Paola Antonelli, senior curator at the Museum of Modern Art's Department of Architecture and Design talks about her approach to putting together her latest show, Design and the Elastic Mind as well as her opinions on the state of design and its role as communication.
What do you hope viewers take from the exhibition?
I just want them to have this soaring feeling of possibilities. Every single show I do is to explain to as wide an audience as possible how sublime design is. I really consider design one of the very highest forms of human creativity. I consider it very complex and very tough because it's not only about having a great idea it's about going through all the steps and reality checks that design entails and still having the great idea at the end. I just want to communicate that. Also, every show that I curate always has different levels.
I am at the MoMA, I'm very lucky to be here, because I have a big audience, but they're not necessarily here to see design. Hardly ever. They come here to see Matisse and Picasso, God bless them, and then they stumble upon my show and I keep them there. To this audience I need to be able to speak. To an audience like this you speak through beauty, through the sense of surprise and delight. So you enter the show and you immediately feel that it's a special space. You see the objects and see that the objects are gorgeous.
Then you start reading and you can go deep into things. Then, of course, I talk to the audience, my community, the design community. I want them to feel proud of themselves. I want them to be inspired by what they didn't know yet so I try to make an effort to show things that they might not have seen in other shows. It's a special moment for design, for the history of the world, from a technological and ethical moment. I want them to feel that, feel their important role and that somebody's talking about this important role and feel their responsibility to their potential. And then, I'm talking to my other audience in another community, which is the audience of people that are slightly more advanced in art and culture. I want them to understand the important position of design.
How did you go about starting to collect this vast group of items?
What conditions or tenets did you keep in mind? When I started out, there were hardly any conditions. Whenever I start an exhibition of this scope, one of the first steps is to bug everyone I know. I sent out this message, saying I'm doing this show. In the beginning it was not called "Design and the Elastic Mind," it was called "The State of Design," very wide. I said Have you seen anything? Is there anything I should look into? Any school I should visit? And with Patricia [Juncosa Vecchierini, curatorial assistant] we collected, we look at blogs, we look at magazines, we travel, we go to schools, shows. And then, we gathered, I think it was about 1,700 ideas.
The first filter is that, well, they all happen at the same time. The ideas shape together with the submissions; it's a give and take. But definitely one of the very first priorities is that they are gorgeous, not beautiful in a platonic sense, they just have to be really, almost unimpeachable from a design standpoint. You look at them and say, That's a really great design process, which means it's about seeing the idea at the very end. Of course, as you know, there are also science projects in the exhibition. There are many people who don't' call themselves designers who have two PhD's in neurophysics and nanotechnology, so one second thing they all have in common is the attempt to really reach the real world. Because even in the scientists' works that you see in the exhibition you'll notice there's always a way to try and communicate with a wide audience, by any means possible.
Sometimes its comfort, sometimes it's prettiness, like the SMIT solar cells, the idea that instead of covering your house with solar panels that are really ugly you can have this ivy growing on your house, or by means of humor, Paul Rottemund does the DNA Origami in the form of smilies or by means of clarity, so you have Thomas Mason doing the lithoparticle alphabet soup. So they all try to reach out. They have that in common. Then what they have in common is this attempt to be propositive, to propose something for the real future. I don't really like science fiction, but I like to think of tomorrow and the day after tomorrow. So everything that you see in the show is based on hypotheses that are plausible. There's no teleportation. Even though that's my dream. But there's already the idea that nanophysics can really help designers and architects grow things. So that's plausible.
Even when I show the blind date agency where people base their pairings not on sight or other profiles but on smell, the funny thing is that I found an article in The Economist two months ago that says there really is such an agency in Boston. You think it's hypothetic and then it works. So they have in common this propositive nature. Once you've filtered that, hopefully your ideas start to crystallize, then you start having very precise themes. The next skimming is according to the themes. The final skimming really starts being the imagination of the show. We're still also visual designers in a way, you try to compose things together in a way that's beautiful and makes sense, so that's a whole different way, it's really a mise en scene. The exhibition takes shape in a totally non-linear way, but in the end, if you have a strong idea from the beginning it all comes together, sort of like nanophysics.
