Paola Antonelli on Solving the World’s Biggest Challenges Through Design
There is perhaps no one on the planet with a bigger-picture view on the impact of design—in all its manifestations, from the ordinary to the extraordinary—as Paola Antonelli. In her approach as a curator, writer, thinker, and salon hoster, she is at once refreshingly approachable and unpretentious, and also meticulous and rigorous, always with the aim of expanding notions of what might be considered “design.” Through her work, Antonelli shows how, in no uncertain terms, design connects to practically everything we see, touch, hear, taste, smell, and do. With great passion and energy, she is the ultimate clear-eyed booster of this wide-ranging realm she holds dear. The world doesn’t just need more great designers, she says on this episode of Time Sensitive. It also needs designers who are, to use her word, enchanters.
As the Museum of Modern Art’s senior curator of architecture and design as well as its director of R&D, Antonelli is indeed such an enchanter. From her first exhibition at the museum, the forward-looking “Mutant Materials in Contemporary Design” (1995); to the, well, mind-expanding “Design and the Elastic Mind” (2008); to the boundary-pushing “Neri Oxman: Material Ecology” (2020), she has brought a vast array of provocative projects, designers, products, and ideas to the forefront, giving them much-needed (and much-deserved) attention. With all that she does, Antonelli always keeps an eye toward the future. A proponent of what could be called “mutational thinking,” Antonelli, in a wholly original alchemy, pulls together ideas from seemingly disparate disciplines to show how, through a design lens, they aren’t so far afield after all.
Her most recent output—the newly published book Design Emergency: Building a Better Future (Phaidon)—is not only an outgrowth of her prolific 28-year career at MoMA (during which she has worked on related projects such as the 2005 exhibition “Safe: Design Takes on Risk,” the 2015 book Design and Violence, and the 2019 Triennale di Milano exhibition “Broken Nature: Design Takes on Human Survival”), but also a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. (This is to say nothing of her upbringing, growing up in Sardinia the daughter of two doctors, who would let her visit the operating room during her childhood.) Design Emergency also stems from her long friendship with the British design critic and writer Alice Rawsthorn. During the global Covid-19 lockdown of March and April 2020, Antonelli and Rawsthorn conceived and launched @designemergency on Instagram, a still-ongoing feed that highlights voices central to key global issues, all of them related to improving the world through design, from health care to communications to technology to the environment. To date, they have conducted Instagram Live interviews with guests including MASS Design Group’s Michael Murphy, C.D.C. medical illustrator Alissa Eckert, artist Titus Kaphar, and architect and urbanist Kunlé Adeyemi.
On this episode, Antonelli talks with Spencer about time as a frustration, the myth of speed, the importance of going with the flow, and the many design emergencies constantly taking place all around us.
Antonelli discusses the past nine decades of design through the lens of MoMA and its design collection, going back to Philip Johnson’s “Machine Art” exhibition, in 1934. She also talks about her MoMA exhibitions “Mutant Materials in Contemporary Design” (1995) and “Humble Masterpieces” (2004).
Looking back on her 2008 “Design and the Elastic Mind” MoMA exhibition, Antonelli considers the relationship between speed and design. She also shares her thoughts on the concept of “Slow Design.”
Antonelli highlights a central tenant to her work as a curator, writer, thinker, and cultural observer: the ability to to go with the flow.
Antonelli explains how her and Alice Rawsthorn’s new Design Emergency book (and still-ongoing Instagram project of the same name) came to fruition. She also discusses the enduring relevance of R. Buckminster Fuller’s thinking and his “Spaceship Earth” philosophy.
Antonelli talks about her lifelong interest in emergency response, as well as organizing her 2005 MoMA exhibition “Safe: Design Takes On Risk.” She also notes a particular design object that she had long tried to add to the MoMA permanent collection but that, alas, was not to be: the Boeing 747.
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SPENCER BAILEY: Joining me today in the studio is Paola Antonelli. She is the senior curator of the department of architecture and design, as well as the director of R&D at the Museum of Modern Art. She is someone who has—as the name of her Twitter handle, @curiousoctopus, suggests—tentacles across a wide array of disciplines, from design to technology to biology to fashion to architecture to engineering to science. Welcome, Paola.
PAOLA ANTONELLI: And the kitchen sink. [Laughter] Ciao, Spencer.
SB: So it’s been, if my numbers are right, twenty-eight years since you arrived at MoMA, in 1994?
PA: Your numbers are right, indeed.
SB: And you made your first acquisition, Herman Miller’s Aeron chair?
PA: That’s true.
SB: And this year marks ninety years since Philip Johnson organized the museum’s first design exhibition, in 1932. So I was wondering, just to start, how are you thinking about these two periods of time, but specifically this trajectory of ninety years, of design at large, and also within MoMA. Basically, how are you thinking about the last century of design and how we’ve gotten to where we are?
PA: Well, let me just close the field—the angle—a little bit—not design. But let’s talk about design at MoMA because it’s easier. And it is really interesting to look backwards because some things have not changed at all. Some things have changed, but mostly they are corollaries. Like, materials, technology has changed, but I would say that the collection is still a collection of ideas supported by objects. Which is something that I found out a few years ago when I worked on a design book—a book about the design collection.
To give you an example: the first design exhibition was an exhibition of furniture. It was interesting, but not the most germinal exhibition, which was instead “Machine Art,” which was 1934. And that theme of machine art continues, because if you think about it, that whole exhibition was about taking pieces of machinery that are normally hidden with an engine—so propeller blades, coils, ball bearings—and showing them. At that time, you needed to abstract the object and make it what Philip called “Platonic beauty.” Today, we know we like to be more contextual, but we’re still trying to show the ghosts in the machine and the hidden mechanisms—sometimes they are microchips, other times they are the inner system or the data visualizations. But we still have that kind of ambition.
Other exhibitions were about the idea of living. All of the competitions that Charles and Ray Eames and Eero Saarinen won—it was about new ways of living. Still happening today. Or design for the industry—well, the industry has changed, but we still look at that. And so on and so forth.
