Paola Antonelli: “Pac-Man’, perfume, the sign of the at sign and a virus are design” | Culture

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MoMA Design Curator Paola Antonelli was born by chance in Sassari, Sardinia. It was 1963 and his father, a Milanese otorhinolaryngologist, was working there then as he had done before in Milan, where his brother was born, and as he would later work in Ferrara, where his sister would be […]

MoMA Design Curator Paola Antonelli was born by chance in Sassari, Sardinia. It was 1963 and his father, a Milanese otorhinolaryngologist, was working there then as he had done before in Milan, where his brother was born, and as he would later work in Ferrara, where his sister would be born. What was not accidental was her job interview at MoMA in 1994. Antonelli, an architect by training, had written, curated and designed. He sent a letter requesting a position in New York. And got a date. Since then, he lives in the Big Apple. And he has not stopped reflecting on what design is and what it could be. Her effort to reconsider the boundaries between disciplines has made her one of the most daring curators. And all wrapped in a tranquility that has little to do with his risky proposals. The interview begins in Valencia and continues in New York. Antonelli inaugurated the world design capital of the Spanish city. Receive at your hotel. It’s early, but he’s back. He has visited the Redonda square and the Central Market. Pay attention that the recorder works. She wears beige, although later for the photos in New York she chooses black. He smiles and remembers that he has been a journalist.

A designer, architect and curator who doesn’t wear black. Is it a statement of intent?

No. I just like the colors. I wear black when I don’t want to think. It’s a nice and safe uniform. But I like the challenge of thinking a little more.

Does it have something to do with being Italian?

Could be. There black is not associated with the intelligentsia. Perhaps because, for centuries, it was a color associated with mourning and despair.

He has been defending for decades that design is more than chairs and has come to Valencia to be a jury (Andreu World) and to award the best chair.

Design is more than chairs, but it is also the chairs. It is the point of contact with the human body. The chairs speak. A chair can be a manifesto. They are a family object. They are part of the house. That is why they are the beginning. The problem is that the world thinks that design is just chairs. That’s why I had to push.

He argues that ambiguity is the space for new design.

The 20th century was the century of specialization. That creates hierarchies. There have always been between art and applied arts. And when industrial design arrived, it was considered the last link in the creative professions. I studied Architecture in Milan. I had Castiglioni as a teacher, and his message was that design was part of architecture. I defend that architecture is part of design. Design is a conceptual and pragmatic methodology that you can apply at many scales. It is a bridge. And in the 21st century, the most important thing you can be is something capable of uniting. It’s what we need.

Do we design our bodies?

Sure. I have tried to design myself several times, anxiously or wrongly, with diets, illnesses or exercise. We design them by wearing them. I have not had surgery, but there is such a possibility and I have nothing against it. I’m not tattooed, but I love seeing it on others. I also like the scars. A non-binary or transgender person completely redesigns their body and in doing so redesigns their life.

Can viruses be designed?

Since a long time. And one, very benign, is in the MoMA collection.

If you defend that everything is design, could what happened to art happen to this discipline when anti-art also became art?

It is already impossible to define what design is. So when I try to do it, I simultaneously expand and limit it. I hope that, in the same way that people no longer wonder about what is or is not music, they decide for themselves what is and what is not design.

If the design is to ask the questions, what provides answers?

The design answers and solves, but its achievement is to have gotten to ask the questions. In history there have been moments that have expanded the discipline with architects and designers who make our heads explode.

Such moments have occurred, above all, during crises, when professionals did not have much to do.

Sure. Economic crises and the lack of commissions are usually combined with the moment in which we start to think. We are going through one now, not only because of the pandemic, but especially because of the crisis of democracy and the dramatic environmental situation. This has made many designers pragmatic.

But what MoMA supports is speculative.

Remember that big changes can start as dreams.

“The virtual world is not technological, it is a state of mind,” says the architect Paola Antonelli, pictured in the MoMa sculpture garden.Vincent Tullo

Is everything design?

I believe that perfume is design. And the food. But not everything: telephone networks, for example, are not.

Why do you need museums to show design if it’s everywhere?

A museum is where people go to experience. They used to be spaces where people approached art. But now they are meeting points, discovery and conversation.

Design doesn’t always make the world better.

Amen. Although it was hard for me to understand. Perhaps because I am the daughter of doctors, I thought that designers took a kind of Hippocratic oath and worked for the good of humanity. In 2012, 3D printing blueprints for guns went royalty free and I had an epiphany: in the hands of humans any tool can become evil.

Organized the first MoMA website.

When I want something and nobody can do it, I learn to do it. I organized a few days of thought and proposed: rebirth or revolution? The revolution won. People do not want rights conferred on them. He wants to conquer them. The revolution does not have to be groundbreaking. It can be systemic. We are seeing it with Black Lives Matter or with the MeToo movement. They alter the ways of thinking and repair failures of coexistence in the system. They are forms of revolution.

Isn’t it a contradiction to start a revolution from an institution that represents power?

You can do it from within the system. 10 years ago we started doing study groups on what we didn’t know. We document other forms of modernity to avoid Eurocentrisms and that the predominant point of view was that of the white and Western man. MoMA’s catalog has been transformed in response to this broader and more inclusive way of knowing. That makes me proud. In 2019 we not only expanded the building, we reorganized the criteria of the collection. That is a systemic revolution. From within, the awareness that a change is needed is generated and external forces are sought to materialize it. That’s what design does.

The at sign is a design in the MoMA collection. How do you buy something like that?

