This interview is part of a series featuring the presenters participating in this year's Core77 Conference, "The Third Wave", a one-day event that will explore the future of the design industry and the role designers will play in it.
Paola Antonelli has always thought ahead of the curve when it comes to movements in design, as demonstrated by her long line of achievements. Since joining the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1994 as Senior Curator of Architecture & Design, Antonelli has organized a string of unforgettable—and at times controversial—exhibitions that have served as both awe-inspiring design surveys and calls to action. Examples include exhibitions such as Design and the Elastic Mind, which helped expose design as synonymous with science and technology on a mainstream level in 2008, and Design and Violence, a 2015 show that presciently demonstrated the darker side of design and the power it can wield in instigating acts of violence and war.
Her latest exhibition in partnership with the Triennale di Milano, Broken Nature, comes at another urgent moment where the topic of climate change is all-consuming. The exhibit weaves both speculative projects and products on the market that signify how designers can more thoughtfully and actively tackle climate change now and in the future. As written in the Broken Nature press release:
"It is not enough anymore for designers to be politically and chemically correct. "Organic," "green," "environmental," and "sustainable" are buzzwords that have been applied in earnest to design—including food and fashion—over the last two decades, as have the terms "ethical" and "aware." Yet, despite these noble intentions toward humans, animals, plants, and places, we are still—as individuals and communities—tracking a course of destruction through overconsumption and disregard for countless forms of life, including our own. Designers can change flashy trends into more meaningful strategies imbued with agency by encouraging new behaviors using objects."
We spoke recently with Antonelli to learn more about how the idea for Broken Nature began, and the role she sees designers playing in the future.
How did the idea for the Broken Nature exhibition originally come about?
Like most contemporary design exhibitions, ideas really come from life, from everything that's going on around us. So in that particular case, the first idea for Broken Nature happened in 2013 . At that time it was an exhibition I proposed to MoMA, and somehow it didn't feel like a show yet. Maybe because the urgency was not there. So I just waited and waited and then in 2017, I was contacted by the Triennale and that's when I proposed it to them. I said, if I [opt to do it] at the Triennale this is what I would like to work on. And they of course accepted because at that point, not only was it urgent but also we're talking about a dedicated architecture and design exhibition.
So really, that's how it happened. It just stems from life because that's what design is.
I'm interested in knowing more about how you conduct research for your exhibitions, maybe using Broken Nature as an example.
The process might seem a little chaotic, but there's always a lot of method to the madness; it really is about gathering, gathering, gathering. I use—I don't know how many, certainly too many—pin boarding instruments. I send myself emails, I bookmark, I use Pinboard, I start Google docs. I just start with a kind of flurry of research and activity and I also include colleagues.
I don't remember early on who helped me with the research for the initial proposal, but for Broken Nature I had three wonderful colleagues work with me: Ala Tannir, Laura Naeran and Erica Petrillo. So you start gathering all these different ideas and you already have a sense of how you want to organize the exhibition, but then the research is like a feedback loop, right? So the research informed the criteria. So in the end you get to a pretty good selection, and then the ultimate selections and, finally, the idea of how you're going to install the exhibition.
It's almost like sculpting at the beginning. It's gathering and sculpting, then refining. So I don't think it's a very different process from what you might use to write an essay—I always have a feeling that many of these processes are very similar.
The entrance of Broken Nature includes an installation designed by Accurat (photo: Triennale Milano)
I read a bit about your thought process behind how you designed the exhibition. I know there was a lot of focus on the idea of the civilian, the citizen being engaged and so I was curious how that affected how you designed the symposiums and the exhibition, but also your take on what the role of the citizen is in enacting change in sustainability?
The role of the citizen is paramount. If we believe that governments represents citizens, therefore citizens are the ones who set the policies and that set direction. I know that it's a little bit of a dreamer's utopian position, this day and age with so many authoritarian regimes that have almost nothing to do with citizens per se. But I do believe that citizens can do a lot with pressure and also to jumpstart really long lasting and deep revolutions.
For this reason, even though I believe in legislation, I believe in organizations; still I want this exhibition to be about citizens. And one of the biggest reasons for happiness is the kids who were doing Friday for the Future—like what they are going to do here in the US on Friday [September 20]—there were several Fridays for the Future in Europe, and they would gather at the Triennale [in Milan]. That makes me super happy because that shows that the exhibition had become part of the fabric of civic discourse, which is what really my ambition was.
