Paola Antonelli, senior architecture and design curator and director of R&D at MoMA. Photo via Bloomberg
Paola Antonelli is arguably one of the most powerful people in the arts. As a senior architecture and design curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, Antonelli can make a young designer's career as well as shape audiences' views with her populist, ambitious exhibitions that range from celebrating humble objects to examining the ways in which design protects and shelters us. Recently, MoMA announced that Antonelli—an Architizer A+ Award juror!—will be taking an additional role in the museum, as director of research and development, a position created just for her. Antonelli sat down with us to talk about her new job, her career at MoMA, and the future of architecture.
Visitors engage with videogames and technology at Antonelli's blockbuster 2011 show, "Talk to Me." Photo: via Fader
Architizer: Congratulations on your new role. Can you tell us a little bit about what you will be doing, and what this means for the museum?
Paola Antonelli: The beauty of research and development departments is that they have a pretty open-ended agenda, at least in the beginning. Normally, R&D departments happen either in technological companies, or they happen in products or production companies -- for instance, at manufacturers like Johnson & Johnson and Procter & Gamble, or the famous one in Xerox Parc -- so they’re usually connected to outfits that are for-profit and geared toward certain type of market.
The idea of having this research and development at a museum is about trying ot figure out truly what kind of position the museum has to take on the inside and the outside for the future. My basic thought is that museums are, together with schools, the R&D of society. It’s about this chain of research and understanding. I also believe that culture can provide a very reliable and sustainable, if maybe slower, kind of progress, but it deserves a more relevant position in the discussions about policymaking and running a society. What the projects will be, I don’t know yet, but that’s the idea: technology, involvement in society, what MoMA can do for society, and what MoMA should focus on.
The @ symbol, part of the architecture & design department's permanent collection.
That seems to dovetail nicely with what you already do, since so much of your work deals with communicating the ways design and technology influence and help our lives.
You’re right that it’s almost a natural evolution of what I do. What I find particularly interesting about design is not only the outcome -- you know all types of products or interfaces or interaction -- but I also like the process, the idea that you can build prototypes and see if they work or not. So you can build prototypes of new types of exhibitions, or prototypes of communication, to see if they work.
Design has been a part of art museums for a while, but it has definitely become more prominent since you started at MoMA. How have you seen the public's reaction to or understanding of design change since you've been there?
It’s changed a lot all over the world. I came here to MoMA in 1994, and my background -- I’m an architect by training, I was a freelance curator. Coming from Italy I had been a journalist, and I had been an educator; I had been teaching at UCLA. I came here, and I found an environment that was, you know, New York had really great designers, but there was quite a bit of misunderstanding about design. Even though in the 1960s and 1970s there was a deeper sensitivity toward design and communication. In the '80s and '90s design had gone back to be considered almost decoration, like cute chairs and cars. So it came quite natural to try to give another viewpoint on design, to show the materials designs are made from, or the implications of design. I started doing exhibitions that had a broader kind of influence, I hope, on the design community and on the world at large. Because really what I wanted to do was to communicate how wonderful design is to a wide audience as much as possible.
Objects from the permanent collection: Prototype for Build the Town building blocks by Ladislav Sutnar, 1940-43; Yuya Ushida's XXXX_Sofa, 2011; the humble notepad, designed by Matt Kenyon, Douglas Easterly and SWAMP. Photos: via MoMA
What was the first exhibition you did for MoMA?
My first show was called “Mutant Materials in Contemporary Design,” and the idea had come from the fact that at that time, some of the materials that before had to be prepared only by chemical engineers had become much more malleable and much easier to manipulate by designers. To give an example, in the 1980s, if you wanted to do a plastic chair, you could make prototype in or some other material; but if you wanted to create a prototype in plastic, you had to make a really big investment ... at least $50,000. But then along the years much more sophisticated methods could be found, and designers could make their own prototypes, in their own offices. So all of a sudden designers could also be in charge of the design of materials, and I thought that was a really big deal, because all of a sudden the holistic nature of a piece of design was really almost complete. It was an exhibition that spoke to designers, because it spoke about this new condition in their field, but it also spoke to a really wide audience, because it had really, really cool objects. There was a little airplane behind the escalators, there were kayaks, there were sailboat masts. So it was really great, and ever since I’ve always been trying to do exhibitions that way.
