Netflix has ushered in a new age of popularity for docu-series, and their ambitious attitude towards embracing niche content has continually paid off. Abstract: The Art of Design continues this trend, offering vibrant and varied insight into eight modern icons of the design world.
Don’t be put off by the title; you don’t have to be a fan of art history to appreciate this series. It’s not really used here in the artistic sense, but more in a literal one, defining the short, sharp summaries of its subjects across each episode. As one artist puts it, “the abstraction to me is getting rid of everything that’s not essential to making a point”.
As it turns out, the focus of the series is not really the art, but the artists themselves. It’s the human touch that drives the best moments of the series, even more so than the artistic merits that anchor their stories. From the fourth-wall breaking moments in which neurotic New Yorker cover illustrator Christoph Niemann hesitates to clean his teeth in front of the camera, or legendary portrait photographer Platon’s heart-wrenching story of the day he came to truly understand pain, these poignant insights offer a better understanding of what makes a great artist than the subjects could hope to provide solely by talking about their work.
Five directors worked on the project, with Morgan Neville (20 Feet from Stardom) doubling as executive producer to define the series’ energetic and organic style. It’s a certain highlight, and some of the best you’ll find in a documentary. The camera is rarely static here, in stark contrast to genre norms, and so much of the artists’ work is thrown on screen in such a short timeframe that you’ll often want to pause and appreciate it before moving on. This dynamic keeps the series fresh, and hopefully appeals to a broader audience than the subjects might otherwise draw.
Abstract is unique in the Netflix catalogue because it’s hard to describe it as binge-worthy. Though it is mostly fun and mostly compelling, the shift in tones between, say, revolutionary graphic designer Paula Schur’s fast paced, business savvy approach and the more subtle and practical style of concept car designer Ralph Gilles making it hard to truly appreciate their unique perspectives.
The only criticism I have is that the subjects are slightly obvious. While there’s plenty of gender and racial diversity, the fact that these artists all come from design hotspots like New York and London means most design fans will already know of them. That’s understandable for a first season, but I hope season two offers some more unusual selections.
Beyond the appeal of the masterful art on display, Abstract: The Art of Design is a series for anyone interested in what makes brilliant minds tick. Don’t go in expecting to find the answer to what makes a person a great artist – you may be surprised to find out how uncertain most of the subjects confess they feel about their own talent – but prepared to enjoy a fun, fact-filled series bursting with life.
Abstract: The Art of Design is out now across all Netflix regions.