The Reality of Design: You Are What You Watch

Written by | Art & Design

Each year, our Design Issue is one of my favorites to put together.

By Paul Hagen

Editor of Metrosource, Paul Hagen

There’s something inherently fascinating in understanding the way people transform raw materials into finished products — whether it’s architects shaping steel and glass into skyscrapers or artists taking a project from an idea to something that can hang in a museum. It’s no wonder there’s a seemingly ever-expanding stream of reality shows about how things are created — from fashion (Project Runway) to prosthetic make-up (Face Off) to cuisine (Top Chef).

One of my favorites of these is The Great British Baking Show. In many ways, what makes Baking Show so great is that it keeps the focus on the process: what it takes to make bread that rises properly, a perfectly flaky pastry or chocolate with just the right shine. Part of the reason why they can provide so much information is that — unlike most reality shows — the show’s cameras aren’t trying to capture conflict between the contestants. More cutthroat American shows often sequester their casts for months at a time — cutting them off from the outside world until, frankly, they go bonkers. The more civilized Baking Show shoots on weekends, allowing its bakers to return to their everyday lives between rounds of competition. Also, while many competition shows are almost entirely fueled by twists and surprises, Baking Show often allows contestants the chance to practice their recipes ahead of time, trusting that the fear of turning out soggy-bottomed tarts or overdone scones is drama enough. Even the show’s music is more pleasant — perky piano and soothing strings instead of the relentless barrage of ominous thumps, bangs and buzzes apparently concocted to keep American reality TV audiences on the edge of their seats.

When I found out that Baking Show had a spin-off called The Great British Sewing Bee, I was immediately intrigued. At the same time, after watching nearly fifteen seasons of Project Runway, I wondered if another show about people making clothes could hold my attention. I need not have worried: Baking Show’s formula triumphed again. What I hadn’t realized was that — in all the time Project Runway spent focusing on its contestants losing their minds, they weren’t giving me a sense of how the clothes actually came together.

Instead, Sewing Bee takes the time to enlighten its audience about the many details that go into creating clothing. We learn how darts are sewn into a garment to give it shape. We see how the angle on which a fabric is cut can drastically change its capacity to stretch. We realize how something as seemingly straightforward as a man’s button-down shirt is actually the result of painstaking attention to detail. And we come to understand how the execution of finishing touches like buttonholes and zippers can cause a garment look like either treasure or trash.

Rachel, the main character on UnREAL — a fantastic behind-the-scenes drama about reality show production — once summed up the show’s philosophy when she barked at a production assistant: “We don’t solve problems, okay? We create them, and then we point cameras at them.” And indeed, that does seem to be the guiding ethos behind most American reality television. Even if a show is ostensibly about taking photographs or remodeling homes or choreographing dance, the actual focus is on interpersonal drama. Fortunately, programs like Baking Show and Sewing Bee have figured out that there is plenty of entertainment value to be found in setting aside the hysteria and actually explaining the details of design. And truly, isn’t it a greater service to help audiences understand the domestic arts from which we have become all-too-often estranged in our increasingly store-bought lives than to merely show us some problems that producers cooked up and pointed cameras at?

Let us know what you think.

Last modified: September 29, 2017