You see a lot of threads that continue, that I think have to do with this idea of “modern” since the beginning, trying to understand what can—I know it’s a platitude, but—make the world a better place for all. So that kind of idealism that then articulated itself in many different ways was abstract enough to stand the test of time, and at the same time was easy to translate into more timely and contemporary terms.
SB: I wanted to go back to something you said about a decade ago, in 2013, when you went on The Colbert Report.
PA: Oh, my God, so much fun.
SB: During this segment—
PA: Those were the times, yes.
SB: Yeah. During this segment, you told Stephen of the time we’re in—because he was asking, from a design perspective, where are we right now? And you said, “We’re post- post- post- post-modern present, pre-future—but a little bit of the future today—with history that comes with us.” And I was wondering, ten years later—and I know you were being a little tongue in cheek, but ten years later, how do you think about this time we’re in right now and framing it? And obviously the technological advancement we’ve seen in the past ten years is extraordinary.
PA: Well, ten years ago, that concept made people smile and was good for such a—it was just a great recording there. Today, it’s much more normal. If you think about it, the idea of the pluriverse, a lot of sci-fi TV series—I’m thinking of Sense8, I’m thinking of Fringe—there’s much more familiarity with the idea that is a scientific fact: that time is a construct. And I feel that today technology helps us be more comfortable with it, even though it existed even before.
We talk a lot today about what I call the “banana-verse,” because I don’t want to give free publicity to the will-remain-unnamed company. I go with the minions. So the banana-verse is really a way to have this sense of the pluriverse. But it has existed for a long time. I mean, it has existed before digital technology, it has existed during digital technology with some horrible examples, like Second Life, the way it used to be. But today we’re all much more comfortable with it. So I feel that technology has enabled us to become more comfortable with concepts that existed even before.
SB: Philosophically, what’s your day-to-day approach when it comes to thinking about time? The role of time in your own life, but also in your work as a curator? And maybe, beyond that, philosophically, how do you think about time in understanding the world around us?
PA: Time for me equals frustration, for many different reasons, because even though it’s a construct, still it flows and there’s never enough of it. So everything that we are always complaining about is absolutely true. And also because sometimes things move too slow. Like, for instance, I have ideas for exhibitions and it takes years before that can happen, and that’s why, like you, journalism is above—otherwise, like a pressure cooker, I would explode because waiting four years to realize a concept is insane in my mind. That’s why I studied architecture, but I never became an architect, because I couldn’t fathom waiting so long for anything to happen.
So time is frustration. It’s hardly ever a pleasant or a positive concept. You’re asking me about my life—it just…. I have to deal with it, but I wish it didn’t exist.
SB: And broadly speaking, when you think about how you view and understand the planet, how do you think about time?
PA: Well, one of the first things that comes to mind is how many hours it takes me to get to places. Time means—once again, it’s an obstacle and something I have to deal with. How long is it going to take me to get there? That’s the first thing that I think. And the second thing that I think is how infinitesimally small our existence—not even individually, but as a species—is. That’s something that I think a lot, and it doesn’t give me humility; some people might tell you, “Oh, it makes me feel humble.” No, it makes me feel that part of life is to begin and to end, not only as individuals, but also as a species. So it makes me really think of what will come after us, what has come before us, how we want to be considered, what does it all mean? Of course, I try not to ask myself that. But I see us as really just one milestone amongst myriad.
SB: I found time to be this really fascinating conceit when looking at your work as a writer, as a curator, as a salon hoster, and—
PA: Why, did you recognize time somewhere?
SB: Yeah. Well, what was interesting is it’s actually this sort of central undertow of so much of what you do.
SB: And it’s something you’ve written about a lot, maybe even if it’s not the focal point. Let’s just take your “Humble Masterpieces” show: In the book you wrote for it, you note this sort of intersection, as you were just discussing earlier, of the “timeless role of craftsmanship,” but then this “timeliness of innovation.” And I wanted to touch on that, when it comes to craft and innovation, how do you think about this dichotomy between the timeless and also this notion of creating something that is timely?
PA: Well, “Humble Masterpieces” was a show I really loved. It happened almost by chance because we were out in Queens, while the [Yoshio] Taniguchi building was being built. And in this building, which used to be a Swingline staplers factory, there was one gallery that was, like, the one that nobody wanted, but somebody—we had to rotate it, so it came to me once. Low ceiling, small square, you needed to access it by ramp. So that’s how it all came to be. I was thinking, It’s so small, so I have to use small objects from the collection. And then I thought, Hmm, let’s make them small and also inexpensive—
SB: Post-it Notes.
PA: Yeah! And that’s how it became “Humble Masterpieces,” because around the corner there were the Matisses and Picassos, and here you had the Post-it Notes, the [Jelly Belly] jellybeans, the Chupa Chups, it’s just like, you name it. And then also Aino Aalto’s tumbler, so it’s not like they were all anonymous between quotes—some were signed, but they all were unassuming masterpieces. And they were all from the beginning of the collection, so the famous ball bearing was also there. So they started at the beginning of the 20th century; some went to the 19th.
But a few years later, I developed a proposal for an exhibition that is one of my many rejections, so I have a collection that one day I’ll show you—
SB: Collection of rejections.
PA: Collection of rejections, yes. So this was called “Timeless.” And it was an exhibition—the idea was to do an exhibition with the design collection of MoMA, the artifacts of the Met, so the Met collection, not only design, and then the Peabody Essex Museum. So the idea was to show that this concept of modern was timeless, that it was not about putting an amphora from the Greek period next to a tumbler by Aino Aalto—it was not so simplistic and typology-based. It was really about showing the way we use materials in a modern sense, by trying to understand what the materials want to be—this poetic from modernism—is something that has existed forever.
