Documentaries on Design: the Ugly and the Beautiful

Design inspiration is everywhere and film is without doubt a fantastic resource. It is formed by a richness of elements — the production, the soundtrack, the cinematography and use of color — that try to maintain our interest throughout the whole movie and bring to life a story.

Therefore, below a selection of films that celebrate design and show it from different perspectives, from the ugly to the beautiful.


Eames: The Architect & The Painter (2011)

This is a lively documentary that portrays the work and life of Charles and Ray Eames, a married couple whose approach to product design was extraordinary, with a very big influence in the 20th century. The film shows how their unique combination of personality and knowledge — a particular mix of the practical and the aesthetic — has left a trace in so many aspects of contemporary life.

You can watch the trailer here.

My Architect (2003)


My Architect is a very touching film as it has an important emotional component. Although Kahn is a widely known figure, in this case, the story is built around his son's journey. It is unique as it shows a journey by the son of one of his extra marital-relationships, Nathaniel Kahn, trying to figure things out. Through the film, he gets to know his father not by sharing with him, but through others and through his work, after his death. 

It shows a longing, the secrets, and the chaos, but also portrays the greatness of Kahn's work.

You can watch the trailer here.

Helvetica (2007) / Objectified (2009) / Urbanized (2011)

If you haven't seen one of these films they are all fantastic and absolutely a MUST. Gary Hustwit has made an amazing work with documentaries that are not only beautiful and entertaining, but informative and inspiring.

This is the ultimate Design Trilogy in the documentary area: 3 films in the areas of typography, industrial design and urbanism filled with wonderful insights by top designers and thinkers.

Trailer Helvetica - Trailer Objectified - Trailer Urbanized

16 Acres (2012)


Chronicling one of the "most complex construction project in recent American History", the film presents the process that went into the reconstruction of the World Trade Center.

And it is a great portrait of the complexity of the architect's labor. It is not just about getting the design right, but managing a lot of variables: the politics, the economic aspects, normative, the conflict of interests and the emotional sensitivity towards such an appalling event. 

You can watch the trailer here.

Design is One: The Vignellis (2012)

Italian-born Lella and Massimo Vignelli are among the world's most influential designers. Their motto has always been "if you can't find it, design it". From graphics to products, interiors, and architecture, they have done so much throughout their long career together.

The film is a glimpse into their lives, their creation, and their design philosophy, capturing their intelligence and creativity as well as their warmth and humor. 

You can watch the trailer here.

The Human Scale (2012)

A reality: 80% of the world's population will live in urban areas by 2050.

Based on the work of Danish architect Jan Gehl, "The Human Scale" makes an excellent case for designing cities around people. It supports a vision of future where the prioritization of the livability within urban spaces becomes fundamental.

The documentary illustrates both the consequences of unmet human needs in the metropolis and ways out of it, with examples of experiences in cities like Melbourne, Dhaka and New York. 

You can watch the trailer here.

Bauhaus: The Face of the 20th Century (2010)

Industrial design: Barcelona chair (1929)

Industrial design: Barcelona chair (1929)

Inside the Bauhaus Dessau theater facility. (1926) Photograph by Erich Consemüller.

Inside the Bauhaus Dessau theater facility. (1926) Photograph by Erich Consemüller.

The Bauhaus is an essential component in design history and the construction of a new, modern life. This documentary is successful at showing a bit of their philosophy and their enthusiasm for craft, functionality, and innovation.

What's more, you can get a peek into their methods of teaching, lifestyle and even watch recordings of different personalities of the school, from founder members like Gropius and Kandinsky, to former students from whom you can hear directly about their experience. It is truly a fascinating film.

You can see an excerpt here.



Any other design documentaries you would recommend? Let me know below!