‘Abstract:’ A New Frame of Reference

By Emily Conklin, Staff Writer

The lofty design world has been documented extensively with references and talking heads alike appealing to a high bred inner circle — or maybe to art school grads with edgy glasses that wear a lot of yellow. That is, until “Abstract,” the new Netflix documentary series, changed all that.

Each 45-minute episode highlights a specific designer and their field of work in an unfinished and raw manner. The audience hears interviewers asking questions, low banter picked up mistakenly by a microphone and debates between directors and designers on how to shoot a scene. This deliberate rough-edging is evocative of design itself — never-finished, always-improving, spur-of-the-moment artisanship that in the end forms a beautiful, contiguous whole.

An illustrator, a shoe designer, an architect, the subject list goes on — design is all around us, from the shoes on our feet to the dorm rooms NYU builds. Each element of visual information is carefully curated by an artist seeking to make everyday existence more complete. Tinker Hatfield, designer of Nike’s Jordan sneaker line, sums up the sentiment with a short insight into his career’s vast obsession.

“I think about feet a lot. A lot more than the average person,” Hatfield said.

A non-conventional designer, Hatfield did not attend art school, and didn’t even discover an ability to draw until college when he attended the University of Oregon as a track athlete. His current project is creating a real model of the original “Back to the Future” self-tying shoe he designed for the 1985 film.

What makes this series special is not the designers chosen for interview or the professions in the spotlight — it’s the creativity of the filmmaking itself. “Abstract” is a series about designers, made by designers. Christoph Niemann, a German illustrator, often sees characters walk off the page, occasionally even chasing them around town. The show’s directors engage the viewer by quite literally thinking outside the box of the two-dimensional screen space, bringing viewers into the active and abrasive world of design itself.

In a society where the idea of pursuing art seems to be a one-way ticket to a life of odd-jobs and ramen diets, the message that “Abstract” conveys is one of hope. Creativity is not only all around us, but within each of us. A world where the arts are celebrated and encouraged is a world where more problems can be solved, and where people can communicate despite barriers of all shapes and sizes. Appreciating art and design in the everyday and the mundane is a step towards appreciating people and their work despite apparent commonality or cultural differences.

“Abstract” offers viewers a glimpse into the colorful and energetic world of art and design, whether in the form of a subway advertisement or a New Yorker magazine cover. By taking the time to look, understand, and appreciate what lies beneath the surface, we are taking an invaluable first step towards progress.

“Abstract” premiered Feb. 10 and is now streaming on Netflix.

Email Emily Conklin at entertainment@nyunews.com.

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