Interview with Paola Antonelli, by Wendy Ju, August 2007
JU: How did you first get into design?
ANTONELLI: I got into design after having gone through wanting to be an astronaut, an astrophysicist, a nuclear physicist, a newspaper journalist, a fashion PR, an economist, and an architect, and so that’s how it happened. It was not a calling.
Through all the different vicissitudes, I got to architectural school in Milan and architectural school at the Polytechnic in Milan when I went to school was like being in a Dante’s hell. We were 15,000 students, only in Milan, only in architecture. Sometimes we would have to wait 20 minutes in a line for the staircase to the second floor where we were taught. It was $400 a year, it was natural selection of the species, that’s what I learned. Basically, it was .5%, whatever graduate. So, it’s very interesting, but the great thing about that chaos was that number one, you would learn to find out what you wanted from the university, in that case, and from life, and then you would go for it because no one was going to give it to you. The second thing was that you couldn’t do anything practical because you couldn’t do a studio there, or draw, so it was all about theory, really strong theory, and three, there was no difference between architecture and design, which is the Italian secret. Castiglione, he was my teacher, he used to say the secret to Italian design was that there were no Italian design schools.
JU: How do you feel about the design schools that are emerging now?
ANTONELLI: Well, it depends on the design school, but I feel the strongest design schools are the ones where you have a campus, where you have an art department, it usually doesn’t work. Design really sucks in all the blood from the other disciplines, so you cannot think that you can learn about design just by learning about art, not at all. You have to learn about business, you have to learn about chemistry, about engineering, you know, it’s very fundamental. And so, the design schools that are not part of a larger network, a college, usually are crippled. They are crippled by turning out curlicue chairs, which there are too many of.
JU: So you would like to draw a strong distinction between design and art.
ANTONELLI: Yes, I would like to!
JU: How would you characterize that difference?
ANTONELLI: You can’t explain it in any formalistic way, but you know what? The truth is, artists can choose whether to work for other human beings and be responsible towards other human beings or not. … It’s almost as if designers are taking a Hippocratic oath. Even when they’re mean, when they look like they’re doing something iconoclastic, or rash or "X," they still have the progress of mankind in their hearts. It is really about putting another brick on the big Babel tower. That to me is the distinction. Nothing else. It’s not about the object itself. It is truly about making sure that when you put something else on earth, it adds something to the world.
JU: How do you feel about the critical design work coming out of, say, the Royal College of Arts?
ANTONELLI: Love it. So much. The next show I’m doing has a lot of work from that school because, once again, it is about the advancement of mankind. It’s very thoughtful because making the decision not to produce objects takes a lot of courage. Designers usually have these objects, they want to see things, things stocked in warehouses. The decision not to do that and instead to produce movies or to produce computer interfaces that makes us think about our relationship with things, the way we move the world, it’s quite beautiful, and very, very daring. Also, it’s very subtle as a form a design, it is hard to make people understand that it is design, that’s also what I’m dealing with in my next show because there’s a lot of stuff by those students.
The show is called "Design and the Elastic Mind." It’s about the changes in scale, in rhythm, in pace, in resolution that we go through every single day, and the objects of design that help us cope with them. It’s basically they help us cope and move from adaptability, which is one of the characteristics of human intelligence, to elasticity, which is, in my opinion, adaptability plus acceleration. So it’s the Do-i-i-n-i-n-g! about being able to bounce back very fast and not get stressed out, not get stretch marks. So there’s a lot of stuff from the Royal College. Also, Eindhoven does interesting things too, although sometimes they are a bit more object-orientated, because there’s a crafts tradition there, but still, they are able to raise some really interesting questions in a very direct and poetic way.
JU: What is your process for curating an exhibit? Where do the ideas come from?
