words Jonathan Bell
Modernist design classics are the sidekicks to Pixar’s family of superheroes in a film glowing with nostalgia for yesterday’s future. We explore a strangely seamless retro world.
Elaborate production design is big-budget cinema’s forte, an ability to conjure up spaces and eras that embed the audience in a story, even if the plot is threadbare. For films conceived and “shot” entirely in the digital realm, this design is necessarily even more meticulous. Pixar’s The Incredibles is a case in point, a ravishing visual feast of design references and quotes. For the first half hour of the film, the ardent design-o-phile can delight in spotting allusions to almost every element of modernist visual culture.
The film’s prologue is set in a deco cityscape that pays homage to the inter-war skyscraper, from Hugh Ferris’ architectural renderings to the moderne verticality of Raymond Hood’s Rockefeller Center. Yet the streets below teem with cars that excel even the fin-filled imagination of Harley Earl, , and the two distinct periods are seamlessly meshed.
This is a characteristic of the film’s design. Cut to the “present day”, and the superhero characters, shorn of their roles but not their powers, live domesticated, suburban existences. Here are rows of Eichler-style homes stuffed with bent-ply furniture, the spindly-legged kitchen table groaning with Russel Wright-esque cookware, all chunky pastels and bold shapes. Every chair is a polite knock-off of Jacobsen’s Egg and Swan, a visual shortcut for tomorrow’s living since the Jetsons. Domestic bliss is contrasted by the drudgery of work, where Mr Incredible is faced with a rat-run of mean cubicles and beige boxes. From the 1950s through to the 80s in a matter of frames.
The Incredibles live in an America where modernism was never a tool of Cold War propaganda, and “good design” had no ideological struggle save the very superhuman desire to do good. They fight traditional villains and the kind of Looney Tune natural disaster that perpetually threatens the world of make-believe, with only the occasional power-crazed super-villain to spice up their day. War and terrorism don’t really feature. It’s left to ginger shock-headed villain Syndrome’s devices to evoke the Cold War’s strange combination of technological optimism and paranoia; his chunky rocket-boosters are straight out of the euphoric, pastel-hued vistas of 1950s space art, while the city-crushing robot is a self-confessed take on The Day the Earth Stood Still’s Gort and the Martian war machines from Byron Laskin’s 1953 version of The War of the Worlds.
The Incredibles’ world is more Morris Lapidus than Walter Gropius, with modern design as the ultimate in set-dressing. The glorious character of Edna Mode, costumier to the “supers”, has a modernist mansion with cantilevers most architects would kill for. Syndrome’s jungle island lair has shades of Frank Lloyd Wright’s 1962 Marin County Civic Center with interiors that surpass even Ken Adam at his wildest – one suspects that moving walls of molten lava would have been high on the wishlists of many James Bond producers.
Although designer style takes a back seat as the film progresses, The Incredibles delights in its knowing reinvention of modernism’s most recognisable facets, playing with the contemporary confusion between old and new, modern and retro. Art director Ralph Eggleston describes the look as “suburban-mid-century-Tiki by way of [production designer] Lou Romano”. Director Brad Bird, who also voices the character of Mode, explains that he saw “the world of The Incredibles as looking sort of like what we thought the future would turn out like in the 1960s”. Consumer culture retains a collective sadness for this missing future, a sadness that manifests itself in nostalgia for times past, even though we still desire modernity. Many contemporary designers – Marc Newson, Jonathan Ive, J Mays, et al – understand and exploit these feelings, creating things that sate our longing for both past and future. The Incredibles fits neatly into this contemporary confusion, showing that yesterday’s world of tomorrow is still a seductive place to visit.
Jonathan Bell is editor of Things Magazine