“What’s amazing about design right now is that it is so varied. Our job at the MoMA is to pull all the threads together so that people understand the connections.”
Paola Antonelli is a curious being. As senior curator for the Department of Architecture and Design at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) and its Director of Research and Development, she needs to have her hands in multiple areas all at once in order to be at the highest understanding of design’s root system as well as its future outreach.
Koko: I believe you’ve been to Vancouver before… do you come to Vancouver often Paola?
Paola: Well this is my third time visiting Vancouver. I was here the year before for TED talks and I was here previously, many years ago for a particular lecture.
K: Being a curator, what do you think about our city in particular in terms of design?
P: Design-wise I think it’s very interesting because it’s a city that is North American but is also Asian, and I know that is platitude but it feels that way. I tend to always stay in the harbour so I am always by the water. In particular, I find the configuration of the piers very interesting.
Of course, architecturally, I really love the courthouse… it’s mind boggling! It’s the type of architecture that I love the most! So overall it strikes me as a very modern city, a very young city that is completely projected towards Asia even though it is still part of this continent.
K: You’ve been quoted as saying that the MoMA has given you the unique opportunity to affect people not normally exposed to design. Now that you’ve been curating shows for over 20 years, can you comment on any shift in awareness towards design in the public sphere, do you foresee museums evolving?
P: That’s very interesting, a very good question… because I feel design has changed tremendously and it’s not just chairs and furniture and cars, it’s also digital design, interaction design, visualization design and game design. There is all sorts of new forms of design that younger generations are much more familiar with and more comfortable with.
So I feel there is a very deep awareness especially among younger people and instead there also seems to be a sort of resistance from a part of the population, not necessarily based on age, that still make a big differentiation between art and design. They see design as embellishment and style and I don’t believe design is that. Style is one of the criteria by which you study the design and it can be the one that is predominant.
There has been many phenomena that have changed the public perception of design… one that is recurrently mentioned is Apple, this is true but it is also MTV after many years and also slowly and surely the design of magazines and also the design you find on the internet. There are many examples of good design around but also many examples of bad design, but I feel that people are getting exposed to the different nuances of design and are beginning to understand it more.
K: What was your first design acquisition for the museum?
P: The very first acquisition was the Aeron chair because before going to the New York MoMA, I was teaching at UCLA so I was frequently in Los Angeles. I knew Don Chadwick who was one of the two designers of the Aeron chair. He would secretly sneak me into his studio to show me the project so I had seen the chair as it developed. When I started my position at the MoMA they had started production on the chair, so basically I took the second one off of the production line to acquire it for the collection.
K: Yes, I am familiar with the chair and agree that it is a classic design. The fact that it comes in different sizes and promotes micro-adjustment of fit and finish for both comfort and style promotes a well balanced example of office furniture design. However, it seems like you have shifted away from acquiring mostly furniture and have been quoted to have been wanting to acquire a Boeing 747 jet liner? I’m curious to know why?
P: Yes! I love the 747 as a design object, it is one of my favourites. There are so many things that I would love to acquire but this is definitely at the top of the list. Some people think it’s absurd because of the size but I would still love to acquire it in a non-physical way where it doesn’t have to be on location. Instead, it would be a remote acquisition and would be part of an existing fleet that would have MoMA designation and relevant material to highlight its’ design significance.
K: Interesting… a traveling exhibition! I find transportation design interesting on many levels. With the privatization of space travel, can you comment on how design will affect our endeavours into outer space and are there any efforts to add to the collection based on your findings?
P: Well, it’s a big opportunity, it obviously won’t happen the day after tomorrow but it is important to be thinking about it right now. There are currently a few designers that are thinking about how we will be inhabiting different planets and of course how we will inhabit space stations. So far the design of tools used in space travel has to be bare bones, so it is pretty repetitive. However, I was just at the launch of the new Virgin Galactic spaceship so I was very excited!
In particular, it was great to see the symbolism… it actually has Stephen Hawking’s Iris painted on the belly of the spaceship’s fuselage which I found quite amazing and moving! Design also helps us with these rituals… the fact that you have Stephen Hawking’s Iris there it is much more than just embellishment, it is a strong symbolic act.
K: It’s one thing to see it in photos or to see it from afar… but to see it live from that point of view!