Something that I wanted to bring up, is that this idea of design and science coming together was developed slowly over a year and a half with a collaboration with Seed magazine. That was a very, very important collaboration because really that taught me so much and built up the enthusiasm of the dialog. One of the things that I realized early on is that both design and science want to change their position in people's culture. Scientists wanted to stop being considered lofty and abstract; and wanted to show how engaged they were in the real world. And designers wanted to stop being considered decorators. This dialog also helped them establish a certain ground in people's culture so as not to be ignored any more, to be boxed in certain dogmatic clichés.
The exhibition notes refer to a major change in human behavior that's reflected in designers' work and the objects in this collection. What sort of change in curatorial behavior is going to have to reflect that?
It's a big change. And actually one of your colleagues helped me figure it out during an interview. Instead of making a statement and establishing a canon and saying, This is the way things are, it's about establishing a trajectory. I only work in a collaborative way, and in the way I like to keep things open, to present a nice comfortable environment in which designers can thrive, my catalog designer, my website designer, Yugo Nakamura, all of the designers in the show. Also I wanted to really put my foot down and say, This is what design is doing now, but then it's open. I hope that this trajectory is what I'll be remembered for, not for rules and recommendations.
How does that apply to digital things? I think one of the big challenges now for curators is how they're going to present digital work, work on the web.
The challenge is only practical, it's not conceptual. It's a huge practical problem, and there's an example that has to do with our collection and not with the exhibition. I want to acquire the first graphic interface, Xerox Parc's Star in 1981. The computer is so obsolete, it's lovely to see, but what do I do? Do I make it run on the original computer and then go nuts because every day you have to go crazy [with maintenance], do I simulate it interactively on a computer of today, do I show a video of a period piece maybe with David Liddell or somebody else using it, so I show it in pictures? What do I do? There are many ways to do it; it's really complicated, but to me, it's only pragmatic, the problem, it has to do with migration. When something is in the present, it's much easier.
To give you an example, I'm trying to develop this idea, I don't want to call them virtual acquisitions, but they're acquisitions based in the public domain. One of the biggest changes in human behavior is that more and more we don't want to own objects, but rather we want to use them and they remain in the public domain. There's not any need anymore to acquire objects, like Zipcars, even cell phones in the United States, they cost so little. I've been wanting to acquire a 747 for the collection. My idea is not to have it, there's no room and there's no need. Not everybody can afford to take it, but everybody can afford a ride to the airport to see it, everybody's seen it, there's a feeling about what a 747 is like.
I almost don't need to own a specific model. It's the 747, this beautiful, gorgeous clumsy dromedary of the sky that changed the way people traveled that I feel that needs to be celebrated as a masterpiece of design. So I developed this whole idea, I went pretty deep into figuring it out. MoMA would license its name to an airline so three aircraft going through New York would be the MoMA aircraft. Maybe inside the upholstery fabric is different, the cutlery is better, the onboard library, instead of having only golf magazines has architecture and design magazines, maybe the little cart sells MoMA design store items, It's just MoMA saying, Oh, we love this plane, without needing to own it. When you develop this model, you can really not be stopped by scale anymore, which is really is one of the most important tenets of contemporary society, not to be stopped by scale.
You touched on not including teleporting and things like that. With the speculative nature of some of these projects, does placing the museum's stamp on them worry you? When you're dealing with these future technologies you're dealing with things that might not have the applications you think they would.
You take risks. I would rather be remembered for saying something would work and it didn't work than saying that something is not going to work and then it works. I even started my essay in the book showing all of the wrong predictions. I would rather take risks and say, Oh, this will work, and give confidence, rather than do the opposite. We've had quite beautiful discussions here amongst curators in the museum and with the director about taking risks, saying, Let's take risks. And let's fall on our butts, if necessary. I think it's better that way. So no, I'm not scared. Whatever it takes to make people think and have opinions I'm happy about. If there's any far out things in the exhibition, maybe in Design for Debate, the concepts of nanotechnology and how it can transform our bodies. But, you shouldn't take that; it's not about objects that will happen, it's about building scenarios that make us think about how we should deal with nanotechnology.
