nominated for an Academy Award this year-in the animated short film category. Logorama is more eye-candy than message-oriented, but was made by the French directing team H5, and provides some really sweet and clever commentary on our branded life. You can watch the entire short and make a pretty solid drinking game out of every logo you spot (you take AOL, I'll take Pringles). Update: Logorama won! It took the filmmakers six years to make a 16-minute film featuring 3,000 "unofficial sponsors."Unfortunately, going back through the years, it doesn't seem like design films fare that well when it comes to the Oscars. The most famous contender (in 2003 for best documentary) was My Architect, which was made by Nathaniel Kahn about his father, the great architect Louis Kahn. The architect was considered one of the greatest in the world, yet he was discovered dead, and broke, in a Penn Station bathroom in New York in 1974. Later it was discovered he had three separate families, including Nathaniel's, so Nathaniel embarked on a journey to learn more about his father through the legacy of buildings he had left behind. Okay, maybe that's not the best PR for the American Institute of Architects, but it proves that the most compelling design films are not design in a vacuum. Rather they chart the human experience, where buildings and objects and messages are interpreted through the people who actually use, examine, and enjoy them. These are the kinds of design stories we need to tell.What film did you think told the best design story in 2009? Are there any in production that we should keep an eye out for?

via Alan Levine / Flickr

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