During an unassuming scroll through Netflix offerings last week, something new caught my eye. It was a series of eight documentaries called Abstract: The Art of Design, each one about a specific designer, their field of design and creative process. What a good surprise! The even better surprise was how much we enjoyed watching them.
I was completely charmed by the first episode featuring self-conscious illustrator Christoph Niemann. Whether sitting in his Berlin studio staring at a blank white page or wandering through animations of his own drawings, the shy Niemann himself is cleverly drawn out by the filmmaker’s creative directing and editing. He describes quite accurately how people don’t really want to see authenticity in what he does. His success seems to lie not just in understanding the power of abstraction (“The abstraction for me is this idea of getting rid of everything that is not essential to making a point”), but in showing up everyday and keeping a non-formulaic practice alive (“I have to trust for crazy moments to happen”).
I think the best aspect of this series is hearing these eight different personalities—who range from confident to self-doubting to curious points in between—describe how their creations materialize.
Probably no surprise, but the graphic design episode featuring New Yorker Paula Scher was also a favorite for me. I liked seeing this person who has made a career of putting text on things (buildings, brands, theater posters) in her Connecticut home making loads of quirky, messy map-like paintings of the United States.
This series probably wasn’t intended to be binge-watched, but that’s what we did, burning through it in under a week. The creative disciplines included the two mentioned above, plus photography, stage design, athletic shoe design, car design, interior design, and architecture. In particular, I didn’t expect to care about car design or athletic shoes, but in some ways that wasn’t really the point. It’s fun hearing each of the designers talk about what they do and how it happens, even when it’s something I don’t think much about. I looked forward to that with each episode and wasn’t disappointed.