From punk to Bauhaus
Film-maker Gary Hustwit connects the dots between his DIY aesthetic and Dieter Rams.
Photography: Jessica Edwards and Gary Hustwit
Think of Vitsœ’s revered designer, Dieter Rams, and a punk rock sensibility might not spring to mind, but for American film-maker Gary Hustwit the connection is clear. While the world awaits the release of his crowd-funded documentary on Rams, Hustwit reveals what it is that makes him tick.
Hustwit is adamant there are parallels between the safety-pin aesthetic and Rams’s design ethos. “I don’t actually feel like I can separate the two,” he asserted. “In my daily life, when I think about punk, it’s not really about any particular style of music – it’s more a state of mind. It’s about pursuing the projects that you want to work on, and doing it on your own terms. Making ‘The Design Trilogy’ films independently and not doing any of it for a big corporation…that’s all part of the connecting thread. You create the world you want to live in.
“I first became interested in design because of the Bauhaus. Learning about the cross-disciplinary practices, the work, and the context felt so liberating. I didn’t look at the form; I looked at the ideas behind it. Just because a [Walter] Gropius building has clean lines doesn’t mean it wasn’t totally radical, messy and revolutionary. This is what draws me to someone like Dieter’s work, it’s the act of disruption or evolution.”
Hustwit’s own evolution was unusual, with early influences shaping his inquiring mind, free of boundaries: “I had an interesting education. My parents and their friends formed a hippy school with a teacher they all knew. From sixth grade I was in a super creative, unconventional situation that didn’t deviate from humanities, language, drama, poetry, art and music. I had a creative grandmother and started skateboarding and surfing when I was around 15. So the type of schooling, and the sense of rebelling against the conservative city I was living in, were certainly part of what makes me who I am today.”
Like many of his contemporaries, he discovered design via emerging technologies, which democratised many creative pursuits – including film-making. “Putting my finger on why I started to make films about design goes back to my teens,” he revealed. “All my friends were in bands, so we decided to put on a show. We rented out a ballroom, hired a sound system and made some flyers – which was my first encounter with graphic design.
“A friend got the very first Apple Macintosh, the 128K. Suddenly, with the Mac, typography became a ‘thing’ and meant we could make covers for mixtapes. I started playing around with rudimentary print programs, and even though I couldn’t draw, I could make random things look legitimate on the computer. Suddenly my ideas looked believable. It’s all about the DIY aesthetic. That’s really what stuck with me.”
A self-confessed master of many trades, Hustwit’s career started in the music industry with a long stretch at Californian independent record label SST, which was founded by Greg Ginn of Black Flag fame. He then moved to New York during the dot.com bubble and started his own publishing company and DVD label. At every stage of his working life, he has been unable to resist the urge to share his knowledge. Building communities is his passion. Almost everything he’s been involved in “has been as a direct result of the shock and disbelief that something doesn’t already exist,” he explained. “I can have an idea in my head, and for the sake of myself, my friends and other people, I want to see it out there in the world, and by any means necessary, I will make sure it happens.”
His sleeves-rolled-up approach to film-making stems not from the need to evangelise good taste, but a lifelong love of discovery. An insatiable curiosity has led him to become something of a cultural explorer, propelled by a motivation to uncover moments when pioneering people and their ideas have changed the world. “The chances of me discovering a new land mass in the South Pacific is very slim, but making the connection between an obscure designer, musician, architect or photographer – and how their work relates to modern life – is what drives me,“ he shrugged modestly. “Digging around for facts and pulling them together in a format that people can find interesting is a big draw.”
It was while making his design trilogy of documentaries – comprising ‘Helvetica’, ‘Objectified’, and ‘Urbanized’ – that Hustwit’s knowledge and personal connections within the global design community continued to grow. In the years following their release, he found himself in the ideal position to shed light on the increasingly prescient influence of Dieter Rams and his designs for Vitsœ and Braun. Hustwit’s direct relationship with Rams has led to a philosophical understanding of his work, which is all too often celebrated for its aesthetics alone.
During filming the pair bonded over a love of music and teen rebellion: punk rock for Hustwit; jazz for Rams. Both genres terrified parents as their children were drawn to smoky basements by young crowds hungry for change.
Laughing, Hustwit admitted that the conversations with Rams not only turned to the unexpected similarities between Miles Davis and Nirvana, but also to the mastery of a craft as a worthy vocation. “Looking back, there are moments that Rams felt that he and his team really did achieve something,” he remembered. “The fact that we are still talking about and obsessing over utilitarian objects as though they are works of art is probably a testament to that. These days he feels absolutely sure of himself, his ideas and his work.”
“He’s still actively thinking about his designs for Vitsœ, but really, a lot of his thoughts are about crystallising his ideology and philosophy. It’s like samurai sword making – spending years, decades, trying to create the perfect product. I think this is something that has been lost today. Rams feels a slight sense of regret about being involved in the field of industrial design because the whole thing has gone slightly bonkers. He feels he played some role in creating that lust for new technology. In the 1950s, that wasn’t what he was trying to do. He wanted to create better things for people that would last a long time, and that’s rare today.”
Gary Hustwit’s documentary ‘Rams’ will be broadcast in the UK on BBC Four, Monday 19 August at 21:00, and available on BBC iPlayer thereafter.