In 1994, Paola Antonelli applied to a job advert in the back pages of i-D magazine for a curatorial position at MoMA. 23 years later she is senior curator of the museum’s architecture and design department and director of research and development. In two decades, Paola has built a legacy that has pushed the institution to consider video games museum worthy, the @ sign as an exhibit, emoticons as something we should immortalise and the humble white T-shirt as a historical artefact. But where does this passion for pushing the definition of design come from? And how has this been shaped over the years?
Growing up in Milan, Paola has design in her blood. “What I noticed when I moved to the United States was that design is treated as if it were an odd sphere of human creativity, even though Americans have amazing design they grew up with,” Paola says. “So I realised that the best thing that I could do having begun to work at MoMA, which is considered an educational institution, was to just make people aware of their surroundings. So it’s very simple, I’m just making people notice.”
Before becoming a curator at MoMA, Paola studied two years of economics at the Bocconi University in Milan. “It was a very serious school and I suffocated there, I didn’t have the brain for it. So I switched to architecture because it was the furthest thing away from economics,” she explains.
Once again, Paola didn’t settle into the path she’d chosen and ended up working as an architect for only six months – “I realised that I really sucked so I started working as a journalist!” she laughs. Writing for Domus and Abitare in the early 90s, Paola fell into curating by accident after helping out on a show in Milan, where the original curator’s pregnant wife was looking after the installation of the show. “It was very organic, I always feel like I’ve never made a decision in my life – things just all happen.”
Behind Paola’s modesty lies more than serendipity in her success. She has been on a personal mission since coming to America and has been relentless on changing perceptions about design. “My philosophy has always been the same, but it has become more articulate over the years and it really became more precise when I came to the US,” explains Paola. “Having found this need to explain to people that design is not only cute chairs, I had found my mission. I was lucky to be in New York, and at MoMA of course, because the platform is huge and visible.”
Moving to New York purely for the MoMA job, Paola’s ingrained philosophy and approach to design has served her well at the institution. “I remember at the beginning I had never seen an internal memo in my life because in Italy you just talk to people,” explains Paola. “I was so hurt when somebody sent me a memo rewriting what we had just said in a meeting, I thought it was so rude! And then I found myself staring at this big old IBM computer with floppy disks and the first official memo I wrote was a one-and-a-half page memo on why I needed a Macintosh – I still have [the Mac] now.”
Paola led MoMA to embrace digital and technology in all its guises, first by coding its original website in 1995 after asking a student to show her the basics. She champions how this form of design should have equal status with other areas including product design and graphic design, and there are some of her colleagues, friends and peers who immediately understand that the “digital space is one where you design, you make art, you communicate and live”. But it’s become one of Paola’s biggest challenges to convince those who don’t see it as equally.
“My role as a curator is to shake everyone and then their role is to shake the powers that be.”
– Paola Antonelli
The curator has become known for her acquisitions, which have confronted the definition of what design is for those of a more traditional persuasion. In 2013, she introduced 14 video games to MoMA’s collection including Tetris, Pong and The Sims, which sparked criticism from many in the art and design world including The Guardian’s art critic Jonathan Jones who declared: “Video games are not art,” and “No one ‘owns’ the game, so there is no artist, and therefore no work of art.” But what he, and other critics of Paola’s move, failed to notice was that the curator never claimed they were works of “art,” rather the museum positioned videos games as a functional piece of design that deserved to be celebrated.
Paola’s acquisition of the @ sign in 2010, was the start of her crusade and prompted conversations about what merits inclusion in MoMA, especially when journalists were writing about that particular acquisition. “When we announced it, we had people ringing up asking for pictures of the @ symbol and I just said ‘look down at your keyboard – it’s there!’” She laughs.
“It’s not a precise recipe,” says Paola of her criteria for acquisitions. “I deal with design so I always have a reality check. The only difference between an artist and a designer, in my opinion, has nothing to do with medium or what you get in the end, but it has to do with the fact that an artist can decide whether to be responsible towards other human beings or not. But a designer has to be responsible by definition.
“So when I look at objects that could go in, there is still form and there is still function of course, it’s just that form is not what it used to be because now it can be digital – and function is not what it used to be because after post-structuralism, function can be delight or it can be anguish. So it’s all very different to what it used to be, but you still think of the goal the designer set for themselves and how they got there,” explains Paola.
“If this object did not exist, would it be a pity?”
– Paola Antonelli
After this rationalisation and questioning, the curator has one final litmus test to help her decide what the department should acquire. “You have gone through all the different parts of the equation, but then you just sit back and say ‘if this object did not exist, would it be a pity?’ Sometimes it’s something like a Tamagotchi, but even that – which is the most useless, anguish-inducing thing – still adds something to the world,” she says. “So that idea of adding to the world really is the test, and since the collection of MoMA is not as huge as other museums, we use that filter. I would like to think – even though I don’t think it’s true – that every single thing we have has added something.”
Paola’s experiences digging through the collection’s archives have tested this notion, having re-discovered both the treasures and the unexplained. “It’s an accumulation of objects collected throughout almost 90 years of history from different people and sometimes you’re in the warehouse and you just ask; ‘what were they thinking?’ Once I found 20 wooden bowls by this guy and then I discovered this guy had been a curatorial assistant for one of the collections,” she says.
According to Paola, there are curators who contribute to their institutions by filling in the gaps through huge monographic shows that are in-depth and track one creative’s career. “I like to push things a little bit,” she says and often she works on group shows to explore and dissect a bigger theme. The show Paola’s been working on for some time now is Items: Is Fashion Modern?, on now until January 2018. “It’s the first time I’m working on fashion and it’s fascinating,” says Paola. The show explores the “present, past and future of 111 items that have had a strong impact on history and society and continue to hold currency today”. Among the items were well-known and transformative designs including Levi’s 501s, the Casio watch and the white T-shirt, again seeing Paola explore the definition of everyday design.
The importance of design in today’s society is the same as it’s ever been for Paola. “It’s what we build our world with and how we do it as well. The role of citizens is in understanding the importance of design and therefore acting responsibly towards it,” she says. “My role as curator is to shake everyone, and then their role is to shake the powers that be, to shake the legislators, the manufacturers, the mayors and get them to question how they design, recycle and build.”
Paola continues: “We have to find a way to make the powers that be understand the importance of culture, because it’s such a wasted opportunity. It won’t happen until an economist comes up with some theory about design that goes into an MBA bibliography or something – it has to be done that way unfortunately. A lot of people in the world still need to be told how to think. We just need to find our Trojan horse.” Paola has been at the forefront of this battle from the beginning, back when she was an architect, when she was a journalist, when she came to America and now as a senior curator at one of the most influential museums in the world. It’s Paola’s incessant questioning of the status quo that sets her apart, asking who set these constraints and why they decided design was only about chairs and light fittings. Through her innovative work Paola is tearing up the rule book and telling us that design is limitless and she’s bringing this ethos to the broadest possible audience at MoMA.