When considering the concept of design, some of us stop at envisioning what something might look like: if you concentrated all your imaginative powers around the idea of a chair, could you come up with a new way to make one? Is it red; is it blue? Cool, we’re done here. This vague, cranial gesturing at design as purely aesthetic is simply wrong, and since 2017, Netflix has been making a fascinating documentary series called Abstract: The Art of Design that digs into all the ways in which design permeates our lives and our behaviors as human beings.
On Wednesday, September 25, the series returns to the streamer for a second season and with a whole host of new episodes featuring the likes of Ruth E. Carter, the Academy Award-winning costume designer for Black Panther; Neri Oxman, an internationally famous environmental designer and artist; art world darling Olafur Eliasson, among others.
The Art of Design delightfully condenses what may seem like lofty subject matter into instantly digestible narratives. For example, one episode in the first season focused on Tinker Hatfield, a man who at first glance appears to be simply gray-haired and unassuming but who’s actually one of the most beloved industry players in footwear: he’s responsible for the designs of some of the most iconic Nike sneakers in the brand’s history. Hatfield played a critical role in dreaming up the look and feel to Air Jordans, Air Maxes and Zoom Talarias. If none of these names mean anything to you, it’s clear that you’re behind the times in terms of how footwear has crash-landed into the art market overall.
Over the past couple of months, sneaker auctions and amateur sneaker reselling businesses have raked in staggering amounts of money due to the interest of an ever-growing community of deep-pocketed aficionados. In July, former CEO Miles Nadal dropped $1.2 million for the full extent of a Sotheby’s auction of rare sneakers that included Chanel x Pharrell x Adidas NMD Hu sneakers, the legendary Nike “Moon Shoe” and many others. Without the design ingenuity of Hatfield and others like him, sneakers would arguably have never have become artful objects of desire in the way that they have.
Ultimately, this type of detail is exactly what Abstract: The Art of Design aims to uncover. In modern society, our surroundings are filled to the brim with objects of design, from the clutter on our desks to the buildings in which we sit. But not often do we stop to think about the reason why something looks the way it does—the precise integration of aesthetic pleasure with functionality that came together to make the most mundane and the most showstopping objects that pass through our visual consciousness. Here, all around us, is human ingenuity and creativity, one just has to really look to see it.