So I believe also that children can convince parents to change behavior. I believe that employees are the ones that force corporations to enact environmentally responsible practices. So I just wanted to focus on that. I don't do exhibitions for organizations, that's not the means of communication. So I do them for visitors and for citizens.
Do you think that provocation should be a crucial feature of many design innovations today?
Not necessarily. As neutral you need to do the right thing for the right purposes and at the right time, right? Provocations for the sake of provocation sometimes gets really a little nauseating, right? And instead, if you use them at the right time and in the right dosage, it can be very powerful.
So there are some speculative designers, critical designers that I think are really masters at this. For instance, of course Dunne and Raby, of course Revital Cohen and Tuur Van Balen. But they were the first and second generation. I feel that so much critical design lately has been relying too much on provocation and kind of abusing it.
So it really depends. As anything, it's how you use it. Provocation is a tool.
So a big conversation in design today I think is about the cross collaboration that happens [across industries] and the progress in science, technology and design this creates. So I'm curious, given the fact that there are so many different voices involved in the design process now, what do you see specifically as a designer's role in the future, especially in relation to environmental factors?
Right. There are many different types of designers, you know very well. So there are designers that labor all by themselves in their atelier and produce beautiful objects of craftsmanship. Then there are the designers that instead are in charge of a team who actually are the ones that become the element of synthesis for the team.
In 2008, I did an exhibition that was called Design and the Elastic Mind where I came up with this idea that I use a lot: that designers are enzymes, they are the ones that make innovation, whether it's scientific or technological into life. So that's how I always think about it, whether they're working on a product or on an interface or on an exhibition design, designers are the ones who make sure that there's a synthesis happening and the synthesis that can be communicated to other human beings.
So if they are exhibition designers, they make sure that the idea of a curator is tangible and is understandable by other people. If they are product designers, they in the simplest of cases become an interface between the engineering department and the public.
So it really depends, but I believe the designers are naturally extroverted professionals. Not that they are individually extroverted, maybe not, they might be shy or mostly introverts. But their role is to become catalysts, enzymes and to put the pieces together, they're very good at that. Their role in the future continues to be that and I hope that this exquisite characteristic they have will be used and exploited in areas that are not necessarily the usual one. I hope that they will be included in political discussions, I hope that they will be almost like philosophers who are society-wise people that are consulted whenever there's a big decision to make.
And when I talk about this, I don't talk about design thinking, I'm talking about designers who do design and not kind of steps of the design thinking process.
So my last question is, since you joined MoMA in 1994, what would you say has changed the most about the collective design ethos for the better and what behaviors or mindsets in designers do you believe most need to change?
Well what changed a lot since then is that we expanded the idea of what design is amongst ourselves and in the outside world. So we were already collecting interfaces. People might not know that Cara McCarty who's now at the Cooper Hewitt was here at MoMA before and in the early 90s or late 80s, she did a great exposition about diagrams of microchips. So that was already like a sense of interfaces, but we acquired much more design that was really made possible by the digital revolution, which was not there before. It's only in the mid 90s that the internet started really having an impact on the way we lived, so also on design.
So MoMA started acquiring symbols [for their design collection], we started acquiring typefaces, which we were not acquiring before, bio design, critical design.
We expanded beyond the classical categories, the traditional categories of designing of furniture or posters. We made it much more fluid and more embedded in the world. At the same time, we also continued some categories that were done at the very beginning of the collection, like in the early 30s.
So the idea of "humble masterpieces". Humble masterpieces is a term that I coined in 2004, but in a way that's something that MoMA has been doing since the beginning, to collect these objects that are such masterpieces that they become parts of our lives and we hardly notice them. Or, another set of objects that we keep on collecting is Machine Art and that was the 1934 exhibition. It's beautiful to see how the openness of the collection is a tradition that we continue when we open new areas of collecting.
What I think most needs to change is design education. I think that right now one of the biggest issues is that design education is too expensive, therefore when designers come out of school, they feel the need to find a job that pays the rent and that pays back the debt. And by doing so they have no time to work on the ideals that they have developed naturally because of the area of study that they chose. They don't have time to reflect on whether we have to go beyond the Apple era. They try to get a job either at Apple or Google or anywhere that's going to pay them a salary, right?
Instead, they might benefit from just one or two years trying to think of what design is in the world today, right? So that to me is the thing that needs to change. The designers themselves I think are doing good, they are receptive and I think it's a very good moment for design, but I don't think that conditions exist for designers to be the best that they can be.
Only two weeks left before the big day! Hear Paola Antonelli and other design industry leaders speak at this years Core77 Conference, "The Third Wave", Friday October 4! Tickets are available now.