ANTONELLI: The ideas are so easy, there are so many ideas, which ones you decide to make happen, that’s which ones you decide to carry to the end of the pregnancy, this is the hardest choice. My dream is to just vomit all these ideas and have someone else be responsible. Ideas come from anywhere. Because my interest is contemporary design, they truly come from anywhere. I subscribe to twenty-five magazines at home that are not design magazines. So they might come from there, they might come from thinking, observing. Before this exhibition, I threw away lots of ideas for shows, and then I have way too many for the future, so I have just files and files of ideas, and you decide which one to pick, and then you go. Here at the MOMA there’s an exhibitions committee, of which I am also part, and once you decide it’s a go, it just gets put on the schedule, and at that point, it’s almost as if you were a movie producer and director at the same time, and so I’m the producer/directory, and MOMA is the studio, in a way. I have a whole structure at my disposal, but at the same time I’m completely responsible. And the structure is big and unwieldy, it ranges from the communications department, the marketing department, the exhibition production department, the graphics.. you’re responsible for everything, from the idea for the exhibit to the color of the table clothes at the opening. And so you’re familiar with it, you have a budget, you make it happen. You have to find the best way to communicate your idea. This is a museum for everybody, so it has to be communicated in a way that can be understood at different levels, which I find to be the most important secret. Without wanting to be coy, the truth is the harshest and most important critics of the design exhibitions to me are children. They get it right away. If the exhibition works for them, and it works for the design community, then I’ve made it. These two levels—the children and the design community. Which means you have to create an exhibition that is multi-layered, the same product but it has two levels of messages.
JU: What is the lead time between idea and exhibition?
ANTONELLI: It depends, it depends a lot on the schedule and the museum, etc. I like to work fast, so a year and a half at the most. The Museum of Pittsburgh, when they do an exhibit of paintings and sculpture, they have to do things differently, they have to arrange, but since I’m doing contemporary design, I don’t have much of a choice, because … it’s not contemporary anymore [if it takes longer than a year and a half]. But when I was living in Italy, it was four months from idea to catalogue printing, so it’s very funny, it’s a completely different system here.
It is funny because people think Italy is so discombobulated and so bureaucratic and the US is so organized, but I find it is the opposite. Because Italy is so chaotic, you can find so many shortcuts. People would rather work 24 hours a day for four months rather than eight hours a day for five years. Which is also something that is better for me, I just like to have many projects and to finish them. So yeah, that’s pretty much how long it takes. And usually, when you do an exhibition, standing on the side of the show, there are sideshows, you have a catalogue, a website, you have the exhibition itself—these are all means of communication, but they have to be designed in a completely different way because they are different means of communication, so that is quite interesting.
JU: Are you changing the way that you do the exhibits based on new technologies?
ANTONELLI: Well, I wish we could, but it would be a little daunting for the museum to experiment too much. You have to think about one thing: each show is seen by, I think, 400,000 people. So it’s not like I can use a pigeon feather as an interface, you know what I am saying? It needs to be some tank, something super-sturdy. We can do performances, we can do tours, but in truth, when we design a show here, it has to be everything-proof. So, the crew that does the shows, that designs the shows is fantastic, but I have to somehow revert to a basic exhibition technique in order to show things to such a wide audience.
JU: How do you decide who to include for contributions?
ANTONELLI: It’s really the same thing as the ideas, it’s such an organic and a non-ordered process. It’s about looking everywhere, all the blogs, all the magazines, it’s about visiting designers, traveling around the world, it’s about talking to people, in the occasion of "Design and the Elastic Mind," it was initially supposed to be an exhibit about design and science, but then I realized it didn’t have enough artifacts, so the conversation was great, but so what I did was I teamed up with Adam Blythe, who is the publisher of Seed magazine, and we started to have a monthly salon in which we would throw together designers and scientists.
It’s really very organic. I have some points of reference where I always go. I always go to the RCA, what the students are doing, I look at schools in general. I look at RCA and Eindhoven first, and then all the other schools, I look at websites and otherwise, it’s catch as catch can. I’m sure I miss a lot, but the way I justify it to myself is that I say, this is just the beginning, I’m giving you the clues, and you go out and find your own… You can’t be exhaustive.
JU: Where would you like to see design go in the next 10 years?
ANTONELLI: It’s already going in that direction. I think that people like Tony Dunne, Fiona Raby and their students have a new sense of the designer, that it’s not smply making things. For some it’s making things, but you know, you think first. You know, you think before you talk, well, it’s think before you make things. It’s not moralizm per se, but it’s wanting to tread lightly on the world, and teaching people to be aware of their own weight, and of their own consequence of their gestures, without restricting people and mortifying them, quite the opposite.
