Design Communication for the 22nd Century
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.By: Nick Parish, Published: Apr 01, 2008
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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'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.