It is not bought. The beauty of the design is that there are many ways to have it. You can buy items and put them in display cases or you can own something that everyone uses. I am proud that we have the at sign. I read your story. It exists since the Middle Ages. The monks used it as the Latin preposition ad, which means “in relation to.” I discovered that merchants in Genoa and Venice used it to connect price and quantity. It was already on the typewriters. In 1971, an MIT engineer was commissioned by the US government to design the web. And he used the at sign to join the parts (the name and the web). The at sign is a bridge in the public domain. That’s better than owning it because it redefines the role of museums, not as places that remove works from circulation, but as places that tell stories and generate knowledge.

How do you choose what to collect, leaving time to cool down?

That is one of the usual points of friction with my colleagues who are in favor of that rest. You compete with the big museums, like the Center Pompidou, and if you don’t take too much risk and rest, you can buy less. They will buy everything and you will be left behind. You need to be risky.

And what price is paid?

I’m not going to give you names, but I have some very large pieces of furniture that shouldn’t be in the MoMA collection. Of course you’re wrong, but I’d rather be wrong and acquire something questionable than miss out on something that should be in the collection.

Have you taken anything out of the collections?

We can, but only to sell the pieces if we find something better from the same period. For example, some plastic furniture from the 1960s has deteriorated.

Has that made you reconsider plastic?

Do not.

“Design is a bridge. And in the 21st century, the most important thing that something can do is unite”, says Paola Antonelli.
“Design is a bridge. And in the 21st century, the most important thing that something can do is unite”, says Paola Antonelli.Vincent Tullo

It was supposed to be the future and now it’s the devil.

It has been all that, but it is reborn again with bioplastics.

Plastic came to museums before women.

Do not! Aino Aalto and Ray Eames were finally recognized years ago. But we can improve. What gives me the most hope is the fluidity between the genres. I think true equality will come when genders cease to exist.

Has any company paid for video games to enter MoMA’s collection?

Do not.

The fashion industry did pay to enter museums.

At MoMA we have sponsors and trustees. Together they discuss the acquisitions and propose. Companies can donate items.

Video games now generate twice as much money as the movie industry.

Yes.

But they also generate addicts among children.

It is our adult point of view that sees them as addicts.

Psychiatrists have denounced it.

Is it comparable with other addictions? In that case it is a problem, of course. And maybe you should rethink that idea. But I think it’s important to document the world we live in. Video games are addictive, but also constructive. They are milestones of design. It is a fascinating subject. There is as much violence as in painting or sculpture collections. Why should the design avoid it?

Could the atomic bomb enter the design collection?

Do not.

Drugs? LSD?

I did an exhibition called Safe. Disco Drugs. And the director asked if the poster could imply that the center supported drugs. It was the opposite: it supported the information so that the young people knew what they were approaching.

He defends design as the maximum artistic expression.

The artist may or may not be involved. The designer is responsible for the effect his work has on others.

Paola Antonelli, en el jardín de las esculturas del museo, junto a la obra Sandy’s Butterfly, de Alexander Calder.
Paola Antonelli, en el jardín de las esculturas del museo, junto a la obra Sandy’s Butterfly, de Alexander Calder.Vincent Tullo

What led you to want to define the design?

In 2001 I began to study how people worked. I was mostly interested in the change. The radical world of the 1960s and 1970s described design as a tool capable of changing behaviour. When the world needs a big change, objects symbolize it and propitiate it. The design reacts to the world. And that bonds him deeply and quickly.

The ideas of the radical architects of the sixties remained mostly just that: ideas.

Some were translated into buildings. Think of the Center Pompidou [in Paris]. It is my favorite building.

It has needed many reforms.

Sure. Even concrete needs continual repairs. It’s part of life.

You are interested in buildings and objects that reflect the world. But you didn’t see reflecting it.

How should I dress? The beautiful thing about fashion today is that variety reflects the world. As a teenager I worked in the field of fashion. The colors changed every six months. Now everything changes every week. And that makes it all worth it. It is the triumph of diversity. And, of course, it can also be consumption.

Where is nature at the Pompidou?

On the contrast. I like it because it is a rocket landed on earth. It does not move. But it moves you. The curators try to show what is not seen. It’s not just the shock of the new. Sometimes it is the surprise of the old.

Do you miss Italy?

I dont go much. I am a New Yorker. I love it. But when I leave New York I think: why do I live there, it’s so neurotic…

What was your childhood like?

They say I was a happy and smart girl. He drew, sang, acted and pretended he knew how to read. I was also overweight and insecure and a bit lonely. I have a photo of a party where all the children are playing and me reading, lying on a bed.

What has he sacrificed?

How difficult to know. I do not trust my honesty when taking stock. What most distinguishes my life from a more, let’s say, conventional one is that, although I have been with the same partner for 26 years, we have not had children. Has it been my career? Did we decide? Does it have to do with living in New York? So my family was far away? Didn’t want children? Am I not in the world to be a mother? Every answer would be incomplete and indulgent. But we feel no regret. At least for now. I have worked a lot. Sure I’ve missed moments, but I’ve recovered the effort I invested.

What do you expect from the future?

We can only wish. To wish that the invasion of Ukraine ceases, that they can continue to be free and that they can rebuild the country with the help of the world. I would like other conflicts, and other injustices, to be more visible. I would like to see the pandemic end, I would like democracy to stop being threatened and for citizens to be able to strengthen it. I would like there to be an agreement to take care of the planet… I look like a Miss Universe contender, but I want world peace.

Is the virtual world the future?

It has always existed. It is not defined by technology, it is a state of mind. For centuries, religion transported us to that world. In the future, it will not only be an escape, it will be the world.

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