In her many years as a curator and author, Paola Antonelli has impressively demonstrated the extent to which design influences the development of culture and society, as well as how strongly it shapes our living environment. At the same time, her work raises awareness of taking a responsible approach to design in terms of people and nature; not only for designers, but also for all those who buy products and integrate them into their everyday lives.

An interview by Lutz Dietzold.

Paola Antonelli, architect and senior curator of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York.
Paola Antonelli, architect and senior curator of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York. Photo: Marton Perlaki.

As curator of MoMA, you have shown in many exhibitions that design is part of our everyday lives; that it is more than just about »beautifully designed« things. For example, the 2004 exhibition »Humble Masterpieces« focused on everyday objects. Why is it so important to you to bring an understanding of the many facets of design to people?

From traffic lights to ATM screens, from bike lanes to video games, from coffee pots to street benches, everything is designed. People are the clients and the ultimate judges of all these objects’ quality and soundness. By exposing the public to as many forms of design as possible, I’m just making sure they notice it, get used to evaluating it, and demand better if necessary.

You once described designers as the »best synthesizers in the world« – because in their work they create the perfect synthesis of human needs and current conditions, whether in terms of economics, production, or sustainability. Which topic do you think designers should be particularly concerned with currently?

It is hard to generalize, not only because there are too many forms of design, but also because everything is interconnected. The environmental crisis however sums it all up: we need to be more responsible as a species. Designers bear a lot of responsibility and could do a lot to help us all change our bad behaviours.


“We need to be more responsible as a species.”


What do you think is the biggest misunderstanding or misjudgement people have about design?

That it is simply about styling/decoration/embellishment.

If you do research on your exhibitions, what do designers surprise you most with?

Empathy.

Installation view of Broken Nature: Design Takes on Human Survival, the XXII Triennale di Milano, Milan, 2018 - 2019
Installation view of Broken Nature: Design Takes on Human Survival, the XXII Triennale di Milano, Milan, 2018 – 2019. Photo: Gianluca Di Ioia.

How would you describe the relationship between design and art? As two separate worlds? As symbiotic? Or something completely different?

Two separate worlds. Objects of art and updates in design might sometimes look indistinguishable, or some actors (especially in the art market) might try to push them together, but they are different conceptually.

Has the logic behind collecting changed over recent decades? What effects does digitalization have on your collection strategy?

We began collecting digital design quite some time ago. We have interactive pieces, video games, apps, digital fonts… We have even collected the red arrow from Google maps and the @ sign. We spend a lot of our lives in the digital world so we need to also consider it from a design collecting viewpoint.

To what extent has corona changed the user behaviour of your visitors?

We have been closed for almost 6 months. The museum is now open but with a much-reduced capacity. Moreover, there is no tourism, neither from abroad, nor domestically. I would say that the behaviour has not just changed – it has disappeared.


We spend a lot of our lives in the digital world so we need to also consider it from a design collecting viewpoint.”


You have already accompanied an exhibition that dealt with the role of design in questions of protection, security, and risk management – »Safe« in 2005. Do you think that the possibilities that design offers in this respect are already being fully exploited?

Not at all. There will always be new forms of insecurity and danger, to which design will respond in new ways.

Installation view of Neri Oxman: Material Ecology, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2020
Installation view of Neri Oxman: Material Ecology, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2020. Photo: Denis Doorly.

In connection with your exhibition »Design and the Elastic Mind«, you described the designer as the most important change agent of our everyday lives. Design mediates between the enormous and increasingly rapid changes in our everyday world and creates systems, so that we as human beings are able to master these changes. What are the next big design tasks waiting in the wings?

I just finished interviewing an astrophysicist about the way design will help us travel through space and settle on new planets. But maybe that’s too far-fetched. Closer to home, I see a deep crisis that will stay with us for quite a while. I see an environmental crisis, threats to democracies all over the world, injustice and intolerance, poverty, youth unemployment, even in the richest countries. Design alone can’t find solutions to all these problems but it should be part of the interdisciplinary research groups and policy needs, to devise new ways of living together – and of making a living.

How important is the topic of innovation and the technical progress in the context of design to you?

Technology is extremely important but it shouldn’t be the guiding star of every single project. I appreciate objects that use technology as a sharp and effective tool.

Which characteristics or abilities should a designer definitely have?

Besides talent and training, I would say definitely empathy and respect.

Installation view of Items: Is Fashion Modern?, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2017 - 2018
Installation view of Items: Is Fashion Modern?, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2017 – 2018. Photo: Martin Seck.

Which exhibition theme do you have planned next?

A show on interspecies design. It’s not officially on the calendar yet, I’m keeping my fingers crossed.

What inspires you in your work?

I am over-inspired! So many things inspire me but more than anything, other people’s creativity, and work. I am also truly inspired by New Yorkers. I’ve lived in the city for 27 years and I can never get enough of it or its inhabitants.

What is your favourite underrated object of everyday life?

Is there such a thing? If there was, there would be no humble masterpieces, right?


“So many things inspire me but more than anything, other people’s creativity, and work. I am also truly inspired by New Yorkers.”


Paola Antonelli

Paola Antonelli was born in 1963 in Sardinia and studied architecture at the Polytechnic in Milan. Before becoming a curator at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York in 1994, she taught design theory and history at the University of California in L.A. In 2007, she became senior curator for the areas of design and architecture at MoMA. As senior curator at MoMA, she caused a sensation virtually from the very beginning, with exhibitions such as »Thresholds: Contemporary Design from the Netherlands« (1996), »Humble Masterpieces« (2004) or »Design and the Elastic Mind« (2008), which staged everyday products as if they were exhibits in a museum. As curator of the recent XXII Triennale di Milano, which drew attention to the need for sustainable design under the title of »Broken Nature«, Antonelli demonstrated how design is important more than ever today. Whether as a curator, editor or author, Paola Antonelli’s work to date has made an extraordinary contribution when it comes to ensuring that broader swathes of the public perceive design much more as a diverse cultural asset – and thus as part of an individual and societal identity – instead of reducing it only to aesthetics and function.

Paola Antonelli has been honoured with the »Personality of the Year 2021« award at the German Design Awards. This interview was first published in the catalogue of the German Design Awards 2021.

Paola Antonelli’s Video Interview at »All Eyes On«

A view through the camera on the set of »All Eyes On«
Foto: Daniel Banner

»All Eyes On« is the digital programme for the 2021 German Design Awards. Over a period of four weeks, the German Design Council will present to you the recipients of the Gold Awards and their projects, as well as interviews and round-table discussions with design experts, entrepreneurs and journalists. The talks focus on current trends and design topics related to innovation, branding, sustainability and digitalisation.

A special highlight is the interview with »Personality of the Year« Paola Antonelli on 10 March 2021 at 10 AM Central European Time (4 AM Eastern Standard Time [North America]). The interview can be watched on the website of »All Eyes On« and subsequently on the YouTube channel of the German Design Council.


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