Portrait by Robin Holland
This is the sixth post in our interview series with ten influential I.D. curators, retailers and creative directors. Last Friday, we talked to Ambra Medda of L'ArcoBaleno.
We could hardly run this series on design gatekeepers without speaking to Paola Antonelli, who, as senior curator in the department of architecture and design at the Museum of Modern Art, is one of the most important forces in identifying contemporary design trends and presenting them to the public. Her MoMA exhibitions—which include 2005's Safe: Design Takes on Risk, 2008's Design and the Elastic Mind, and 2011's Talk to Me—often present works by young and emerging designers across disciplines. Indeed, Antonelli has an insatiable appetite for good design in any form, which a perusal of her engaging Twitter feed will quickly reveal. She is currently working on a project about design and violence, a curatorial experiment (organized with Jamer Hunt, director of the MFA in Transdisciplinary Design at Parsons, and Kate Carmody, curatorial assistant in her department) that will launch online at the end of this month.
How do you find about new designers?
In many different ways: through blogs, Twitter, Flipboard, trusted publications, rabbit holes. The blogs I read are Designboom, Dezeen, We Make Money Not Art, Brain Pickings, Design Observer, Atlantic Cities, Makeshift, Hyperallergic, Next Nature, Fast Company, Laughing Squid, and many, many others that I reach intermittently through links on Twitter. I also look at schools', organizations' and designers' websites. For example: Eyebeam, The Science Gallery, Rhizome, and the Royal College of Art Design Interactions.
On Twitter I like the discipline and etiquette, and the strong sense of identity. People hold their standards, whether high or low, and you can choose accordingly. Also, somehow a person's character shines through. I feel that it is a natural and appropriate extension of my work as a curator, working in both directions, outgoing and incoming.
As for trusted publications—I used to read Domus and Abitare (I used to also write for them), but they recently went through perplexing changes; I'll let you know in a few months. And then Eye, DAMn°, Wired, Frame, Apartamento, Icon, Metropolis, Volume, Casa Brutus.
In person. Keeping my eyes open every moment, and checking out who designed interesting things I see. Schools are eternally inspiring. I try to attend the end-of-year shows for several of my favorite schools, and the ones I cannot make in person I pursue online. I also attend conferences—too many to count. The recurring ones are the World Economic Forum in Davos and Eyeo in Minneapolis. The Salone in Milan, albeit not a conference, is another recurring engagement. When I travel to those conferences, I also try to do studio visits.
Through recommendations by kindred spirits: Alice Rawsthorn, Jamer Hunt, Kate Carmody, Fiona Raby and Tony Dunne. I am indebted to many great colleagues.
Through self-recommendation. Yes, I do read e-mails that designers send about their work; it is quite a chaotic process and the most important step is note-taking. I take very good notes in any form available, by hand, and then I scan them—on my Blackberry, on Evernote. If I re-read them, I digest them.
Crowbot Jenny, a creation of the artist and designer Sputniko!, featured in the Antonelli-organized 2011 MoMA exhibition Talk to Me. Photo by Hitomi Yoda
What kinds of design are you looking for at the moment?
I am omnivorous: any great manifestation of design goes. Interaction, visualization, fonts, architecture, biodesign, critical and conceptual design, environmental design, interfaces, products, even furniture—though lately this category has not been very exciting.
It is not easy to say what grabs my attention because it is not a rational, dissectible set of qualities. An old friend says that when I come in contact with a lot of design—say, a department store, a flea market or a game arcade—I get "Terminator eyes."
What's the best way for a designer to approach you? And what should he or she not do?
Concision, clarity, courtesy, and patience: the magic combo. I am very approachable, but I am a bit short on time and a stickler for good manners. Also important: I cannot accept personal gifts or unsolicited proposed donations to MoMA's collection. Please always e-mail first.
Ayah Bdeir's Little Bits, also featured in Talk to Me, are preassembled circuit boards that can be connected together with magnets, making it easy for novices to engage with electronics. Photo by Ted Ullrich
Can you tell us about a recent successful collaboration with a young or emerging designer?
There are so many! It is hard to pick. I am proud of the visibility MoMA can offer to young designers. I would like to mention some of the youngest stars of the 2011 exhibition Talk to Me, like Ayah Bdeir, the gang from MyBlockNYC, Sputniko!, and Max Weisel.
I first saw Ayah Bdeir's work at an Eyebeam event (she was a fellow there); it must have been around 2007. I invited her to be part of a symposium I organized together in 2008 with Seed Media and Parsons on the occasion of the exhibition Design and the Elastic Mind. At that time, she was still in prototype phase. We kept in touch and her Little Bits were featured in our 2011 exhibition Talk to Me [photo gallery], and then entered into the collection. When the MoMA Retail department decided to carry Little Bits, they gave the product a window display.