So it really was important to show that crafts is one more technology or one more technological dimension. People often make a juxtaposition between crafts and so-called “high tech,” but something that I realized with my first exhibition at MoMA, which was called “Mutant Materials in Contemporary Design,” was that the moment you have innovation in materials and in technology, you need to know how to use your hands, because the machines to work these new materials might not exist yet.
That was very real when composites and fibers came into being. I don’t know if anybody that’s listening to us has ever seen this stunningly beautiful, sensual video that Charles and Ray Eames made on the making of their fiberglass chairs, in which there’s this beautiful kind of sponge of fiberglass that people were touching with their hands—I don’t even want to imagine—and then they’re pouring this custard of resin on to them that shows really how fiberglass happened. And it’s almost handmade at that time. The same has happened with a lot of carbon fibers at the beginning. So crafts, especially now, is extremely important, because the more advanced the technology, the more you need the savvy. And sometimes not only the savvy, but also the capability, the hands-down capability of molding and making.
SB: Yeah. I immediately just thought of [Isamu] Noguchi in this conversation, too, if you’re looking back into mid-century design and someone who was both making objects that were timeless, but also, when it came to the industrial products he did anyway, very timely.
PA: Absolutely, and it’s not even a double identity, it’s not like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. It’s a multifaceted knowledge that you can find in many great designers of the century. So the same conversations that you have with the craftsperson you can have with the technician that is doing the industrial production.
SB: With your 2008 exhibition “Design and the Elastic Mind,” you noted this incredible sort of time warp, if I can call it that, or these dramatic changes that we humans have been through over the past few decades. And in the catalog, you note, “Working across several time zones, traveling with relative ease between satellite maps and nanoscale images, gleefully drowning in information, acting fast in order to preserve some slowdown time, people cope daily with dozens of changes in scale.”
PA: You like the slowdown part. Ha!
SB: Maybe. And then you write, “Minds adapt to acquire enough elasticity to be able to synthesize such abundance.” And I was curious to hear more about this relationship between the “elastic mind,” as you define in it, and time. There does seem to be this really—
PA: Yeah, well it’s space-time, and it’s funny because you’re…. I tend not to reread what I write, so I’m glad that this, something that was written in 2000, probably 2007 in order to be published in 2008, still works today. It’s really fascinating that it still does. Well, I just think—I really believe a lot in science fiction, even though I don’t like to do exhibitions of science fiction. But it’s something that I’ve read a lot and you learn a lot about it.
I do believe that, especially when you watch science fiction, you realize that there is a way to deal with changes in space and time, very fast, so long as your body is not mangled in the process. Your mind can deal with it. So our mind is so much bigger and better than our body is, and I feel that it can handle these changes a lot. And then the rest of the essay talked about the fact that if minds were not that elastic, design could help them. I always have to inject design as the savior. [Laughs]
SB: Well, speed is something that I wanted to bring up. Because in this physical world where we’re surrounded by objects and buildings, speed is kind of inherently embedded in how things are designed, and I was curious to hear how you think about that, this role of speed in design within the object.
PA: Well, speed is overrated. I feel that we always think, as New Yorkers, that the world revolves around us—or as Tokyo-ites. Wherever we are, we [are] like, Oh yeah, of course, everything goes at our pace. Well, thankfully the rest of the world does not move like New York does. And in the past years, several years, I mean, I don’t remember when the Slow Food movement started, but it’s a long time at this point, and it taught everybody a lot.
Slow Food is a very strong philosophy, it’s not only about time, but it’s about local, it’s about focus, it’s about taking the time that is necessary to do things well, something that has become a central element of what we want to achieve today. The myth of speed is old at this point, and I don’t believe in it anymore. I am, like everyone, frustrated when I have to do things too fast. And I was noticing how the turnoff notifications on the iPhone is called “Focus”—it kind of tells you a lot about how culture has changed. So speed is not a quality anymore, just like overwork is not a quality anymore, it’s just a sign that you don’t know how to manage your time well.
SB: Yeah, it’s no longer “move fast and break things,” it’s—
PA: Oh, that’s so old!
SB: Move slow and tend to things.
PA: And do it right.
SB: Yeah. Well, I did want to talk about maybe what you might call “Slow Design,” and you’ve brought these interesting objects into the collection that connect to that, whether it’s Neri Oxman’s work or Tomáš Gabzdil Libertíny’s “slow prototyping” Honeycomb vase, which was made by bees.
PA: Yeah. Well, you’re talking about objects that are made with nature. I was thinking also for Formafantasma’s “Botanica,” which is even closer to the Slow Food concept. But yeah, Slow Design is about thoughtfulness—it’s not only about how long it takes to make the object, it’s also how long it takes to get to the object. Sometimes, when people ask you to work for an hour, they say it’s an hour, but it’s not, it’s twenty-eight years, or it’s twenty-five, depending on your long career. And the same with objects like Tomáš Libertíny’s one, or Neri’s, or Formafantasma. They are so imbibed with years and years and years of research and of thinking, and you can tell, right? So Tomáš Libertíny—this vase made by bees—is from quite a few years ago. Actually, it was in “Design and the Elastic Mind,” if I’m not mistaken, and it’s in the MoMA collection.
And the idea was to have bees make a vase because they would follow this shape that Tomáš had suggested to them, almost like a scaffold. And it’s very poetic and very beautiful. And when it comes to Neri, Neri’s career, which is more than twenty years right now. I mean, we met—the first time that I showed her work was in “Design and the Elastic Mind”; she was still doing her doctorate then. And she spent her career figuring out how to work closer and closer and closer with nature, using computation as a tool to make that happen. So every new project gets her closer, and you feel it.
And when it comes to Formafantasma, I’m thinking in particular of this project called “Botanica,” that also is in the MoMA collection, which is about pre-oil resins. So before hydrocarbons, the resins were made of shellac, made of honeybee wax and straw. So all of these different compounds and recipes that are from a long time ago, but that are plastics, and we don’t think of them as plastics.
