For Paola Antonelli, the senior curator of design and architecture at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, design means much more than just beautiful fonts and fanciful chairs. It encompasses a machine that simulates the pain and bleeding of a five-day period aimed at those who have never experienced menstruation. And it also includes a dandelion-like device that deactivates land mines by rolling in fields, carried by the wind.
Arguably one of the most provocative design curators of our time, Antonelli isn’t afraid to ruffle some feathers in order to push the definition of design beyond beautification of objects and into real life. Design, for Antonelli, permeates every facet of human activity and plays a crucial role in helping people deal with societal change across disciplines. Some of her most controversial MoMA exhibitions include one that delved into violence and the darker side of design as well as another that displayed Pac-Man in its collection.
Following the recent announcement of MoMA’s first major exhibition dedicated to fashion in more than 70 years, Amuse caught up with the charismatic Antonelli to hear why she investigated design’s dark realms and the role of fashion in our lives.
What does the word “design” mean to you?
For me, design is very broad. Normally, people think of design as furniture, cars or posters, but they don’t think about the ATM machine they use as design, even though it is designed… Just like the trains in the subway are designed. I feel that people have a pretty good understanding of the traditional notions of design and decorative arts, but they don’t have enough of an understanding of the design that surrounds them.
Why has it been so important for you to counter the notion of “design is decoration” through your work?
It’s important for citizens to understand design in broader terms because much of design is for them. Ultimately, they’re the ones who need to tell manufacturers, policy-makers and governments when certain designs are inappropriate or not ethically satisfying. Basically, my job is to try to explain to people that design is much more than cute chairs. Design is everywhere – even when it’s perceived as style or decoration. Oftentimes, people are merely missing the link between perception and knowledge. But the moment you tell them that an ATM machine is design, they understand of course. So I’m just revealing to people what they already know and trying to create more awareness around other forms of design.
What would you say is the role of design today?
The role of design is to enable us to live life. If you think about it, everything we do has to do with design. The phone I’m holding is a piece of design. The shoes I’m wearing have been designed. The interfaces we interact with have been designed. The role of design is to essentially give shape to our lives and the environment around us. Nature interjects its own design in the one we have made, but the whole world is designed.
Where did the idea for the Design and Violence exhibition come from?
As a design expert and an architect by trade, I’ve always thought design had to be positive and constructive – that it’s about making the world a better place. So when I saw a 3D-printed gun for the first time about three years ago, I was stunned because all of a sudden I realised 3D printers—which I had always associated with maker spaces, fab labs and as a vehicle to enable people around the world to make their own tools—could let someone print the components of a lethal gun at home.
Like everything in life, human nature is both good and evil, and all the shades in between. Therefore, everything we produce also has this double personality and double potential. I began thinking about the fact that I had always spoken about design in a positive way and thought I should also explore the dark side of design. Part of that meant finding objects that have an ambiguous relationship with environments which might be perfectly designed but with evil purposes. Alongside my co-curator Jamer Hunt, we began making a list of objects falling into this category and proposed it as an exhibition.
But it wasn’t accepted by the museum. So you both decided to pursue the idea as a web project instead… Why?
We really liked the idea and wanted to develop it, so we started a WordPress site, since you don’t need anyone’s permission for that. We asked favours of really good writers and posted a different object every week with an essay. Many things can be perfectly designed, but also used for evil. For instance, the green bullet that was developed by the US Army. It’s “green” because it’s lead-free and good to the environment, but it can still kill you. Or there are these plastic handcuffs that are perfect from a design standpoint and yet so terrible when it comes to humiliation or imprisonment. We created a buzz with this and eventually MoMA decided they wanted to have the website as part of the MoMA website. Since then, a book was also published on it and there will be an exhibition based on this project at the Science Gallery in Dublin.
MoMA will be holding its first show focused on fashion Items: Is fashion modern? in over 70 years. Why has it taken so long for the museum to examine this field of design again?
It’s interesting and I think there are different reasons. First, for conceptual reasons. MoMA was founded in 1929 and the last exhibition on fashion was in 1944. Since then, curators have said that fashion was the opposite of “modern” because it’s ephemeral and all about style – one season it’s here, the other it’s gone. It’s an argument I find a bit disingenuous even though it was the official argument. In reality, I think it has to do with habits. There are many museums in New York with different expertise. The Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art has typically been doing more spectacular exhibitions driven by one designer or a particular period, whereas the Fashion Institute of Technology usually hosts more unexpected exhibitions that are academic and scholarly. Traditionally, MoMA was doing design, and not fashion, so I think it has a lot to do with that.
There’s a commonly held notion that paying too much attention to dress or fashion is frivolous. What are your thoughts on that and where do you think that stems from?
The prejudice against fashion has existed in many different milieus. Fashion is considered traditionally superfluous and stylistic – as is the case with design. Most of the time, it’s because people don’t fully understand what they’re talking about. Fashion is something we all deal with. Almost everyone makes choices in the morning, regardless of background, education and financial situation. Of course, there are some people lacking the basics, but in most cases we make choices that have to do with what we we want to express about ourselves. The other thing is that clothes and garments embody a lot behind them – labour practices, different economies, politics and sociology.
In Items, I’d like to look at individual objects as a way to understand the world. We’re going to present individual items that we wear—ranging from garments to scents—which were really important in the 20th and 21st century and show their contexts, histories and possible futures.
How do you envision the world of design evolving in the next decade?
I have a theory about design that I’m pretty proud of. I like to think that in the future, design will become like physics. So, there’s going to be theoretical design—which would focus on thinking about the future and potentially influencing policy—and then applied design—which would be designers making things like ATM machines and video games. When people look at the designers I bring up as examples, they sometimes think of them as artists because the way their work is functional may not be immediately obvious. However, I like to believe designers are interpreters of possible futures, kind of like philosophers.
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