Chris Woebken and Kenichi Okada, Animal Superpowers: Ant, 2007, from the exhibition "Talk to Me." Photo: Chris Woebken via Design Observer
What are some of your biggest shows?
I mean, I’m proud of them all, but I will tell you about the ones that deal with life issues. There was one I did called "Safe" in 2005. How that came about is an interesting story. In 2000 I had started working on an exhibition called "Emergency," which was all about emergency equipment, about ambulances and fire trucks and so on and so forth. And then Sept. 11 happened, and I didn’t want to see that exhibition anymore, so I dropped it and moved to something else. But then in 2003 I started thinking, you know, people were asking me about the show, and I was thinking about everything that was in the show, and I realized that I could look at the other side of the metal and look at safety. Because, after all, designers almost take a Hippocratic Oath, I mean designers tend to be responsible toward other human beings; even if they present dystopian ideas, this dystopia is meant to make like a correction, an adjustment. So I did this exhibition about design and safety, safety, comfort, protection in all parts of the world ranging from the refugee tarps by the United Nations’ mission for refugees, to bandaids for blisters. So safety after the floods in Myanmar, and safety on the Upper East Side. So it really was about the whole gamut of safety.
There was "Design and the Elastic Mind," in 2008, which was an exhibition about design and science, based on the idea that designers needed scientists and vice-versa, that designers can really transform revolutions in science and technology into life by making sure people are comfortable with them. And "Talk to Me," from last year, which was about the communication between people and objects.
There’s another one that was nice, it was called “Humble Masterpieces.” It was about everyday objects; that was 2004.
Elemental's Quinta Monroy Housing in Chile, part of MoMA's "Small Scale, Big Change" exhibition. Photo: Tadeuz Jalocha via MoMA
There's been a shift in architecture away from big, glittering buildings and more toward humanitarian design: disaster relief, sustainability, affordable housing. What do you think accounts for this shift, and do you think it will continue once the economy gets back on track?
I think I’ve seen this shift in all fields, not just in architecture and design. There are strange changes in history, sometimes you generalize, but it’s also the truth that the '60s had a different atmosphere from the '70s and the '80s. So I have to say that this whole last part of our life has been really characterized by a lot more of a sense of responsibility in all fields. You have these colossal things that have happened -- whether it’s 9/11, whether it’s big humanitarian disasters and genocides, a big economic crisis -- somehow we’re all much more on our tip toes and we’re noticing what’s going on and we’re all becoming much more responsible. Oh, and I forgot to mention, a little environmental crisis going on too.
Architects and designers are part of the world, and they cannot avoid being really involved in it. So at the time I was preparing "Safe," I was talking a lot with Cameron Sinclair, who was just starting Architecture for Humanity and was one of the first examples, but there was a lot going on already. What I like in particular is the selflessness that all this requires, because architects tend to be really big egos, and it’s fabulous to see that when they really have to step up to the plate they do it. And they do so by letting go of their signature moves, because the best way to be a humanitarian architect or designer is to work with the people who need the work -- not to do things from thousands of miles away, but to be on the ground and let the wisdom and the knowledge of the people there inform the proposal and the ideas that you may have. Which is also an evolution of the Peace Corp.
Who are some of your favorite new architects working today?
There are too many to list, but I will tell you a few. There's Elemental, which has created low-income housing in Chile. There is Dunne & Raby, whose robots that interact with humans we featured in "Talk to Me." Who else? I also like Formafantasma, two Italian designers; Fernanda Viégas and Martin Wattenberg; Massoud Hassani; and rAndom International.