Why HBO (and not Netflix) gave design fans the TV special they actually deserve

New York City – Abstract was touted by Netflix as the design-world’s answer to Chef’s Table: a documentary series about the often intangible but deeply personal processes that lead to innovation in creative output. Instead, and perhaps with the exception of Christoph Niemann’s saved-by-its-subject episode, it was a dull and polished look into design platituding – Bjarke Ingels’ hagiography being its most obvious example. But the show, created by Scott Dadich, sadly failed to follow the golden rule of narration: show, don’t tell.

And yet as it often happening lately, HBO is giving storytelling fans the shows that deep-pocketed Netflix keeps failing to deliver – any teenager, for example, can give you 13 reasons why Euphoria is a larger cultural phenomenon. This time, the television network gave us design fans the TV special we actually deserve… but not the one we actually expected. That’s where comedian Julio Torres and his one-hour stand-up piece come in.

Torres, a self-described space prince by way of El Salvador, is best known for writing two of the sharpest bits Saturday Night Live has produced in the past five years. The first is Papyrus, a farcical tour of rage that has Ryan Gosling losing sleep over the fact that the second-highest grossing movie of all time used a free, misguidedly tribal-looking typeface in its poster – Avatar’s graphic designers have some explaining to do. The second is Wells for Boys, a fake product ad that subtly points to the troubled, misunderstood childhoods that many an odd soul had to overcome, by using a plastic toy as an emotional conduit. With these pieces, Torres became an unlikely voice for those people to whom design, the designed object and the designed space mattered far too much.

Cut to 2019, and after the cult success of Los Espookys – a dark horror comedy meets magic-realist Brazilian telenovela co-created by Torres for HBO – he recently released My Favorite Shapes, a one-hour stand-up special. The elevator pitch? ‘I need to show these shapes,’ he tells his mother on the show’s opening phone call. ‘Because if I don’t show them, I don’t know whether anyone else will.’

Why are the creators, curators and critics of the design industry so obsessed with seemingly superficial minutiae? If they devoted the same amount of effort to things that actually matter to society as they do to chubby furniture, we would have found a cure for cancer by now, our detractors say. The truth is, we show our shapes because we have to. Because nobody else will. Because by showing them, we show ourselves – and incidentally, it actually helps explain the logical irrationality of the act of trying to contain design.

In My Favorite Shapes, the best showcase of that duality is the set itself. It’s a stand-up comedy special, yes, but Torres is actually sitting in a laboratory that looks co-designed by Luis Barragán and Polly Pocket – in reality, it was co-designed by Torres’ architect mother, Tita, and production designer Michael Krantz. Let me repeat that: it is a stand-up comedy special where no customary empty theatre stage will do, because it needs its spatial envelopment to be worthy of its subject. That, right there, breaks the mould of the genre: while most comedians craft their jokes in a manner so commendably tight that they can fully and solely exist in the audience’s mind, Torres asks his audience to engage in the shape-shifting gymnastics that would allow his jokes to exist in a space specifically designed for hosting them.

For Krantz, used to more direct briefs for music videos or television commercials, this was a project like no other. He received initial screengrabs of a 3D model made by Tita and tweaked by Marta, her millennial daughter, showing a clear influence from the likes of Giorgio De Chirico’s Roman arcades and the Memphis Group’s interlocking volumes. But Krantz recognized something else in the project: the horizontal effect of Instagram – ‘the square aspect ratio [of the network] democratises images,’ he explained. Because of Marta’s involvement, the throwback 80s look that has been re-sprung to life by social media accounts like @newagecocaine and @lavenderladysupreme was there in full force. So this brief-by-screengrab turned out to be a proposal that spoke to both Tita’s generation and Marta’s, thus illustrating the coexistence of the different generational readings in every designed element – it’s what Virgil Abloh says he’s doing with those orange things.

Julio Torres is the millennial Roland Barthes of television, and My Favorite Shapes is his Mythologies

The greatest challenge, though, was to make that initial idea work for the camera. The objects have their moment as they appear in a conveyor belt that Torres activates by foot; the entire structure had to be built around it, calculating the backroom space for prop handlers, as well as the rigging, cabling and LED components. The original screengrabs had more chrome to them and Torres wanted ‘a certain frivolity… but it had to feel serious, like a laboratory,’ as Krantz explained. They agreed to desaturate everything. Those spatial calculations allowed the comedian to present a square, a crystal that might consider working, Tilda Swinton’s apartment, use a staircase to hop on over to a separate spot to speak of the most vindictive curtain in the world and then sit back to present a depressing interpretation of the Playful Penguin Race set that is actually a sad allegory for the infinite loop of struggle of the middle class. Julio Torres is the millennial Roland Barthes of television, and My Favorite Shapes is his Mythologies.

‘It’s a Shintoist approach to the awareness that within each object is a spirit… but he just turns it on its head,’ Krantz explained, agreeing. After all, he is one of ours. An art-school graduate whose own favourite shapes were found during constant trips to the library, today his studio is made up of large tables full of materials and pens and bits and pieces that he can ‘visit’ when he wants to. ‘[That’s why] I think Marie Kondo is batshit crazy,’ he deadpanned.

The reason objects speak to us is not because we see beauty in them, but because by seeing them, they reveal in us the self-effacing capacity for finding beauty in places far outside of ourselves. Fashion is easy; it’s meant to become and enhance us. Spatial and object design, though? These products rule and affect us, but will never be part of us as much as we are subject to them. That a comedy special reveals this in one hour, and yet eight episodes of Abstract fail to convey the twisted yet innocent vulnerability that it takes to really submit to designed things tells you everything you need to know. Abstract is back for a second season later this month, but going by its first, I doubt anything showcased in the series will be as gut-punching as Julio’s reveal of Daisy Duck’s living room.


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