The Top 10 Art & Design Documentaries


Ever struggle to get your creative juices flowing? Get the remote, grab some popcorn, and watch any of the top ten Art & Design documentaries listed below. You’ll feel inspired in no time!

Helvetica, 2007

helvetica Image: Itunes

A documentary about a typeface may not immediately appeal to those of us without a professional stake in the field of graphic design; but give this one a try. Obsessive graphic designers tell the tale of Helvetica, the plainly designed typeface used and therefore seen more than any other lettering system in the modern world. The film teaches us to view the ubiquitousness of this particular typeface as one way design decisions reflect societal values and affect our lives. Since Helvetica was released in 2007, the world of publishing has undergone a revolution. Now that everyone can access self-publishing tools on the web, the Helvetica typeface is arguably more ubiquitous than ever.

Cave of Forgotten Dreams, 2011

cave_970x390 Image: IFC Films

In 1994, Paleolithic-era paintings were found deep inside the Chauvet Cave in Southwestern France. The cave paintings are thought to be the oldest human artwork ever discovered and their historical significance is indisputable. Originally released to theaters in 3D, Cave of Forgotten Dreams takes us on a cinematic journey deep through the cave system, allowing our eyes to linger over spectacular painted images of lions, panthers, bears, and hyenas. As the film interviews contemporary scientific figures and details their attempts to reconstruct the past, we are reminded that our predecessors were capable of sophisticated thoughts and actions long before history began and we are left to wonder what future discoveries will entail.

Eames: The Architect and the Painter, 2011

dsadas Image: Cultura Colectiva

Assumed these two were brothers? Guess again! This Peabody Award-winning film examines the lives and careers of Charles and Ray Eames, who were in fact a husband and wife design team. Through interviews with design experts and famous industrial designers, we learn how the dedicated efforts of two craftspeople have impacted our surroundings and influenced the way we live. Eames: The Architect and the Painter shows us how the couple’s idiosyncratic designs were extensions of their personalities. The iconic Eames chair designs are covered alongside less well-known endeavors into architecture, photography, and film.

The Art of the Steal, 2010

art-of-the-steal_970x390 Image: IFC Films

A power struggle over control of the Barnes Foundation‘s collection of Impressionist paintings followed the death of the reclusive Philadelphia billionaire and art collector, Arthur C. Barnes. The Art of the Steal presents differences of opinions regarding his collection’s relocation from a small facility in the Philadelphia suburbs to a new purpose-built space at the center of the city’s downtown arts museum district. Barnes was an eccentric man who amassed his fortune in the pharmaceutical industry, and spent it building an incredible collection of art. He was also famously misanthropic and constantly at odds with elite society. In his will, Barnes outlined his intent that his collection should serve art education and remain in the township of Marion, outside the city limits of Philadelphia. The film interviews politicians and tourism board members who describe the move downtown as a coup for the city. They are fiercely opposed by a disaffected group of citizen protesters and former members of the Barnes Foundations’ Board of Trustees, who express outrage and declare the move the art world’s “scandal of the century.” Is the current facility better or worse than before? Watch the film and decide for yourself.

Exit Through the Gift Shop, 2010

giftshop Image:

The English graffiti artist Banksy‘s reputation flows from provocative work sprayed in public spaces onto walls all over the world. Banksy fiercely guards his identity to avoid prosecution and any instance of his voice or image here is highly distorted. The main narrative of Exit Through the Gift Shop follows Banksy’s colleague “Mr. Brainwash” as he prepares a formal exhibition of street art in Los Angeles. Mr. Brainwash’s confounding presence has lead many viewers to question whether the whole show was meant to be interpreted as a deadpan joke – with the audience as the punchline. But, when the film switches gears to interview art world experts and Banksy fans from all walks of life, we begin to see how the artist’s cleverly conceived identity, pop art visuals, and shocking guerilla tactics have succeeded on a number of fronts. The release of Exit Through the Gift Shop increased public awareness of Banksy’s art; but it has been only one piece of Banksy’s global “brand”. This art scene may not please all critics, but draws the attention of millions.

