Netflix’s illuminating new series, Abstract: The Art of Design, documents the lives, designs and dreams of the some of the great innovators of our time—from graphic artists to automotive designers, illustrators to interior designers. The first season is available to stream, and you absolutely should.
Each breath-taking, provocative and intentional piece of work featured in the series showcases the depth and diversity of human creativity at its finest. Where Abstract shines most, however, is in its ability to pose deeper questions about the metaphysical functions of design, art and beauty—which, as theologian John de Gruchy writes in Christianity, Art and Transformation, “characterizes the form of ultimate reality … the essence of God’s glory.”
Here are eight major takeaways about God’s intention for art and design from Abstract’s featured artists and designers:
‘In the best moments, design celebrates the world.’
Christoph Niemann, Illustrator
Award-winning illustrator Christoph Niemann describes his work—featured across a variety of mediums, from The New Yorker to his newly-developed iOS application, Petting Zoo—as necessarily taking root in reality.
“You’re not creating an artificial world,” he concludes. “You’re taking the things you know and breaking them down into little elements … [then rearranging] them to make a statement.”
Niemann sees himself as a mere creator of information that melds the already existing worldviews of his audience to his own.
Thus, Niemann’s work is seen as celebratory of the world because it pulls from—or, rather, generates a network between—a plethora of human experiences—which, as he admits, doesn’t always work out as he hopes. “Some people love it, and some people don’t. That’s life.”
Nevertheless, even attempted unity, especially through recognition of diversity, reflects the ultimate reality of God’s restored creation: Jesus says in Luke 13:29, “People will come from east and west and north and south, and will take their places at the feast in the kingdom of God.”
Functioning like Christ’s parables, compelling art and design possess an inherent capability to reveal glimpses of the promises of the God’s Kingdom breaking into present reality. Through humor, nostalgia, novelty and contemplation, Niemann’s work points to these gashes in human fallenness where reconciliation is already taking place and shining brightest.
‘A basic design is always functional, but a great one will always say something.’
Tinker Hatfield, Footwear Designer
To Tinker Hatfield, the world-renowned designer behind Nike’s Air Jordan series, a truly innovative design helps a person live up to his or her greatest potential by simultaneously enhancing performance and telling a story.
“Art”—in his case, shoemaking—“is the ultimate self-expression from the creative individual … to solve a problem for somebody else.”
Hatfield’s work has led to breakthrough discoveries in performance for athletes of all disciplines, shapes and sizes. Ultimately, at the heart of each of Hatfield’s designs is a genuine devotion to creating something functional and meaningful for as many people as possible.
Through the service of shoe design, Hatfield attempts the resolve the much larger dilemmas of human need and capacity. His work alludes to a fullness of life that allows people to experience and respond to the functionality and novelty of human design.
Almost amusingly, Hatfield’s designs communicate one of the core messages of Jesus’ ministry. Christ says, “The thief comes only to kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” (John 10:10)
God’s intention for art and design is functionality inasmuch as it directs people to fullness of life through relationship with Jesus Christ. By addressing a fundamental need for aesthetically pleasing, story-driven, yet functional design, Tinker Hatfield promotes a vision of life driven by service and joy, equipping image-bearers to perform the way God Himself designed them to be.
‘The showing of things is, in itself, the seeking for things. What would you have to show if you haven’t been looking, finding, seeking?’
Es Delvin, Stage Designer
Es Delvin, stage designer and creative director for companies like Louis Vuitton and clients like Kanye West, views her work as the unconventional convergence of earthly and higher reality. At one point in the series, she describes the attendance of these events as profoundly spiritual, even worship-like experiences.
She says people have started focusing on just one person. “All of the energy of the room is focused on that one, little individual. And that in itself is an extraordinary physiological event.”
Ultimately, Delvin admits that what her art suggests is far more significant—and relevant to an audience—than the stage designs themselves. “In the end, everything’s only going to exist in the memories of people,” she says.
However, each of Delvin’s designs are driven by the natural human impetus to fill innate voids with art suggest her truest purposes as a stage designer: to, like a mirror, place before an audience the fundamental question of what they are truly searching for. Jesus poses this very question on various occasions: “Jesus looked around and saw them following. ‘What are you seeking?” And they said to him, ‘Rabbi’ (“teacher”), ‘where are you staying?’” (John 1:38)
As double entendre, Jesus’ question asserts that human life is a journey of searching, seeking and ultimately finding purpose in relationship with the true object of God’s glory, Christ Himself.
Es Delvin’s stage environments provoke similar responses, drawing people to the darkest nights of their souls to lead them to the truest light: the light of the world.
‘We’re not going to stop until we’ve incorporated every single concern, no matter how small.’
Bjarke Engels, Architect
This young architect—originally from Denmark, but now with structures all across the globe—describes his discipline as a journey through moments of “immaculate inception,” the process of realizing pure fiction into concrete reality. Engels’ self-described obsession with problem-solving compels him to think innovatively and challenge conventional design wisdom without totally abandoning the architectural traditions that influenced him.
