Choose Art for Christmas

I don’t watch a great deal of TV during the year, but those cold, damp weeks between the end of the F1 season and the end of the Dakar is peak TV time for me. Once we’re past winter solstice and spring is en route, I am back in the garage at night.

Terrestrial channels are a bit of a waste, so it comes down to catchup, Youtube or Netflix. I got into Netflix a few months ago when I realised what the kids were paying for separate accounts and put them all under one account instead. It took a bit of sifting to find my stuff, but I’ve tracked down some good world cinema, independent documentaries and enjoyed Netflix’ own F1 documentary series. My current favourite show is “Abstract: The Art of Design”.

Abstract follows great creatives across a range of disciplines and documents parts of their lives and work. There is no set narrative and little technical insight into how these designers do what they do: it is just well put together, a pleasure to watch and the subjects share some interesting lessons.

While some design industry reviewers dismiss Abstract as lightweight, I like that the show explores the dimensions afforded to art and design by each subject. It also tries to illuminate some of the unique links that the subjects have constructed between the two. I am fascinated by this tensional tone and the subjective paths from idea to implementation – why we think what we think and where why and what leads us – so I find examples of how the process works in practice the most elucidatory aspects in any documentary.

I watched a good example this week: an engaging episode with the Danish-Icelandic artist and architect, Olafur Eliasson (trailer, above, with a literal lightbulb moment). In his introduction, Eliasson made the point that the conception and creation of art are just steps in the process. What happens when people experience the art completes the work’s purpose. This is something that both aspiring and seasoned creatives are wont to forget.

When my kids were quite young – the eldest was five, middle was two and the youngest one had not yet arrived – I bought an older American camper, so we could take them away on long holidays in comfort with all of the stuff smaller kids need on board. It was fabulous, of course, and they now all talk about owning their own campers one day. But as a lifelong taker-apart-er, my initial fascination with buying the camper was the joy of unscrewing it. I was so entirely focused on the mechanical spec (diesel V8) and the various items of restoration work that would be done before our first trip that I completely forgot we would end up driving it to places and enjoying those places.

The same is true of writing. I usually just write because I feel the need to write. Something is interesting, I want to share it, therefore I write. I write about things I enjoy whether I’m earning or not – it’s just worked out quite well that it’s now what I do for a living.

Most people have creative urges: it is part and parcel of being out in the world that we will be touched and inspired by things that arise and we will subsequently want to record and share them: that’s how all art begins. But the work is incomplete until someone experiences the result: admires your old car, watches your video or clicks on your playlist.

As some movie directors buy tickets in cinemas on the day their movie is released to understand how the work is being received, I wonder how car designers experience this denouement: do they stop people in petrol stations and ask how the car is performing? I guess they must do. I once had a conversation with a luxury car designer about an early Renault 5 I was driving. What a style icon that car was: the art of small cars would make a good future Abstract episode.

Perhaps the best source for true resolution of the car designer’s art is something like Honest John, where a car is followed across its life and the pros and cons are logged and reported. Is that art? It may not be presented artistically, but I think it is art of a sort, even if the longer term reviews are perhaps more about engineering. Just as every depreciation curve has an organic component, Honest John is tracking the user experience and the lifespan of a complex design at the conjunct of product and user. Okay, depreciation as art is a stretch, I’ll grant you.

“Design fans will watch this show regardless,” says Abstract co-creator, Dave O’Connor in an interview with Design Week. “The real testament to whether we did a good job or not is when the non-design fans can come in and access the show. The generosity of the designers this series and the access they give us to their creative process and private lives is about trust.

“We approach this show like a design challenge, so the designers accept us into their world because they see our process as mirroring theirs. That enables real trust and we find some really human and universal moments of warmth and empathy.” This sums it all up quite nicely for me.

I’ve saved a few episodes for two weeks working in Lanzarote from the end of this week and am looking forward to completing the set. If you’re interested in art that is prevalent, but not necessarily mainstream (many of the topics covered are things a non-design fan might not normally consider artistically), then Abstract is worth checking out over the December downtime.

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