Also, you mentioned this earlier, there are lots of disciplines represented where the people who come from those disciplines would not consider what they do design, (such as) coders and software engineers. How do the objects coming from those fields straddle the line between being functional as a great website or Google Maps mashup and also a design? Design is about communication; it's about this extra step to reach people. That's why I felt the right to include things that were not born as design in this particular exhibition. And it's very funny because the scientists and artists were happy.
I thought of instances in the past where I did design shows and wanted to include artists, I tell you, there's one artist that did not want to be included because he said, Oh, it's a design show, it's not art. He regretted it terribly. There's still this nuttiness, artists think that they're higher than designers, but it's changing. The umbrella of design has become a desirable umbrella for artists, scientists, engineers, to the point that there's a book called Sensorium, (and in it) there's an essay by Peter Galison who is a science historian and much more at Harvard, and it's a beautiful essay about nanotechnology and it's a beautiful essay because it talks about the concept of nanofacture, and it says how scientists, because of nanophysics and the possibility of
building things atom by atom, are just becoming designers, so it really is interesting that design is the one that unites so many different forces today.
building things atom by atom, are just becoming designers, so it really is interesting that design is the one that unites so many different forces today.
Just the idea of making. Another beautiful neologism is thinkering, that's John Seely Brown, this idea of experimenting with a goal that is also communicative, not just theoretical. Notice I'm not saying aesthetic, I'm saying communicative, because I think that what makes design design, is communication once again, not beauty. There's also beauty, and beauty can be a way to communicate, but it's communication.
At what point in putting together this show did you say to yourself, Wow, we've got a really great representation of the state of design here?
Whenever you start thinking of a show you don't think of a show ever as a landmark or a blockbuster, anything like that, you think of a show that gets your juices going, it really gets you excited. The concept forms itself as you go, it's a work in progress, and you have no clue as to how it's going to be received. To be totally honest with you I realized this was going to be a special show a day and a half before the opening, because I started to see it coming together and I realized it was really good. This is like "Mutant Materials," it's another little leap.
And it continues "Mutant Materials" in a way, because that was a portrait of the state of design at that time. What was happening was designers were starting to design materials themselves, and not only objects. Today, they're starting to design the inner laws that create behaviors and objects; it's going even further into the deeper scale of design. So this show probably couldn't have happened before, because there are cycles in history; when you're in my position all you do is observe and something happens at some point and if you're lucky enough and have your antennas up at that time you catch it.
It seems like this is a pretty wide-ranging show, it encompasses a lot. From my limited view, I don't think I've seen anything that's deigned to tackle this wide a group of things.
It's not for me to say; I haven't seen it either. The way I see museums and design exhibitions, it's really like an amazing network, we all have our functions and we all do things differently. Like the Victorian Albert is great at doing the sweeping historical shows, design and Surrealism, Modernism, now they're doing the Cold War, they do that best. The Design Museum, right now it's changing but there was this interdisciplinarity under [former director] Alice Rawsthorn so they were doing Phillip Treacy hats and the Eames exhibition so they had great graphic design shows, Peter Saville, they were really looking at design this multifaceted way, and now Deyan [Sudjic, director] is trying to, he's done Zaha Hadid, so they do that.
And then you go to the Denver Museum, they're the ones that do postmodernism, which we don't do. Then you go to the Cooper-Hewitt, they have a more historical mandate, so we all do different things Centre Pompidou does different things. This is what I do best. I'm good at making this kind of, I really consider myself a reporter in a way, no reporting is ever objective, but what reporters are good at doing, if they have that talent, is synthesis. They're able to catch this broad view and put it together that marks this moment in time. That's what I do best. So, very humbly, we all do our thing. No, I haven't seen another show like this. I'm glad to be put in my own little tassel in this big puzzle.
Read more here: exhibition's website.