So this is the designer as the intellectual of the future, the ones that teach people how to live fully. I hope they won’t get too new age-y as they preach their word. I hope they’ll do it like Tony, I hope they’ll do it with a sense of humor. There will be designers that will be employing immaterial and non-dimensional forms of design, platforms of design, and then there will be others that teach the world how to tread lightly by working more in 3D printing. The way I see 3D printing, is I see it with a lot of hope. Right now it’s very rudimentary, it takes seven days to print the chair we have in the galleries, right now, but it will take seven hours in a few years, and maybe at that point we’ll be able to print with different materials, or with the same material with different densities. We’ll have an upholstered chair, and it will take seven minutes. You’ll be sitting here, on your computer, looking at the chair that you want, and then sending it to the Kinko’s at the corner, you know, so the 3D printer instead of photocopier. The designers will not design the final object, but rather a matrix that kind of sets the boundaries. The boundaries of structure, the boundaries of shape, and also the boundaries of brand, because still people will want the object to have the kind of recognizablity as the object by 1500 dots company or the designer John Smith, and just offer something that is an idea that everybody refines.
JU: If you could plant one idea in the heads of designers everywhere, what would it be?
ANTONELLI: I would like them to learn perspective, to be able to look at things from far enough to really get perspective. Instead of being completely closed within their dimension of thinking “I’m doing a chair,” instead I would like them to look at the world and think, "Okay there are already so many chairs, should I make instead a video about a chair?" I think they are in the perfect position to do so because, to me, design is about curiousity, philosophy, synthesis, observation, and perspective. So, truly it’s about rethinking what they do as opposed to just starting to make things.
Among the big companies that make the kind of product designs that you buy at Staples, the smart ones, like IDEO, have a whole group of people who are there to do just that, not to lose sight. I would like people to gain perspective by thinking more and reading more and keeping their eyes open.
JU: Do you have a personal agenda that you apply to your exhibits?
ANTONELLI: All of the time. Just to make everyone understand that design is the highest form of expression people have, period. That’s my agenda.
JU: How do you find out what’s happening in the design world?
ANTONELLI: I get so, so many e-mails, people just let me know, and sometimes I can just sit in my chair and let it come to me. It’s because I’m at the Museum of Modern Art and in a visible position, and so people send me all sorts of ideas. All of them, even the most unbelievably ridiculous ideas are great. I do a lot of world sight-seeing from my desk, and also I travel a lot, which is so important. Even though it’s easy to look at things from your computer, to this day, nothing substitutes just seeing how designers work, where they work. One has the luxury of doing it, it’s really precious. I travel a lot and I visit designers. And then, of course, there are other exhibitions, and there are magazines, although magazines are not my main source of information about design, there are all the fairs, I don’t go to all of them. I always go to Milan, I’m from Milan and it’s a good opportunity to go home, and of course I get back to NY, and then it depends. If I could I would go to Tokyo, because it’s so much fun as a designer, but I don’t always get to see it. And then, I look a lot at schools. I teach, not always, but once every other year, I teach at Harvard, so the students also are a great source.
I read or leaf through any kind of magazine, I just never found a magazine I didn’t like. I’m just really a junkie for magazines. And also, I love popular culture. I love commercials. People change the channel when there are commercials, I watch commercials and change when the main program comes on. My husband is always outraged when we go to the movies and there are the commercials before the movies: “We’ve already paid, why do I have to watch the commercials?” But I think, "No! It’s good!" And I love music videos. I think commercials and music videos are some of the chances to see the most advanced technology.
JU: Are you a particular fan of any video directors?
ANTONELLI: You know, there are so many. The other day I was talking to Rebecca Allen, she’s at UCLA, and Jenn Ittelson, I was reminding them about a Mick Jagger video, he was by himself, and it was called “Hard Woman” and it was one of the first instances of electronic body simulation. I remember at the time it cost a gazillion of dollars. What is his name? He did the Nine Inch Nails video, and also he did this No Doubt, Hella Good. Mark Romanek.