So the thoughtfulness that goes into some of this design takes years to master and carries with it a whole wisdom. And that’s what makes me think also a lot about the attention that right now we’re giving in art and in design to Indigenous wisdom, and to rituals, and to… I mean, not only in art and design, also in pharmaceuticals, for instance. Right now there is the whole psychedelic sector of pharmacology that’s starting, and there’s a lot of conversations happening on who should own the rights to, say, ayahuasca.
We’re getting off on a tangent here, but—
SB: No, but it’s fascinating. And you see it with architecture, and landscape.
SB: Julia Watson’s work and….
PA: Julia Watson’s work and also some of the most—people are so fascinated by Wang Shu or are so fascinated by what Francis Kéré is doing, just the architects that are able to carry with them centuries. When you carry with yourself centuries, everybody reacts, everybody feels it. It’s visceral, and the response is also visceral.
SB: I wanted to return to Neri, and the “Material Ecology” exhibition you curated [about her work].
PA: Which famously opened February 25th, 2020. After we worked on it for ten years, what can you do?
SB: Well, you wrote this really profound, beautiful essay.
PA: Oh, thank you.
SB: That connects to time in this sweeping way. And I’d normally share a snippet or one sentence, but I feel like I have to read this quote in full. It’s a paragraph, but I think it speaks to this really astute framing of time and it’s, beyond that, a way of looking at and framing the world.
You write, “One of the most distinctive characteristics of the human species is a fraught relationship with change. Inescapable, change touches each creature, community, and system uniquely; to each, it manifests at distinct speeds and scales and in different cycles. Most entities—glaciers, plankton, clouds, tigers, or dandelions, for instance—go with the flow, adapting and evolving over time to accommodate change and accept its aftermath, however unfortunate. Not humans. Except for the faithful or the wisest among us, most human beings either resist, pursue, seek to control, or amplify change. We take pride in our ability to interfere with and even manipulate the flow. In so doing, we create consequences—not only for us, but for all species. So much have we tinkered that we seem to have lost control of the mutation, which now ever accelerates, like a cancerous growth.”
PA: Whoa. Okay. [Laughs] That’s deep, wow. Did I write that?
SB: You did. And with this in mind, will we ever live in a world in which humans are forced to go with the flow? I’m curious if you could tell me more about this “mutation” idea.
PA: I don’t think it’s ever going to happen. I think it’s not human to just accept the passage of time, except once again for the faithful and the wisest, or both at the same time. Who knows what’s going to happen. But I really doubt it until—unless somebody took the humanity out of us, I don’t think it’s ever going to happen, no. And the mutation, well, you can revert, you can—mutation is not always for the worse.
So there can be a reversal of course, or a correction of course. We live in systems—it’s not like we’re going in one direction and you steer and everything moves—no, there are different points of pressure that can be used to improve things. But I think that what’s really important is perspective and synthesis, and that’s really where our ability to jump scales could come into play. The problem is that there are so many forces that are pulling in the other direction, because synthesis and perspective gives a lot of power to the people, and that’s not in the interests…. I call it the “Age of the Bully,” where we’re living right now. Bullies don’t like for others to have perspective because all of a sudden they are put in their place and you see that they’re just one dot amongst billions.
PA: Putin, Trump, my cousin…. [Laughter] Really, bullies are not just—seriously, you can find bullies in your neighborhood. It’s the Age of the Bully. They push until they can, and if you don’t push back, they keep on pushing with their elbows. So that’s it. [Laughs] Seriously. So perspective is the weapon; systems thinking is the weapon. I was really touched when, in 2018, kids were striking, were doing the Fridays for the Future, that is so powerful. I think that’s scarier for the bullies than anything else.
SB: Greta Thunberg.
PA: Yeah. Greta, absolutely. Greta is the anti-bully, par excellence.
SB: This notion of mutation has long been a focus of your work. I mean, it was this first exhibition.
PA: I like mutations.
SB: In your Design Emergency book with Alice Rawsthorn, you also write about this sort of idea of how Covid-19 has “triggered mutations in our attitude toward most aspects of life.” And I was wondering what it is about mutational thinking or what you’ve called “mutational power” that fascinates you so much.
PA: Well, once again, we go back to sci-fi. So, when I did “Mutant Materials in Contemporary Design,” the first show at MoMA, 1995, I had this idea in mind that I wanted to call my exhibitions with female names, like hurricanes, so you would say, “I remember Simone at MoMA in 2002.”
So I wanted to call “Mutant Materials” Maya, because Maya was this mutant that was part of this really, really bad sci-fi series called 1999. I don’t know if you remember it, but it was bad and wonderful at the same time. So Maya was this mutant, and she was this beautiful woman, and she had long hair. The only way you would know that she was a mutant was because instead of eyebrows, she had little suction cups. She could switch—she could become a tiger, a cloud, in a second, and then go back to herself. But she was always herself. And I thought that was the most beautiful thing on earth. And the idea behind “Mutant Materials” was that materials could be other than what they used to be. So wood could be soft, and there was this new technology to put veneer directly onto polyurethane foam, or resins that used to be considered cheap plastic could look like marble. So there was this whole ability the materials had to be other than they used to be. And for designers to actually design the material themselves without going back to chemical engineers. So there was this whole new possibility for materials. And it was about mutants.
I feel that “Design and Elastic Mind,” same thing, this elasticity. So, to me, mutation is the ability to evolve, to go with the flow. I also really love the kind of [sexual] fluidity that we talk about today, which I didn’t talk about at “Design and the Elastic Mind,” because that was not the discussion yet. But mutation is not only something physical and biological, it’s also something that is psychological and related to identity—
PA: Social, completely. I believe that we will not reach real equality until there will be no more genders and no more races, or at least they will be in this big continuum whereby you will be able to still have identities, but they will not be separated anymore. So it’s this idea of flow, of elasticity, of mutation that really gives me hope.
