Each year, AIGA selects a series of designers and visual artists to present with the AIGA Medal. A truly distinguished honor, the medal is awarded to individuals in recognition of their exceptional achievements, services or other contributions to the field of design and visual communication.
“I think I’m very, very lucky. Without planning too much, I landed exactly on the job that I had to because of some design from above.”
Paola Antonelli’s love for design is infectious. She travels around the world, searches universities and colleges, scours the Internet to find the most impressive designs and brings them to the public eye. Not only does she have a knack for discovering fascinating design, but she also has an unparalleled ability to curate and present it effectively. Her knack for elevating awareness of design, both old and new, to the public recently earned her the prestigious AIGA Medal.
Antonelli is a curator at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Since she began working with the museum, she has built MoMA’s first website, acquired the @ symbol and the Google Maps symbol for the museum’s Architecture and Design Gallery, and curated some truly unique design exhibitions. The Applied Design exhibition, for example, featured video games, including PacMan and Tetris.
I had the privilege of speaking with Antonelli about her passion for design and her journey to become a design curator at MoMA. Read the interview below to find out more about the woman who has revolutionized the way we think about design.
“Elegance is a human right, not just an embellishment.”
Q&A with Paola Antonelli:
How did you feel when you found out that you had been selected as an AIGA Medalist?
I was super honored and excited. Being a design person, I know the AIGA and I know that the medal is one of the highest honors. I was pretty thrilled.
What made you switch from studying economics to architecture?
I really was a disaster at economics. My brain did not compute. I could not understand mathematics. I could not understand abstraction. I went to architecture because it was the farthest away from economics that I could think of. I was really trying to run as far away as possible from my mistake—it had been a mistake to pick economics. I didn’t know what I was getting into, but it happened to be one of the best choices of my life.
Were there certain elements that attracted you to architecture?
First of all, what attracted me was that in Milan, architectural school was teaching a thousand students in this building where everybody would come and go, and people would dress however they wanted. It seems a little shallow, but I was looking for freedom. Instead, economics school was very regimented. Not only the topics, not only the math, but also the physical atmosphere in the place that really drove me crazy. The moment I got to architectural school, I realized that was somewhere I could think. I could be just freer. Moreover, in Italy, architecture was every form of design. We studied architecture, but we also studied natural design, studied graphic design. In a way, it was design school and architecture was a branch of design. That’s what I found really attractive. It was open, it was open-minded. It was much more free.
Is that where your love for design developed?
Milan is a place where design is normal—like how contemporary design in New York, design is in Milan. The people talk about, it’s the type of thing that people share. It’s part of the culture of the place. Naturally, it became apart of my life. That’s where I developed my habit, if not my love.
“I would like people to understand that design is one of the highest forms of human creative expression.”
What ultimately do you want people to understand about design?
That’s it not just function or decoration. That’s it an integral part of our life. It influences the way we work and way we live with each other. That good design makes good citizens, makes for better human beings. Elegance is a human right, not just an embellishment. I would like for people to start looking at design, not only more seriously, but also more passionately. Sometimes, they don’t know what it is and therefore they don’t see it. By pointing at it, I hope that I will just make everybody more sensitive and more curious about it.
When did you know that you wanted to become a design curator? And how did you set out to achieve that?
You know, I never thought I would become a design curator. You know how here in the States, you study journalism to become a journalist, or often you think about becoming a curator. I really didn’t think about it. In Italy, you study a topic and then you deal with this topic on many different platforms. So, let’s say, you study political science then you become a political journalist. Or you study architecture and start writing about architecture and you can teach and you can curate. Before I finished school, I was already working as a go-fer on an architectural design show—not a curator, but I was a curatorial assistant. And I was helping on these shows and I was starting to teach. I was starting to write. It was quite natural. I’ve never thought I would become a curator of design. I just started expressing ideas about architecture and design and on different platforms.
Discover how design thinking can inspire creative solutions to solve complicated business problems, and ultimately transform companies and cultures in Design Thinking for Strategic Innovation by Idris Mootee.
Which designers do you particularly admire the most and why?
I really admire Hella Jongerius. I like her because she doesn’t really think too much on what is normal and what is traditional when it comes to design innovation. Instead, she puts together extremes that people wouldn’t think about before. When I started noticing her work, she was working a lot with the Museum of Ceramics in Delft. She was taking all these broken ceramics and putting them together in new ways. She puts together low-tech and high-tech and old and new. She always does it with flair and without any kind of prejudice of how it will be considered.
Do you have a personal favorite among your exhibitions?
I do actually. People would tell you no. But no, I actually I do. My favorite is still “Design in the Elastic Mind” because it was an exhibition where I really did not know if people would appreciate it, because it was not an exhibition based on a certainty. It was more like an intonation, like a big question mark. And I was afraid that people would expect a MoMA exhibition instead to be very certain. Very much about a new idea. Instead, people really appreciated the fact that it was so open-ended. That’s why it’s still my favorite.
How do you find artwork for your exhibitions?