Of architecture, Engles believes that there are even greater opportunities to shape the framework of human life by opening the doors to any imaginable possibility.
“You can take things that are considered infrastructure…and crossbreed it so that it actually has positive social and environmental side effects. Those combinations are very powerful because it’s taking a very strong force – which is necessity, utility – and giving it poetry and possibility.”
Engles’ approach to building design promotes the “hedonistic sustainability” that God has commissioned for mankind since the beginning: “Then God said, ‘Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.'” (Genesis 1:26)
Engles recognizes that authority of humanity to rule over creation is not without its responsibility. In its own right, then, meaningful design expresses stewardship, the glimmer of restored Creation to a brighter, more “pragmatic utopia”—life as it is meant to be.
‘The best designs are emotional forever.’
Ralph Gilles, Automotive Designer
Indeed, the head of global design for Chrysler has astute wisdom to offer the aspiring innovators of tomorrow. Born in New York City to Haitian immigrants and raised in Montreal, Gilles’ relationship with the automobile industry takes deep roots in his own history.
He remembers drawing concept cars at an early age based off of automobiles designed years before he was born. As Gilles says, a self-described “romantic car lover” has to be some sort of automotive historian to know why they are so fond of the design features that they find so aesthetically pleasing in the first place.
Following an already established path of design tradition is the essence of reinvention, revitalization and innovation. This same attitude is described by Paul to the Church of Rome of the function of the Scriptures: “For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through endurance taught in the Scriptures and the encouragement they provide we might have hope.” (Romans 15:4)
The hope of Christianity is necessarily rooted in the history of its people and their God. As Paul writes to the Romans, the timelessness of the Scriptures’ instruction and encouragement is fundamental to the Christian faith; in the same way, then, the most emotionally compelling art and design elicits a certain harkening to the roots of its people. In doing so, these mediums inspire hope.
‘You have to be in a state of play to design. If you’re not in a state of play, you can’t make anything.’
Paula Scher, Graphic Designer
Dubbed the “goddess of graphic design,” the “most influential woman graphic designer on the planet” and an “indispensable player” of the New York-based studio Pentagram, Paula Scher has used typography and graphic design for decades to bring her own, unique voice to pop culture.
From album covers to typographical mapmaking, Scher’s whimsical style carries with it an immense power to form identity systems, namely combinations of sensibility, spirit and meaning that form communities and entire ways of thought.
In the series, Scher describes her creative process as starting from a point of breaking down her own self-awareness and allowing subconscious to take hold. That design occurs only in a space of play implies a need for some sort of carving out of one’s daily routine—or, as Eugene Peterson writes, an “uncluttered time and space in which we can distance ourselves from our own activities enough to see what God is doing.” Jesus describes this time and space, Sabbath, as a gift from God to mankind:
Only through freedom to play and pray can art and design flourish to its greatest potential. In part, this is why Jesus says, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” (Mark 2:27) Ultimately, God created Sabbath for humanity to have profound impacts on one’s spiritual and professional lives; it is most honoring to God, then, when that space is properly cultivated and preserved.
‘You’re looking for a moment when you feel you’re as close to the soul as possible. That’s what good design is: when it liberates you … to help you feel something very powerful.’
This self-proclaimed cultural provocateur—known for his portraiture of well-known world figures and photography of human rights issues—approaches his discipline with graphic boldness and a deep emphasis on the human condition.
“The camera is nothing more than a tool,” he declares. “What’s important is the message, the story, the feeling, the connection.”
Platon has become famous for his simplistic aesthetic: a modern iconography rooted in provocation of feeling over complexity, substance over style. Deeply influenced by the religious icons in churches of his home country, Greece, Platon uses photography as an opportunity to capture the complexities and beauties of the human soul through each of his subjects.
Ultimately, his work alludes to mankind’s inherent ability to reflect its Creator, reflected in the earliest moments of the world: “So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” (Genesis 1:27)
That every person bears the image of God implies value in all of humanity, regardless of class, race, gender, disability or experience. Art and design at their most meaningful, then, express this same human dignity—not because people are anything more, or less, than living expressions of God Himself.
‘Empathy is a cornerstone of design.’
Ilse Crawford, Interior Designer
Ilse Crawford’s interior design combines simplicity with sensuality—rather than the theatricality or extravagance often associated with the discipline—to cultivate spaces that promote the well-being of her clients.
It is Crawford’s genuine desire to satisfy the subconscious, an attitude which characterizes her projects with warmth and sincerity. Her commitment to serving others even stretches across disciplines, compelling her to study and write about how to improve the practice of interior design.
At the heart of Crawford’s work is a commitment to empathy: understanding and sharing the feelings of others so her work “really affects people through the five senses,” as Crawford describes.
For art and design to most properly serve others, then, it must tap into something experiential, even Christlike: “And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!” (Philippians 2:8)
Just as Christ himself is the chief cornerstone of the household of God—of which God’s people are called citizens—so is empathy, one of Christ’s greatest virtues, a cornerstone of design. For creation out of compulsion of love and service for others is the essence of Christ’s mission, a Good News intended for all of mankind.