Paola Antonelli, one of Time magazine’s 25 “most incisive design visionaries,” never disappoints. Her exhibitions are ahead of the curve and true to the times. As senior curator in the department of architecture and design at the Museum of Modern Art, the prolific author and prodigious researcher expands the conventional boundaries of design study and practice. Her exhibits continually challenge accepted norms and trigger untold imaginations.
Antonelli’s current exhibition (with curatorial assistant Anna Burckhardt), Broken Nature—on view in MoMA’s street-level galleries until Aug. 15, 2021—addresses the innovative concept of “restorative design” and presents objects and concepts that offer diverse strategies in the effort to help humans repair their relationship to the environments we share “with other humans and with other species.” Featuring approximately 45 works—some of them new acquisitions in MoMA’s collection and others on loan from the original Milan installation—Broken Nature explores “the complex, interconnected systems humans inhabit, and the reparative roles design plays within these systems.” Earth is rapidly changing, and design will play an essential strategic role in its future. I recently spoke with (or rather, listened intently to) Antonelli about what might be best described as truly activist curatorial work.
You have been the curator who eloquently explains that design is so much more than flower-arranging, through innovative exhibits including Mutant Materials in Contemporary Design, Open Ends, Matter, Workspheres, Safe: Design Takes on Risk, among others. Your current boundary-pushing project is titled Broken Nature. This is an environmental polemic, revealing in this age of climate change denial exactly how design and nature are more than co-dependent, but essentially integrated, as we slide into a transitory future. Would you explain the ideas behind this work?
The common thread that runs through all the shows that you mention, and the basis of my work as a whole, is that design is one of the most powerful tools to help us shape behaviors—not only to make elegant, useful and meaningful things. Broken Nature acknowledges the fact that design has historically contributed to humans levying a disproportionate amount of power over the rest of nature and often abusing it, and argues that it is designers’ responsibility to harness their skills to help create a more balanced relationship. While some of the bonds that humans have with the planet and other species have been permanently severed, there are some that could still be repaired. Design can help us do that.
There seems to be a blurring of lines between "art" and "design" (as well as industry) in this exhibit. As architect Liz Diller announced at a recent MoMA design committee meeting, you make and then fill an amazing space between the two forms. Are you deliberately attempting to ease an age-old rift between applied and fine arts?
My job as a design curator is to help citizens understand that design—just like art—has a rightful place in culture and in cultural institutions, and that it deserves attention in its own right. This also means highlighting the fact that design is much more than just objects material and immaterial at all scales. I do not have to tell you, but design encompasses several fields of study—from graphic and interactive design to speculative and visualization design—that in many cases share languages with art, science, anthropology and more. … Speculative design, for example, which transcends some of the more traditional means of expression of design and instead embraces those of videography, philosophy or literary fiction.
"Broken Nature" is such a provocative title. It presumes that design and design-based technology may have the answer. Does design as you define it have the potential to regenerate the world?
I don’t believe that design has the power to change the world all by itself—no discipline alone can. But I do think that designers are equipped with tools that allow them to easily collaborate with other disciplines in order to build a better world for all species. I started my essay for the Broken Nature catalogue with a quote from Buckminster Fuller: “the little individual can be a trim tab.” It means that if each and every one of us changes our behavior, if each one of us adopts a more restorative attitude, we will be able to bring about systemic change. As a discipline that shapes and changes behaviors, design can really help us adopt such attitudes.
The star of the show is Julia Lohmann's monstrous-looking Oki Naganode. It is a sculptural piece made of seaweed, and serves as a testing ground for this and other materials that may aid hum
anity to survive in the future. What makes this fit under the design umbrella?
One of the key themes explored in Broken Nature—and one on which I have focused most of my career—is the development of new materials and processes. As I mentioned, design is much more than just beautiful chairs. Designers not only have to think about what to design but also how to design it. In the 21st century, it is our responsibility as designers, architects and engineers to develop new building processes to counteract the negative effects of decades of extraction of resources, overconsumption and pollution. Oki Naganode is a very successful example not only because it’s a judicious examination of an unused material, but because it also looks at the nature of the material, the benefits of harvesting it in different contexts, the artisanal practices connected to it and how it might change in the future.
You can see that I still have conventional presumptions regarding the definition(s) of design. It limits (or rather, I limit) what to define design as being. How is it that you go so far out on the limb? And how do you find your subjects?
I start with the very basic premise that everything around us is designed—from our genetic makeup to the physical and intangible infrastructures that surround us. Once we start looking at the world through that lens, the subjects are endless.
Years ago you did an exhibition called Humble Masterpieces that included, if I correctly recall, everything from Bic pens to paper clips to M&Ms and much more. How do you balance out this quotidian design with the experimentation that you've seen and touched over the past five years?
I see these things as two sides of the same coin. The idea behind a show like Humble Masterpieces is that there are some objects that are so ubiquitous, that play such an important role in our lives, that we tend to take them for granted and overlook them. The show was an attempt to help visitors understand how prominent design is in our daily lives. Projects like Broken Nature argue that the design objects we use every day—from textile alternatives to sunscreen to devices that can help communities access water sources more easily—are key to helping us adopt a more restorative attitude. That is just as important as experiments on new materials.
The material you continue to acquire runs the gamut from the common email address "@" sign to the current exhibition's green prosthetic devices that can aid the body in digesting many proteins that we've lost. Please explain how graphic design coexists in the interactive and externally stimulated environment.
Graphic design has always been an important part of our collection. In recent years, we have also been looking at it through the lens of interactive design. Interaction design mediates our relationship with the objects around us, whether digitally or physically. It is what allows us to communicate with our devices and often also with other human beings. Graphic design is a key aspect of successful interactions; it has always been another way to say “communication design.”
If you add up the sum total of ideas, concepts and artifacts you’ve presented at MoMA, and after seeing what the future of design can offer, which new design is most equipped to accomplish change over the next few years?
I am now focused on what it means to design for more than just humans. I think this is not only the natural progression of my work throughout the years, but also key for the design field as a whole. If we would really like to assume a reparative attitude towards the planet, we need to start thinking about using our powers—including the powers of design—to benefit all species. An innovative example of the kind of interspecies co-fabrication is of course Neri Oxman’s and The Mediated Matter Group’s Silk Pavilion: a collaboration between humans, computers and animals. I hope we will start seeing more of this type of experimentation in the coming years, with a focus on how design might decenter the human. Maybe in the future it should be silkworms that model our behavior in order to achieve their own goals, instead of vice-versa!