P: From the perspective of being under the belly it was definitely both powerful and wonderful!
K: Staying on the topic of future design, many questions were raised when you decided to curate a show that included video games. With virtual reality coming closer and closer to the reality of everyday life with such inventions as Oculus Rift, what are your thoughts on the idea of the virtual realm?
P: Well it depends on what one means by virtual. I believe virtual reality is a term that we shouldn’t even have anymore because even virtual reality is real, it’s just impalpable so I don’t particularly like the word virtual. For instance, we have recently acquired one of the most impalpable of our acquisitions – the @ sign. The reason why I consider it even more extreme is because it is not only non-dimensional but it is also in the public domain so you can’t acquire it, you can only anoint it because it belongs to everybody so you just put it on the wall as it were the shadow of the butterfly.
Those are meta-acquisitions. I prefer meta over virtual. Another recent acquisition was the Google map pin, the Creative Commons logo, the On/Off sign. Video games are digital acquisitions and behaviour interaction design acquisitions. I think the term virtual is not as relevant since it is term that looks back to the 1980’s and in my opinion virtual reality is not that much better today than it used to be. Yes, software is better so there is less time lag but the hardware is still clunky and so it still weighs on your head.
K: It’s not very seamless is it?
P: We’re not there yet, not yet, but surely in the future!
K: Speaking of the realm of technology, the San Francisco MoMA just opened this year. Could you tell us of any collaborations and how you will be involved between the institutions?
P: I’m very good friends with Jennifer Dunlop Fletcher who is the curator for architecture and design there. We have been collaborating on many different projects, some already realized some not. For instance, we acquired together the archives of Susan Kare who was the designer that did the first Icons for the Apple Macintosh computer. It’s been a wonderful collaboration because we not only acquired these archives which take the form of notebooks but also in the form of floppy disks. She gave us over 30 floppy disks where we had to emulate an old operating system in order to open them.
People don’t know how difficult digital acquisitions are… code is more fragile than porcelain… floppy disks get lost, they get damaged, you can’t open them anymore, the operating system doesn’t exist anymore. So when we make digital acquisitions such as video games for example, we always try to acquire the source code, and sometimes we can’t because the company doesn’t want to give us the code, or simply because they lost it or never kept it.
K: That’s quite ironic isn’t it? Perhaps they simply didn’t know it was going to be important?
P: Yes, once upon a time, designers, such as architects, didn’t know their archive would become valuable and just threw everything away. Once the building was built who cares right? So it’s funny what we give value to in different points in our history.
K: Given your interest in synthetic biology and bio design and your explorations in the relationship between science and design with such curated shows such as “Design and the Elastic Mind” can you elaborate on any projects that you’ve recently seen that interest you?
P: Yes, this is not really synthetic biology but is definitely more speculative design than simply science. It is a project called “(Im)possible Baby” by Ai Hasegawa in which she dreams up the two children of a lesbian couple made without any male intervention. In her book she hypothesized this family through the use of digital means and when the real couple saw the outcome it was quite moving.
When it comes to synthetic biology there is so much going on that it’s almost hard to know where to start. If you go to Biofabricate which happens in New York every year it’s incredibly fascinating! I tasted in vitro meat which I consider to be one of the most amazing moments ever. Not that the taste of the meat was incredible, it was ok and it needs to be worked on, but it was great to get a taste of the possible future! Everything is very wide open at that point. We also just acquired the first software made virus that was CAD developed by Autodesk in the form of a 3D printed model.
K: Design on the cusp… and you were recently involved in the show “Design and Violence”… with technological innovations intrinsically tied to military enhancements, how will design affect the current dilemma of the terrorist state we currently live in?
P: That’s definitely a huge problem that is difficult to fully answer. I think that design is part of everything we do so I’m sure it will play a role, but the type of role it will play is difficult to describe. I think it’s important to see what design can do to change our behaviours so that we become the first line of defence against terrorism.
What I’m most interested in are the design objects that change behaviours, that help us become better citizens, that help us be more empathetic, that help us be more open to the people, even those that could become terrorists and find a way to turn them around. I’m more interested in these kind of chain reactions. Unfortunately, design always has the potential to be used as a tool for evil but hopefully it will have an even more important role as a tool for common good.
K: Thank you for your time Paola…
P: Thank you, I really appreciate it.