SB: Let’s turn to Design Emergency—this project that started on Instagram is now a book. First, how and when did Alice Rawsthorn and you meet, and how did your relationship morph—or mutate—into this project? [Laughter]
PA: Evolve. Well, I cannot even remember when I met Alice. We’ve known each other for such a long time and we’ve always really loved each other, and we’re really good friends. She’s in London, I’m in New York. We meet everywhere. Because we are kind of two visible people in the design world, we tend to be invited to the same conferences, whether it’s in Singapore…. I mean, we’ve had so much fun in so many different places, just like taking off and taking a car to weird places and exploring. But we had never done anything that we started together.
We’d done many things together, but never anything from scratch. So when the pandemic happened and we were all locked down, I was at home with my husband, Larry [Carty], and Larry, every night during the lockdown, he was listening to Fat Joe, he was watching Fat Joe, the hip-hop artist that was doing his Instagram Lives. And he was saying, I was like a deer in the headlights. I was not used to being stuck at home, doing nothing, almost nothing. He said, “You could do this,” I’m, like, “Oh, maybe you’re right, let me think about it.” And so—
SB: So Fat Joe led to Design Emergency?
PA: Fat Joe. Well, Alice was already…. Alice has this amazing Instagram feed that is almost like—
SB: It’s a library. I mean—
PA: It’s an encyclopedia.
SB: It’s incredible.
PA: And she was already doing a few of these entries about design and the pandemic. So I called her up and I said, “Hmm,” and she said, “Oh. Oh, okay.” And she called up our friend Frith Kerr, who’s a fabulous designer. And in three days we had an identity, and we were off to the races. The funny thing is that the very first person that we interviewed was Michael Murphy, who you also had on The Slowdown, right?
SB: Yeah. On both At a Distance and Time Sensitive.
PA: Exactly. So anyway, Michael was the first person we interviewed because he was really so crucial to the whole effort. But at that time he was working with Mount Sinai Hospital here in New York, was helping them out of his experience with Ebola, and with cholera in Haiti; his collaboration with Dr. Paul Farmer, who we just lost [at age 62] , unfortunately—
SB: Rest in peace.
PA: —and Partners in Health. He was actually helping Mount Sinai come up with emergency beds, just like getting it together for this Covid onslaught. And after him, we had, for instance, Alissa Eckert, who is one of the two illustrators at the C.D.C., the Centers for Disease Control [and Prevention] in Atlanta, which is the main organization—for those of you who are not from the U.S.—it’s the main organization that declares health emergencies, monitors everything. So she, together with Dan Higgins, her colleague, gave Covid its brand. So Covid is a blob; it’s a gray blob with little gray dots around it. And it’s Alissa and Dan that made it into the hell razor deep water mine with the red S protein, the spikes. So all of a sudden that was the brand of Covid all over the world. Then we had designers from New Zealand that had done the whole campaign for awareness, an anesthesiologist from Bologna that had created a valve to split the ventilators. These teenagers from Iraq and Afghanistan that had designed emergency stopgap ventilators.
So really, all of these amazing spectrum of design applications in a situation of emergency. And that’s what Alice and I want: We both have this fixation in mind to show the world—the whole world—how absolutely important and fundamental design is. So we thought that a situation of emergency was a good opportunity to make that point. And then we invented the motto that “There is always a design emergency,” and so we keep going.
SB: Yeah. And there, of course, have been pandemics before, but none in our lifetimes where we’ve had the internet, where we’ve had social media, where there’s been this sort of vast connection. So the metaphor Andrew and I like to use is: those of us who were lucky enough to be at home were effectively in our space stations—
PA: So true.
SB: Looking out at the world around us.
PA: Beautiful! So true. And then also the pandemic is not over, but maybe it’s ebbed a little bit, at least in our minds, even though it’s still going on, we started thinking of all the other design emergencies. So, for instance, we will soon have one on pregnancy with Ani Liu, who’s a wonderful artist with an architectural background. We had one about urban transportation. We just interviewed an architect [Slava Balbek] in Kyiv, so really in the thick of the Ukrainian invasion by Russia. So we keep going; this idea that there is always a design emergency is true, and some are small, some are big. We also have these picks of the week, and at some point, there was the anniversary of the Tamagotchi, which is the perfect design emergency, so it’s fabricated, but it’s like, oh, my God, it’s like prefab anxiety. So if you look around, there’s a design emergency everywhere.
SB: I mean, just looking back at the amount of innovation that happened in the past two years…. It was interesting, I was on Twitter a couple days ago and I saw this tweet from the CEO of Stripe, Patrick Collison, who tweeted, “Before the pandemic, Pfizer was making 200 million doses per year across all vaccines. In 2021, they manufactured three billion doses of the Covid-19 MRNA vaccine, a 15x scale-up in one year for a new platform during a pandemic. Still think the extent of the achievement is underrated.” [Laughs]
SB: And then, in a follow-up tweet, he adds, “‘Science saved the world’ is a common refrain, and none of it would’ve been possible without a lot of scientific discovery, but so too did astonishing logistics, project management, industrial expertise, and process control.” Basically, in other words, design.
PA: Definitely, but also there’s a third tweet to follow: “…and taxpayers’ money.” And that’s a very big—
I would like to remind all of our wonderful pharmaceutical companies and science fans that there’s also that. No, no, definitely, it’s design. That’s a definition of design, for sure. But what I find really fascinating is that design right now is doing one more thing, I hope, which is to stimulate people’s critical stance. Like the third tweet that I added, I’m hoping that design will help people think that way. So to have enough distance from everything that happens, to know when things are played up and when they are copacetic instead.
Also, our CEO [Patrick Collison] did not call it “design,” and that’s the problem. People still do not call design “design”; they keep on talking about design, they talk about design thinking, and every time I hear nails that go down the blackboard. I just curl up like an angry cat and I start hissing. But they’re not able to call design “design.”