JU: So you try to live the modern life to be aware of design?
ANTONELLI: I don’t make an effort, it’s what I’m interested in. My idea of fun is to be in a city I don’t know and to be on a bus with a window seat and look out.
ANTONELLI: It’s funny, I don’t own a radio, I don’t listen to the radio and I don’t even have an iPod, but, for some reason I can sing you all the songs that are now on the hit parade, and I don’t know where I got them, so there definitely is something.
JU: What do you think is the secret to New York’s dominance in design?
ANTONELLI: Dominance? What, you think there’s dominance? Oh my god, this is interesting, you have to answer my question, what do you mean by dominance?
JU: Oh, well, there are all the magazines…
ANTONELLI: Oh, the magazines! Well, you have to find your strength, and New York has nothing else. It doesn’t have the industry, because the industries have had to leave because the rents are too high, so there’s no more making, manufacturing in New York City. All it has, and it has it big time, is the tertiary. It has the all the information companies here, the stock exchange is here, so of course, you know, it’s so natural. Also, it’s hard not to fall into stereotypes, but New York is a very concentrated city, it’s like the concentrated tomato, you know in the tube as opposed to the sauce. There are pros and cons. I remember when I lived in ____ it was so heavenly to go to the beach at the end of the day. Here, you can go to the Hudson rivier and it’s kind of nice…
I once heard this beautiful, apoacryphal story: The reason why New Yrokers are always so energetic is because the city is built on granite, so the energy you produce, bounces back, multiplies. It’s beautiful, like a multiple. You can go to Central Park and it’s big rocks, and it looks like a big rock itself. You are energized almost as soon as you see it. I’ve been living in New York for almost 14 years and it's the first time that I’m in a place where every time I come back—and you land at JFK, and the airport is so unbearable, and you have to fight to get a cab, and you get a cab, and you’re paying, and there’s traffic, and you’re stuck—the moment I see Manhattan… I was talking to other people. We put up with so much to live here, really it’s not an easy city, but at the same time it’s quite fantastic.
It’s a very grating city, and it’s so irritating that, in a way, to counteract that irrtation, everyone produces excellent things. Truly, it’s a little bit this diet, have you heard of it, it’s like this regime where you starve your body and you put it into an emergency situation. I think it’s the same thing--we’re so irritated, that we produce really beautiful things, and isn’t that a funny thing? My husband says, if you go to dinner in New York, no matter who you are, you can bet that you’re going to sit down next to someone much more interesting and that has much better stories to tell than you. It’s funny because it’s so true. But more than anything, New Yorkers are very much used to living together and to communicating. I think that’s why the communication with the rest of the world often works so well.
JU: Do you think Americans are better or worse than other cultures at design?
ANTONELLI: Much worse. Until very recently, they would take whatever the restaurant was passing them. It’s really funny, whenever people ask me about my design background, and why design is so good in Italy, I just tell them that good design in Italy is normal, meaning that when you go to the corner store, that’s what you find. You don’t have to go to a special district, pay more money. You go to the whatever store at the corner, and you find a mix of really good design and tschosckes. It’s really about it being something that comes easy. Instead, American’s don’t have it. I think it comes from, I don’t know, I think it comes from Puritan culture, I don’t really know. There was a great, great, great scholar of American design, Arthur Pulos, he died, unfortunately. He wrote two volumes of American design but he stopped at the 70s, I wish he were here to explain to me what it is that makes Americans feel so awkward towards good design. I don’t undestand why they feel they need to churn out more money in ordered to have good design. I don’t understand why they don’t trust their own American design, and feel that they need to get an European name of some sort in order to feel that they have arrived.
