in Interviews | 10 SEP 04
Featured in
Issue 85

Looking at the Overlooked

A recent exhibition at MoMA in New York included masterpieces of everyday design such as Post-It notes, tea-bags and the Chupa Chups lollipop wrapper created by Salvador Dalí; Paola Antonelli in conversation

in Interviews | 10 SEP 04

Paola Antonelli has been a Curator in the Department of Architecture and Design at the Museum of Modern Art in New York since 1994. She has been responsible for a number of well-received design shows, including ‘Mutant Materials in Contemporary Design’ (1995) and ‘Workspheres’ (2001). Her most recent exhibition is ‘Humble Masterpieces’ (until 27 September 2004).

Emily King: In your introduction to ‘Humble Masterpieces’ you suggest
that the show is on a trajectory that reaches all the way back to the original MoMA design show ‘Machine Art’ of 1934, yet the two exhibitions are very different.

Paola Antonelli: ‘Machine Art’ was the first statement of the importance of industrial design as a form of art. Philip Johnson, the curator of ‘Machine Art’, presented extremely functional objects like callipers and ball-bearings on white pedestals against white walls, as if they were exquisite modern sculpture. He wanted people to look at them in the formal sense and be surprised by their beauty. Then there was the ‘Useful Objects’ shows in the late 1930s and the ‘Good Design’ series in the 1950s by other curators. Curatorial ideas have evolved, and also the world has changed tremendously. You cannot make a show like ‘Machine Art’ now, because people have survived Postmodernism and Post-Structuralism. These days it would be wrong to show objects that are so much part of everyday life without any kind of context.

Do you think that there has been a shift in emphasis from production to consumption, that ‘Machine Art’ was more about how objects had been produced and ‘Humble Masterpieces’ is more about how they are used?

No, and you know why? Consumption, at least in the States right now, is considered a dirty attribute for a design object. What I loved about old MoMA catalogues from the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s is that they had the price of the object and where you could buy it. Nowadays you could never do that,
because it would expose the ‘dirty underbelly’ of the design object. Personally, I think that the commercial value is part of the design – I count it among the criteria that I use to judge. That is why I am so fascinated with things like the Post-It note or the iPod. I like to consider how the object enters the real world and is either consumed or used or contemplated.

Are there some objects that you would not have collected when they were first produced, objects that needed a period in the real world to demonstrate their importance: the Chupa Chups lollipop, for example?

Well, Salvador Dalí designed the wrapper for the Chupa Chups, but I think you are probably right. I am a survivor of Post-Structuralism and Postmodernism too, and maybe I am more apt to look at a lollipop as an art object, as a design masterpiece, than previous curators would have been.

Do you collect cultural icons?

That is not enough; they have to be well designed. Also I am thinking of design in the context of the MoMA’s collection: it is not just a value judgement in the sense of ‘everything in the collection is good, everything that is not in it is not good’. It is a judgement about the history of modern design. I’ll give you an example: the VW Beetle. If we had been a history museum, we would have collected the first prototype. Instead we collected the model from 1959, which is the one that went on to become the cultural icon. We try to pick a model that has had the greatest cultural impact on the world at large by means of design.

Do you think that the museum might initially have been about leading the way in design, but that now you’re more responsive to what is going on in culture?

Alfred Barr and Philip Johnson had a very responsive attitude. When Barr became Director of the museum in 1929, he had just visited Europe, going also to the Bauhaus. When he came back, he told Johnson to go and take a look as well. So Johnson had his grand tour and came back and put together the International Exhibition in 1931, with Henry-Russell Hitchcock. It was the first introduction of Mies van der Rohe and that kind of pure European Modernism to the United States. I think they desperately wanted the Bauhaus philosophy and idealism to spread to the world at large.

Yes, they were trying to promote it ...

That’s true. I believe so much in design, I try to promote it as much as possible. The design attitude is extremely useful as a paradigm; it is a constructive process within limitations and constraints. It would be an extremely useful model for politicians and policy-makers. And after all its digestion of function and meaning it ultimately deals with beauty and pleasure, which are good social values.