And I’ve done a little bit of self-flagellation in the past, and I’ve said, “Oh, it’s us, we’re not able to explain what design is,” but you know what? Yes and no, we certainly have a responsibility, when I say “we,” it’s you and me, Spencer—we are design people. We could do more, we could push The New Yorker to have wonderful design stories. But I don’t know, maybe it’s just an age. I’m right now working on an installation of the thirty-five video games in MoMA’s collection. We started acquiring them in 2012 and we made it very clear: We are acquiring them because they’re great examples of interaction design. Design, design, design. Design, design, design, design. What do the titles of all the reviews say? Video games as art. Oh, my God, I mean, it’s like impossible, impossible.
SB: [Laughs] Well, I’m laughing because, when I was researching for this, I read this great profile of you in The Atlantic from 2014. It’s headlined “The Most Modern Curator,” and it features this hilarious illustration of you wielding a chainsaw and you’re ripping into an Eames lounger.
PA: It’s true. Yeah, I loved it.
SB: It’s a great illustration. Anyway, the piece focuses on how you added these video games, which include Myst, Pac-Man, Tetris, SimCity 2000. And this caused a stir, which I find laughable now, where we are with the—let’s call it the banana-verse and web3. Do you see a “MoMA-verse” or this idea of a collection of digital objects, NFTs? Is that in the not-too-distant future?
PA: We already have it. I mean, the video games is a digital collection absolutely, so we started it then, and it was like such a feat. It was not only curators; it was the conservation department, we had digital conservators, it was I.T., it was general council to figure out how to make the end-user license agreement modifications that we needed. So it’s a big deal—what to archive, how to conserve it. It’s a beautiful story to be told one day.
When it comes to all sorts of other digital artifacts, we’ve been collecting them for a while and now we get to the NFTs, and we’ve already worked on NFTs; we have not minted yet our own, and we have not collected them—yet. But what we’ve done is we worked with Feral File, which is this great platform that’s run by Casey Reas out of U.C.L.A. So, a very artist friendly platform. And we offered Refik Anadol—who’s an artist that’s very savvy in that dimension—we offered him the MoMA collection metadata, and he unleashed this A.I. that went through it, and actually, it’s quite beautiful, you might want to go take a look. We had auctions in November; we had three days of auctions. One was one piece for quite a bit of money-generative. Then the second day was a few for hefty amounts of money. And then the third day was five thousand for one hundred dollars. And MoMA made very little out of it. It was mostly for the designer and for the platform. So it was done in just this beautiful way.
So MoMA tries to dip its toe, but in a respectful and artist-friendly way. And now, of course, understandably, the whole museum is testing web3. So retail, membership, everybody we’re all working on it. As far as collecting is concerned, we are ready. MoMA always takes a while, especially when it comes to the collection. It’s very deliberate. It’s establishing the criteria, proving to the acquisitions committee that it’s worthwhile. So we’re looking into it, but it’s not our most urgent move. Our most urgent move is to continue the curatorial engagement and to move the whole museum.
SB: So much of what you do as a curator I feel like is, on some level, [being] a provocateur. You’re definitely pushing boundaries, and I mean, you were able to present a Patagonia fleece on the wall of MoMA—I think that’s pretty extraordinary.
PA: [Laughs] Well, it was an exhibition. There’s two things, there’s exhibitions and there’s the collection. When you curate exhibitions, you can get away with more. And I’m not saying that the Patagonia fleece is getting away, but it’s still an art museum. So, and especially we had the original color, so I think it was fuchsia and orange. I mean, it was serious. But when you do an exhibition, you have a concept and then you choose objects that support that concept; you articulate the concept.
So it’s a different kind of narration: Objects that go into the collection have to stand on their own. So even if there’s no exhibition around them, they need to be outstanding examples of design, according to criteria that are a little bit decontextualized often. So that was an exhibition called “Items,” that was about the hundred and eleven items of clothing and accessories that had a very important role in New York–centric history in the past hundred and twenty years. Definitely fleece was one. Then we had the dashiki, we had the sari…. New York is really a mixture—and then we had the little black dress, which is so symptomatic of New York, the maternity dress, the platform—you name it. So it makes sense.
SB: The Champion hoodie.
PA: Definitely, the Champion hoodie, which was great. We had the Air Force 1s, we had the Adidas Superstar, we had Dapper Dan, I mean, it was just, it was a great show, I loved it.
SB: For those listening, you should watch Paola’s TED Talk on the hoodie because it’s basically about time—it’s looking at a hoodie across time.
PA: That’s so funny that you recognize this thread of time in what I do. I never thought about it, but thank you.
SB: I appreciate how, in the introduction to the Design Emergency book, you reflect on this enduring relevance of Buckminster Fuller’s work. And this is something Andrew and I noticed pretty early on in the pandemic as well, and actually had Amanda Joy Ravenhill on At a Distance to talk to her about it. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about this, about how Fuller saw himself as this sort of “astronaut of Spaceship Earth,” and also, through that, sought to create these projects for transformative change through systems thinking.
PA: Yeah, well, there are a few individuals—and they’re not all guys, thankfully—because I think of Bucky Fuller, then I think of Rachel Carson, and then I think of Stewart Brand. Once again, they had perspective. So the ability to look at earth from space, call it Spaceship Earth. I mean, in the case of Bucky Fuller, he felt that Earth was the spaceship. Stewart Brand, instead, was about seeing the vulnerability of Earth from space, and Rachel Carson was about seeing the system that we might be interfering with. So Bucky Fuller had perspective and that’s how he was able to inspire—well, it was not only that; he also had great rhetorical gifts, and he was a pied piper of sorts.
But that idea of showing people how Earth can be our responsibility was priceless. And also, he was able to talk about responsibility. One of the quotes that I love of his is the one about “trim tabs.” So about thinking that every individual is a trim tab. So by oneself, they can’t do much, but by all moving in the same direction, we can steer a ship or Spaceship Earth. That’s the same thing as Greta Thunberg. So to me, Greta and Bucky Fuller, in different ways, are very close. And I feel that that’s really what we should have more of: designers that are not only great designers, but also great enchanters. That are able to really convince, to speak, and convince, and preach, and sometimes also form cults. So it really is quite important to have that kind of inspiration that goes beyond the design field.