It’s very funny because America is home to some of the best design in the world. It’s the home of Black and Decker, of Tupperware, I don’t have to tell you that. Instead, it really mortifies itself when it comes to Design. I think that the iPod—Apple in general, specifically the iPod—has been very liberating for Americans, I think it raised the bar and I hope it is for good. I think from now on, companies will need to be careful before they put out something that is subpar. I remember when I arrived in California, one of my first observations was, why are all the bathroom fixtures not white, why are they this ancient pink, and creamy avocado, I couldn’t understand, and then they have the napkins colored to match. I was amazed by these color schemes for bathrooms in California, and I could not understand it. I was like, “Okay, it was not even harking back to the 1950s." It was a creaminess that was different from the garish creaminess of the 1950s, so I couldn’t understand that. That to me was a symptom. And there was all these brass fixtures in the bathroom, it was so bad, and it was so ubiquitous. Instead of Italy, there would be a ubiquitous good pairing of colors, beause that’s now the plumber, it would go from the plumber to the contracter to the developer, it’s almost like a chain reaction of good ro bad taste. I remember when I got the New York, I remember when I took the first cab, I was like, “Hmm, everything in the United States is just wider, and done with worse materials” I remember the cab was really wide, and all dented, and the guardrails to the freeway was all dented, and I was thinking “Hmm!”
JU: China is worse…
ANTONELLI: China is interesting…. But I don’t know, is it worse? It’s just more messy, but I don’t know if it’s worse. It’s just different.
JU: But there’s even less editing.
ANTONELLI: Each country has something that comes naturally. In Italy, good design comes natural. Go to Argentina, modern architecture is the default architecture, you go to the outskirts of a city in Argentina and all the buildings are modern, like good modernism. You go to China, and what comes easy is the culture of eating and conviviality. It’s very funny, I find the way Chinese use colors so funny! I love it! I live in Chinatown here. It’s amazing to see how wholeheartedly they embrace pinks and greens at the same time. I love it, it is so beautiful. It’s just like stereotypes are so bad and good at the same time. Stereotypes can be so much fun. Just go somewhere and zero in on a culture, and then you have to be humble, but it’s interesting to make these observations.
JU: Is there some secret bad design you actually really enjoy?
ANTONELLI: A lot. Let me think about it. A lot. I don’t know what’s bad design, actually. I don’t think there’s a bad design that I enjoy because it’s bad. Let me think about what I have at home that I’m particularly proud of. I have this collection of “homies,” these amazingly politically incorrect little dolls that you can buy at movie theaters from an automatic distributor. I was so amazed they had them! You have the orthodox jew, you have the arab guy, you have the white tourist, it’s just incredible! They have a whole following, I didn’t know I was part of a cult, but I was.
I don’t like lava lamps, but I’m thinking, what is the equivalent to a lava lamp today. I have a really, really tacky wood sculpture of a Vespa that I bought for my husband. See immediately, when you tell me bad design, I immediately go to kitch. Kitch is delightful, so I don’t have bad design, I have really, really bad-taste objects, a lot of them, because they make your life so much more fun.
You know there’s a column in the New York Times on Sunday that’s called X, they ask you to pick an object. Once, they did it with me, and I chose this really ugly bus that my dad gave me. It’s a reproduction of a Byzantine mosaic, so it’s gold, and then it’s turquoise. Oh my god, it’s so overdesigned, and my father gave it to me, saying, you know, you need a little bad taste in your life. So, it’s really about that. Kitch is really the salt of life. If everything were so stylish and so perfect, it’d be boring.
JU: You think there should be more kitch in Europe?
ANTONELLI: No, no, there’s a lot of kitch! A lot of bad design, too!
I feel so good in Chinatown because of the similarities. You know how they say Chinese and Italians are really close, it’s true. Not only are Little Italy and Chinatown attached, but also they cook the same way, and eat everything. And then tehre’s the small thing for objects of all kinds, for utensils.
JU: Anything else under the theme of secrets?
ANTONELLI: Okay, I’m going to reveal to my secret. I have a nom de plume, which I’m gong to change after this, and you’ll love it. It’s Irma Chen. It’s funny, because I was like, “How am I not going to be recognized at all, and so I said, ‘Hmm! I’m going to be Chinese!’” Irma is my grandmother’s name, it’s a name I love, so, Irma Chen. I used it only at the very beginning when I came to MOMA because there was a moment of overlap. I was still coming out with articles in Arbitare, I was on my way out, but I was beginning with MOMA and didn’t want to put them in any strange position, so I created this nom de plume, so that is my secret.