Would you collect something purely on the grounds of its beauty?

Purely on the grounds of beauty, no.

But without beauty?

Yes – there is an example that provoked a great debate. It was 1994, and I had just come here from teaching at UCLA. In Los Angeles I had met Don Chadwick, who designed the Aeron chair together with Bill Stumpf, and I had been secretly looking at the chair in the making for two years. Now, the Aeron chair is not your classical example of beauty, right? I remember when I came to MoMA, I showed the second chair off the production line to the committee. When I presented it to Philip Johnson, forever the constructive provocateur, he looked at it and said, ‘Paola, why do you want to acquire that chair? It is ugly.’ He was baiting me. And I looked at him and said, ‘Yes, it is ugly. It is as ugly and sublime as the architecture of your friend Frank Gehry.’ And he said, ‘touché’. So the Aeron chair is ugly if you follow the classic definition of beauty, but it is beautiful because it is so innovative, so ground-breaking. It has become an icon.

Do you see the museum as taste-maker?

No, absolutely not. We try to make people understand the benefit of design. It should be like a steak, like food. You know if it’s rotten, if it’s good or not good; you should know it instinctively.

Isn’t there a taste-making element in putting something in a museum, as you are suggesting you approve of it?

Well, yes, that is unavoidable, but I don’t think you can extrapolate taste from our collection.

Do you think you are offering a template for living?

I don’t think you can put together enough of an ensemble to create a methodology for living, or for buying, not today. What I am hoping is that people can put together a methodology for choosing. It is more about giving a critical resource than instruction. The mission of the ‘Good Design’ series in the 1950s was to educate the manufacturers and retailers, and consequently the consumers, about a more modern way of living. But today we are really looking at individual objects.

When did you stop trying to educate?

More than stopping to educate, we stopped instructing. I think that there was a particular period after the Second World War. It coincided with the Case Study Houses programme in California, when there was an attempt to prop up the middle class. The GIs were coming back from the war and were given some money by the government to start families, and there was a booming economy. I don’t think that the museum has tried to educate people’s everyday taste in a direct way ever since. The museum has moved on to the explanation of the technology and the background of design.

What about more urgent issues that surround consumer choice – for example, the environment? Do you feel entitled to make moral judgements about objects?

Absolutely. MoMA has always made moral judgements, but in a subtle way. Modernism is wholesome. For example, in the ‘Mutant Materials’ show I didn’t have a section on environmentally friendly materials because I didn’t want people to think that those were to be held separate from other materials.

Do you collect guns?

No. No weapons, and no fashion. Weapons for moral reasons, fashion for practical ones. Collecting fashion means having a whole different set-up for storage, for conservation. So there are lots of practical questions, and then there is the question of replicating other collections.


No. Also they belong more in an anthropological collection.

Are there going to be any changes in the way that the collection is displayed in the new MoMA building?

For 18 months there was a cycle of exhibitions called ‘MoMA 2000’. They were experiments in how to display the collection by mixing works from our six curatorial departments. Some of the interdisciplinary displays worked; others didn’t. Architectural drawings together with artists’ drawings worked; design and sculpture didn’t.

Why not?

I was working with Laura Hoptman and we decided to explore the two things through materials and process. For example, we had a felt section, with Joseph Beuys and Gaetano Pesce. It was beautiful, but it didn’t work. The problem was that design looked like sculpture. Design has to be shown on its own, or with architecture. The only exception is when there is a very distinct and solid historical movement, like De Stijl. Then it makes sense to make a vignette, a period room, but otherwise not.

Of course, Barr’s original vision was to unite all the different departments.

I know, but he was working in 1929. Things have changed immensely. At that time there was De Stijl, the Bauhaus, the idea of the Gesamtkunstwerk. But it’s not viable any more, at least not in a literal way. His dream of interdisciplinarity is now a cultural reality, but trying to explain it visually is very challenging. I would need to write a thesis to explain why.