SB: The book features a wide range of designers shaping the future, including, as you mentioned, Michael Murphy; there’s Formafantasma; Neri Oxman, once again; Kunlé Adeyemi…. How did Alice and you go about selecting these sort of modern-day Buckys?
PA: We had this long running list and then we were like, “Who do you do next? Who to do next?” Well, how did we go about it? That always happens. You have a list and then you have all sorts of combinations that happen: what is most urgent, what we just do and where do we want to go next? You want to alternate disciplines, you want to alternate geographies.
Then for instance, when the California fires happened, we did a special in which we called somebody that was an expert to interview another expert about that, or the Beirut blast, same thing. So it was about being at the same time, topical, timely, and opportunistic, too. So that’s what always happens, whenever you have a series. I’m sure you go through the same with your podcasts. It’s a mixture of availability and necessity.
SB: Emergency response is this area that has long been an interest of yours; you’ve done a lot around it. And from what I understand, “Emergency” was the original name of what became your 2005 exhibition, “Safe: Design Takes On Risk,” but 9/11 happened and so it changed all that. What is it in your mind about emergencies that leads to this sort of solutions-based thinking? What happens to the mind when we face emergency?
PA: Well, they say that necessity is the mother of invention, and that’s the truth. Some of the purest or most direct design comes from situations of necessity. And maybe my focus on this kind of design comes also from the fact that I’m the daughter of two doctors, and that my dad was a surgeon and that I was in the O.R. when I was a child, I mean, I was, I think the first time I was 9, and so I saw all these instruments that were based on function, really. So form was apparently completely secondary, but they were also gorgeous in their own right.
Even though I’m always really fascinated by speculative design—I’m fascinated by crafts; I’m fascinated by many different forms of design or manifestations of design where function is not necessarily the first thing you see or feel—I feel that it’s part of my job to also sometimes—I’m going to give you the stupidest analogy—but I don’t know if you do it as with your hair, but sometimes, when we have long hair, we tend to put a lot of products, and so every now and then we do a shampoo that gets rid of all the product. It’s like this pure shampoo. Same thing: Sometimes I need to purify, get rid of everything that is extra, and talk about function and function only.
So the first iteration of “Safe,” of the exhibition in 2005, was called “Emergency,” and it was all about that. It was about medical equipment, it was about triage centers, it was about emergency tooling, et cetera. And I was working on it. It was, like, 2000 when I was preparing it, and then 9/11 happened. And having not thought about it for a few days and having been asked by a journalist, “What about your show?” And I’m like, “Oh, my God, it looks as if I had done a show about 9/11.” And so I decided to bury it, and not do it, and I waited, and then it became the half-full glass instead of the half-empty glass. So instead of response and reaction to emergency, it became proaction and just contingency beforehand, so “Safe.” But it still was about that.
Talking about safety, though, allowed me to talk also about comfort. So while emergency is, in most cases, not only, but it’s mostly physical, it can also be psychological, like I found out that one of the most important things for a refugee camp is to have a door, a door, even though it can be opened in a second, just makes you feel that you have a home.
SB: It’s like wearing the hoodie.
PA: Yes. But talking about safety opened up a whole spectrum—comfort of all kinds. It was much wider as a spectrum.
SB: And [in] that “Safe” show, you featured these objects that are more provocations than necessarily practical, I would say.
SB: And I’m thinking here of Kosuke Tsumura’s forty-four–pocket “Final Home” parka, which was this jacket designed as a shelter and to store food, medicine, tools, survival gear—even a teddy bear. You had Tobias Wong’s bulletproof quilted duvet, which was made of ballistic nylon and cotton, and maybe my favorite, Bill Burns’s “Safety Gear for Small Animals.”
PA: It was so cute, my God.
SB: [Laughs] Well, all three of these create some sort of psychic dissonance with the viewer. They sort of ignite these eerie emotions that, most of the time, we’d happily ignore, but were confronted with by looking at them, and through that they become these conversation starters. And so I was wondering, what role do you think does design play in starting conversation?
PA: When people are able to notice it, a lot. So you talked about three objects that are immediately capturing attention. I mean, “Safety Gear for Small Animals”—you can imagine like a safety vest in bright orange and reflective tags for squirrels. I mean, of course, you’re going to notice it, you’re going to like, oh my God—
SB: [Laughs] That squirrel’s wearing….
PA: Yeah, or a beautiful duvet that is all quilted and is black and you can tell that it’s like a safety, anti-bullet. So you see them. I feel that those certainly can start conversations, but so can a Post-it Note. And so I feel that our job is to make people pause in front of a Post-it Note. It’s much harder than making them pause in front of other objects. I always say that I feel that my life is like a Looney Tunes cartoon. I walk around town and the fire hydrant says, “Hello, Paola!” and the lamp pole is saying, “Hello, how’s your day?” So I can certainly start conversations also by myself, but I’m trying to have people pay attention so that they can begin this conversation.
SB: I mean, it was not lost to me that you included in this exhibition, 3M’s N95 mask as well.
PA: Yeah, of course. And the mask was also in “Items,” I mean, “Items,” don’t know, there’s—
SB: Right. In “Items,” you had Chinese designer Zhijun Wang.
PA: Yes. I know, it’s so beautiful.
SB: This using material from a Yeezy shoe, right?
PA: He’s using materials from all sorts of serious sneakers and making them into masks, so he’s really quite cool.
SB: How do you think about the mask in this current moment and understanding that it’s become something that was quite unusual to see someone wearing on the streets of New York City, relatively speaking? I mean, we’re not Tokyo, we’re not—it was not culturally the accepted thing to do necessarily. And I remember even that first month of lockdown, there were all these mixed messages about masks and now they’ve become a sort of cultural item, a sort of fashion accessory. I mean, obviously there’s a much larger conversation socially around it, where some people refuse to put them on.