It happens in many different ways. One, of course, is first-hand. Sometimes from traveling. I just came back from Design Week in Milan where I saw different works. I go to conferences, I travel [and] I meet designers and designs first-hand. Another way is online. I’m always online, whether it is via Twitter, whether it is a blog; I get a of information that way. I feel that a lot of the best designs come from students, so I do follow that. And then sometimes from word of mouth. People recommend each other, recommend other designers. Designers write. It’s a big cloud of ways to get to know designers and to get to know new designs.
What’s your process from the idea to seeing the exhibition to completion?
Ideas happen very often—it’s very easy to have ideas. It’s the ones that you decide to really develop and to focus on that count, and sometimes you do that almost because it’s a leap of faith or you feel that an idea needs to be developed, and it’s quite urgent. That, to me, is one of the most interesting parts—which project you decide to develop. What happens here at MoMA is once the exhibition is approved and is on the schedule, it becomes a job akin to being a director and a producer of a movie, and MoMA is the studio. It really is very wide-ranging and there are many different things that one does. All of a sudden, it becomes a big team that I have to coordinate, and that is the most interesting part of the whole process. An exhibition of contemporary design very often—especially the thematic shows that I like to curate—tends to be a work in progress. It starts as an idea, then it gets shaped as one moves on in the process. And the process takes a year and a half, more or less, and also involves making a catalog and organizing loans.
Everything happens in the galleries. That’s where the final design exhibition happens. The team on the exhibition is pretty wide. You have exhibition designers, graphic designers, carpenters and painters. It’s quite interesting. The process continues until the very end with addition of new objects. We have to stop at a certain point or else our register department goes crazy. It’s truly a work in progress until the time the exhibition opens.
What are you currently working on now?
There’s one exhibition I can’t really talk about, I wish I could. Right now, we’re just finishing up the project on “Design and Violence.” I’m really proud of it. The “Design and Violence” [online exhibition] will end in a few weeks. It has been online for a year and a half. A book will be published for it at the end of May or the beginning of June. It’s something that makes me really proud that I did in collaboration with Jamer Hunt, Michelle Fisher and Kate Carmody. It’s really a great project.
After that, I’m working on the “R&D salons.” I started the department of R&D here at MoMA about three years ago. We’ve been running these salons roughly monthly, but sometimes it’s every other month. Our topics are of general interest to the world and also of which MoMA has expertise.
And I’m working on this secret project that we can’t name unfortunately.
What advice would you give to someone looking to become a design curator?
Become a great design expert. Become a curator only after that. Try teaching, try writing. Curating is one of these different methods of dissemination. It’s important to be able to do several of at the same time because they inform each other. Then I recommend starting to do it. I started out like everyone else, interning and doing everything I could. There’s nothing like getting experience on the field. By accumulating that experience, you make yourself more knowledgeable and more easygoing with design. It becomes part of your life. Then you can become a curator.
It’s not a world that has too many platforms. As a design curator, you might want to start your own platform. There’s just a finite number of museums. But there’s an infinite thirst for design. One thing that’s incredible is how important design is for the audience, how people are interested in design, how design is something that makes people truly passionate. That hasn’t really been acknowledged by museums yet, even though we are getting there. If one wants to curate design, the sky is the limit. But there [is] a little bit of entrepreneurship involved to start something new.
What has been your biggest challenge?
I would say my biggest challenge has always been my temper. Sometimes I’m not able to be political because I get angry.
What do you think has been your greatest success?
I’ve been able to tap into things that are happening just a tiny microsecond before everybody else. Therefore, I have that sensitivity for things as they are happening. I think that’s my biggest success.
What prompted you to make MoMA’s first website?
I just wanted to have a website. I don’t remember where I’ve seen website. I guess I saw it as a way to archive what was happening. When you do an exhibition of contemporary design, you have to close the catalog maybe a year before the exhibition, but then you keep adding to it. I wanted to have a record somewhere of the actual exhibition. So I thought I could have a website where I could have a complete checklist and the most up-to-date version of the gallery. I setup the website as a way to have this up-to-date version of things. That’s really how it happened. So I just went ahead and did it.
Anything else that you would like to comment on your career?
I think I’m very, very lucky. Without planning to much, I landed exactly in the job that I had to because of some design from above. I was lucky because I found what I was meant to do in life—or at least one of the things I was meant to do in life—because I believe there’s always more than that. That’s about it. It’s really what I was meant to do.
Experience the HOW Design Live presentations of five prominent graphic designers with this exclusive video bundle. Malcolm Gladwell in Conversation with DeeDee Gordon, and get a taste of the inventiveness of noted author Malcolm Gladwell. Learn from the experiences of Mario Garcia with Storytelling in the Age of the Tablet, and get advice for designing effectively for the brain, eyes, and fingers. Hear from both Michael Donovan and Nancye Green in A Designed Life, and discover how to become a valuable partner with your clients. Pursue originality and uniqueness with valuable advice from Bob Gill in Design as Idea. Learn about the importance of adapting your design skills to new trends and technologies from James Victore in Re-Inventing Yourself, Or How to Go Back and Be Who You’re Supposed to Be. Explore the collection here.