Finding the Lost da Vinci, 2011

finger-vasari-990_49707_600x450 Image Photograph by Dave Yoder for National Geographic

An Italian scientist’s quest to reveal one of Leonardo da Vinci‘s lost works has caught him between a stone wall and a masterpiece. Having conducted years of inquiry, Maurizio Seracini and his team believe da Vinci’s work The Battle of Anghiari is located inside Florence’s Palazzo Vecchio. The exact location of the work has been impossible to see or reach, because it is believed to be literally underneath a more recent fresco by Giorgio Vasari. We follow the story from the perspective of National Geographic photographer Dave Yoder, who was embedded with Seracini’s team as they attempted to confirm the painting’s presence with sophisticated lasers, radar, and thermal imaging technology. But the real drama starts when the team begins preparations to drill 28 precise holes into the fresco wall. Soon after, we are told of Italian newspaper stories wildly misrepresenting potential damages to Vasari’s work a (cultural landmark itself). A public outcry predictably ensues, and we are soon watching Florence Mayor Matteo Renzi approach the team to tell them that their gig is over. Though the team had been given limited permission to drill into the fresco wall, the holes surrendered zero clues pertaining to the status of the lost da Vinci. Despite mountains of evidentiary support, Seracini’s team had to leave without any conclusive proof that the da Vinci is present in the wall. Though the mystery of this lost da Vinci fresco remains unsolved, Finding the Lost da Vinci is an entertaining glimpse into a rarified academic realm of art historical research and scientific inquiry.

Finding Vivian Maier, 2014

maier Image: Youtube

Vivian Maier was a Chicago nanny who led a secret double life as a photographer. She took more than 100,000 photographs, but essentially none of them had been seen by the public in her lifetime. Finding Vivian Maier begins with the film’s director John Maloof, who takes credit for discovering Maier’s body of work after he purchased an innocuous box of film negatives from an estate sale. Maloof subsequently printed and released the deceased photographer’s work, stating that his goal is for Maier to be formally welcomed into the ranks of art history. In interviews with renowned photographers Joel Meyerowitz and Mary Ellen Mark, we are told of Maier’s talent for image composition and her prodigious rate of output qualify her as a “genuine shooter” – among the greatest practitioners in the field. We also hear from families who had brought Maier into their homes to serve as their nanny. Each describes the woman as a bit of a loner, hopping along from family to family without ever bothering to fit in with society. Because her work remained undiscovered until John Maloof promoted the images, we struggle to understand the motivation behind Maier’s photographic practice. Did she intend for her works to be displayed in public, or was she simply a private person who took pictures to entertain herself? We may never have an understanding of the woman behind the camera; but her pictures are likely to live on.

Herb and Dorothy, 2009

dorothy-and-herb-collector-tribue Image: The Collector Tribune

Married-couple Herb and Dorothy Vogel could have spent an average life together. Instead, they built an important collection of contemporary art and spent nothing more than their modest incomes as a postal clerk and librarian in New York City. The Vogels created their own rules: anything they bought for their collection had to be affordable, and the couple paid incremental installments to dealers every month to finance larger purchases. Whatever they bought, it had to fit inside their small Manhattan apartment. Pop Art and Abstract Expressionist paintings were beyond budget, so they sought a more affordable alternative and began to buy minimal works by Sol Lewitt. The film positions the collectors and artists as kindred spirits: in one scene the Vogels reminisce fondly of the time they were given unique works by renowned artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude, who were thanking the Vogels for their kind offer to babysit their pet cats during the summer travel season. Above all, Herb and Dorothy demonstrates that any person willing to put in the effort can collect art like a Rockefeller – riches are not required!

To Inform and Delight: The Work of Milton Glaser, 2010

glasr Image: idsgn

The subject of this biographic film is Milton Glaser, a graphic designer who has also had a prolific career designing newspapers and magazines, logos and brand identities, prints, drawings, paintings, and even grocery store chains in his native New York City. Glaser is probably best known for creating the I (Love) NY campaign, which can be seen today on t-shirts on all corners of the globe. He also co-founded New York magazine in 1968, making him a titan of both the design and publishing industries. To Inform and Delight details thousands of projects Glaser has delivered over a career that has spanned more than six decades. The film is an inspirational example for working commercial artists and aspiring artists alike.

Why Man Creates, 1968

Heller-1-articleLarge Image: Bob Willoughby; From “Saul Bass: A Life in Film and Design” via The New York Times

In Why Man Creates, graphic designer Saul Bass explores humanity’s impulse to create. The film’s structure is divided into eight sections, which keeps things fresh throughout the 25 minute running time. They depict various creative approaches that are representative of different historic and prehistoric eras. Each section takes on a unique look and feel; some utilize experimental hand-drawn animation and advanced optical techniques and all are flavored with a generous dollop of sixties-era psychedelia and social consciousness. Bass was famous in the sixties and seventies for his stylized compositions, and as a producer of animated opening credit sequences for Hollywood movies. Why Man Creates won the Academy Award for Documentary, Short Subject and is included in the National Film Registry.

Feature Image (From Left to Right): Exit Through the Gift Shop, Finding Vivian Maier Wikimedia Commons