PA: Well, yeah, the mask is a universe. The funny thing is—I’ve been thinking about it a lot. First of all, the mask was a fashion statement for a short time, at least. For instance, in Italy, if you go on public transport, you’re supposed to wear a N95 mask. So you cannot wear any kind of fabric, no, it has to be that one. So all of a sudden, fashion becomes more complicated. I mean, you can play with color or with the cords, but not with much more. But then I’ve been thinking, because I personally have had, at this point, four vaccinations, and I’ve had Covid, and still, when I go on the subway, I wear the mask. I was thinking, “Why do I do that?” And I’m like, it’s just to show my fellow New Yorkers that I love them, I was thinking about it, it becomes really as it is—
SB: It’s respect, it’s not virtue signaling.
PA: It’s like Japan, it’s the same thing. So I don’t need to wear that mask, but if I see—usually it’s guys that are not wearing the mask—I’m always thinking, You just, I don’t want to say something vulgar, that’s like saying…. And, but it really is a sign of respect, number one. Number two, during the winter, the mask was really great because it kept my lips from chapping. [Laughs] I was thinking about it, I’m like, this is pretty interesting.
SB: It’s New York City—it’s cold.
PA: Exactly. And then I was thinking, it also helps a little bit with makeup, but then when you have foundation, it’s really terrible. Then last year I was thinking, what happened to lipstick manufacturers? Have they lost a lot of money? So the mask is an eternal source of conversations in my mind, but I do believe that it will go. Just like it came, it will go. I don’t think it’s in the nature of New Yorkers to wear the mask forever.
SB: And whatever makeup companies lost because of mask wearing, they made up for because of Zoom.
PA: Yeah, exactly. There’s also that; there’s also Zoom. Yeah. I don’t know, I think it’s a moment. I think we’re not, even though New Yorkers really love each other, I think the mask is a little too much respect. We’ll figure out something else.
SB: And how are you processing having worked on this Design Emergency project, and just thinking about the past two years we’ve been through. How are you processing this particular period of time? How are you thinking about it as we move forward?
PA: I haven’t processed it yet. I don’t know how long it’ll take us all. I think we’re all traumatized, all in different ways, and I don’t think we have processed it yet, depending on our age. I mean, I really feel for kids and teenagers and what they’ve lost, and I feel for people that have lost dear ones. I have been lucky not to. Even those of us that were the luckiest, that were able to stay home, even we have some trauma to digest. I can see dysfunction all around me. And I think it’ll take quite a while to process it. I know I’m not done yet.
SB: We’ll be processing this for years.
I want to close on this great dream you have of acquiring one of your favorite industrial design objects, the Boeing 747. And you’ve been talking about it for a long time. In 1998, The New York Times ran a story about this with the headline, “Where Do You Hang the 747?” And I know that MoMA has Arthur Young’s Bell-47D1 helicopter in its collection. It’s also got Sheila Hicks’s panel for the interior of an Air France Boeing 747. But no Boeing 747. How close is this to happening? And Delta said goodbye to the 747 in 2017, so maybe it’s worth a call to Ed Bastian or…. [Laughs]
PA: No, it’s dead, it’s gone.
PA: And you know why? Because the idea was not to own the 747, possess it, take it out of circulation, put it in the garden. The idea was to have a live acquisition. So I’ve been interested in this for a while. My proudest acquisition ever was the “@” sign, the one that is part of our emails and of our handles, because it’s in the public domain, because it’s about the shadow of a butterfly on the wall—that’s what I like to say. The 747 was a similar idea, I had worked it all out in detail. It was about making a licensing deal with an airline that had at least two or three 747s flying through New York City.
So at that time, that was Virgin and United because Delta had a few because it had acquired Northwestern, but they were not using them really in New York, and then there was British Airways, of course. And it was about putting the acquisition number on the outside of the plane. I had also asked the Federal Aviation Authority, [if] it’s possible. And so the plane would remain exactly the same in configuration, but there would be a different upholstery fabric, and the cart was selling only MoMA Design Store items, and there would be reissued cutleries,, and if you got to be on that 747 because of the flight you were taking that day, you would get a special boarding pass and you could keep it forever.
So it was about once again, an anointment. It seems like it was “MoMA 747,” but in truth, it was about MoMA telling you, “This experience is a unique design experience, it’s worthy of the collection, it’s an impossible acquisition because it cannot fit. And you know what, it’s even better not to take it out of the world. Enjoy it. Design is for everyone and it’s for you.”
And the 747 was part of that whole narration because it was the moment when mass air travel seemed possible. So it was this whole dream of progress, this idea of “modern”: progress for everyone, design and architecture helping the world move forward—and positively so. And the reason why it’s not going to happen is because there’s hardly any 747s flying anymore. So you know what, I’m not interested anymore. It could have happened, but it goes in my string of rejections.
SB: Oh, I don’t want to end there. [Laughs]
PA: No, we don’t need to end there. It happens a lot, when you do a job like mine, ideas are a dollar a pound. The real challenge is to make them happen, and that’s why I welcome the digital space so much, because at that point, the limit is time, as usual, and sometimes budget.
But curating doesn’t happen only in a gallery. It can happen—you’re curating; you’re doing it right now with your podcast. I’m doing it with my public programs, with the R&D salons, I’m doing it with Design Emergency on Instagram, I’ve been doing it with “Design and Violence” on WordPress. So there are so many different ways because, after all, curating is being a really trusted guide through a territory that hopefully is of interest to everyone. So it really is not a negative. I am proud that I had that idea of the 747. I still love that wonderful bird, and I have the snail instead.
SB: Paola, thank you so much for coming in today.
PA: Thank you, Spencer.
This interview was recorded in The Slowdown’s New York City studio on April 13, 2022. The transcript has been slightly condensed and edited for clarity by Mimi Hannon. The episode was produced by Emily Jiang, Tiffany Jow, Mike Lala, and Johnny Simon.