My usual date for a Saturday night in is something mindless like Keeping Up With the Kardashians (reserve your judgments, people). But every once in a while, I'm reminded that it can be just as fun to watch something with more substance. It elevates a cozy weekend night into something really fulfilling and educational. Even when I polish off a bottle of wine as I watch.
If you're similarly interested in taking your cozy TV (or laptop) nights up a notch, here are some documentaries to get you started–15 titles all about art and design. Whether your brand of art is architecture, typography, advertising, industrial design, photography, or even origami, there's a documentary here for you.
Gary Hustwit's Design Trilogy: "Helvetica" (2007), "Objectified" (2009), & "Urbanized" (2011)
Three films that tackle design in three different industries.
Helvetica is a feature-length independent film about typography, graphic design and global visual culture. It looks at the proliferation of one typeface as part of a larger conversation about the way type affects our lives.
Objectified is a feature-length documentary about our complex relationship with manufactured objects and, by extension, the people who design them. It’s a look at the creativity at work behind everything from toothbrushes to tech gadgets.
Urbanized is a feature-length documentary about the design of cities, which looks at the issues and strategies behind urban design and features some of the world's foremost architects, planners, policymakers, builders, and thinkers.
Bill Cunningham New York (2010)
“We all get dressed for Bill,” says Vogue editrix Anna Wintour. The “Bill” in question is 80+ New York Times photographer Bill Cunningham. ... Cunningham’s enormous body of work is more reliable than any catwalk as an expression of time, place and individual flair. In turn, Bill Cunningham New York is a delicate, funny and often poignant portrait of a dedicated artist whose only wealth is his own humanity and unassuming grace.
Between the Folds (2008)
Between the Folds chronicles the stories of ten fine artists and intrepid theoretical scientists who have abandoned careers and scoffed at hard–earned graduate degrees—all to forge unconventional lives as modern–day paperfolders. As they converge on the unlikely medium of origami, these artists and scientists reinterpret the world in paper, and bring forth a bold mix of sensibilities towards art, expressiveness, creativity and meaning.
Milton Glaser: To Inform and Delight (2008)
A look at the life and work of graphic designer Milton Glaser, famed for creating the "I ♥ NY" logo and the psychedelic Bob Dylan poster. Available on Amazon.
Design & Thinking (2012)
Inspired by design thinking, this documentary grabs businessman, designers, social change-makers and individuals to portrait what they have in common when facing this ambiguous 21st century. What is design thinking? How is it applied in business models? How are people changing the worldwith their own creative minds? It is a call to the conventional minds to change and collaborate.
Art & Copy (2009)
Art & Copy reveals the work and wisdom of some of the most influential advertising creatives of our time — people who've profoundly impacted our culture, yet are virtually unknown outside their industry.
Eames: The Architect and the Painter (2011)
The husband-and-wife team of Charles and Ray Eames are widely regarded as America’s most important designers. But their personal lives and influence on significant events in American life – from the development of modernism, to the rise of the computer age – has been less widely understood. Narrated by James Franco, Eames: The Architect and the Painter is the first film since their death dedicated to these creative geniuses and their work.
Sketches of Frank Gehry (2005)
Sketches of Frank Gehry chronicles the friendship between director Sydney Pollock and the famed architect every bit as much as it does Gehry and his work, and it makes for a delightful window into the world of creativity and genius. [Gehry] possesses a singular vision and strong ego, which we view not only through the wide variety of his works, but also from interviews with friends, architecture critics, and clients, including artist Ed Ruscha, Hopper, L.A. talent manager Mike Ovitz, architect Philip Johnson, and others.
Regular or Super: Views on Mies van der Rohe (2004)
In 1967, at the end of a career spanning more than six decades, which included the design of the Seagram Building in New York, the Lake Shore Drive Apartment Buildings in Chicago, and the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin, architect Mies van der Rohe (1886-1969) designed a simple gas station near Montreal. The story of that gas station serves as the point of departure for Regular or Super, which examines Mies' entire body of work (more than 70 buildings) and a sparse style that reflects his motto that less is more.
Visual Acoustics: The Modernism of Julius Shulman (2008)
Narrated by Dustin Hoffman, Visual Acoustics celebrates the life and career of Julius Shulman, the world’s greatest architectural photographer, whose images brought modern architecture to the American mainstream.
Design is One: Lella & Massimo Vignelli (2012)
“If you can’t find it, design it” is the motto of the Vignellis, whose renowned work ranges ”from the spoon to the city.” Kathy Brew & Roberto Guerra’s film brings us into the Vignellis’ world, capturing their intelligence and creativity, as well as their humanity, warmth, and humor.
Herb & Dorothy (2008)
In the early 1960s, Herb & Dorothy Vogel – a postal worker and librarian – began purchasing the works of unknown Minimalist and Conceptual artists, guided by two rules: the piece had to be affordable, and it had to be small enough to fit in their one-bedroom Manhattan apartment. They proved themselves curatorial visionaries; most of those they supported and befriended went on to become world-renowned artists. Herb & Dorothy provides a unique chronicle of the world of contemporary art from two unlikely collectors, whose shared passion and discipline defies stereotypes and redefines what it means to be a patron of the arts.
The Visual Language of Herbert Matter (2011)
The Visual Language of Herbert Matter is a revealing look at the fascinating life story of the highly influential mid-century modern design master. Known as a quintessential designer's designer, Swiss born Herbert Matter is largely credited with expanding the use of photography as a design tool and bringing the semantics of fine art into the realm of applied arts.
Want to know where to watch? Craving more? Designers:Watch has a great list of art and design documentaries, along with links of where to watch them.
Have you seen any of these films? Any others you recommend?