Paola Antonelli is one of today's leading international experts on design. Originally from Sassari (Sardinia, Italy), she graduated from the Politecnico di Milano and taught at Harvard before becoming senior associate curator in the department of Architecture and Design at the New York Museum of Modern Art -aka MoMA- in 1994. She has curated exhibits also in Italy, France, and Japan and was among the winners of the prestigious National Design Awards in 2006. She has been a contributing editor for Italian Domus magazine, and the design editor of Abitare (both bilingual).
Ms. Antonelli got her position at the MoMA answering a newspaper job post.
Paola comes from a place -not necessarily only a physical place- where design is, and has been, an everyday aspect of life. As she describes in a 2008 interview “I grew up surrounded by [designers] items not because sophistication was running in my family, but because that is what we would find at the corner store. When a Milanese needs to buy a couch, they just think they’ll be going out and by a couch for the rest of their life, it’s not that they are really sophisticated, they don’t have a choice… at the end every country in the world has a different specialty.”
And Italy must have design.
Even if Ms. Antonelli challenged herself that notion in a 2009 talk (“Italian Design: does such a concept still exist”), the temptation of investing Paola with the unofficial role of ambassador of Italian design is strong. After all she did write a spirited introduction to Giampiero Bosoni’s “Italian design” (by Museum of Modern Art (New York, N.Y.) titled “The Land of Design” in which she powerfully stated: “Different national design cultures have reached their zeniths at different times during the twentieth century, becoming temporary beacons for international design... Italy owns most of the 1960s and the early 1970s.”
“During the 1950s in Italy, legend has it, some talented but unemployed architects encountered some enlightened industrial manufacturers in search of products, just as, in the background, mechanical and chemical industries sought applications for their many new innovations. Together the three parties established a collaborative formula based on the pooling of their technical knowledge, their dreams and their goals.”
“Since midcentury, design companies in Italy have maintained their experimental verve and, at least for now, are attracting the best design talent in the world. British, Spanish, American, French, Japanese or Indian: When designers move to Italy -some for long periods, other permanently- and begin to truly enjoy their work experience and be inspired by it, their design passport becomes Italian.”
Nowadays Paola is after a bigger target, though. She is on a mission to introduce -and explain- design to the world. Considering Design one of the highest form of human creativity, Paola suggests, gives us all to the chance to have Art in our everyday life. In her book “Humble Masterpieces - Everyday Marvels of Design”, based on the MoMA exhibit by the same name, she glorified everyday objects. Most of them, she specifies, if they work well get only marginal attention. But all of them, from the generic paper clip or chopsticks, to the patented M&Ms, Post-It notes, Chupa Chup lollipops, Band-Aids or Legos and Scotch tape, although modest in size and price, are true masterpieces of the art of design. And moreover, treating design as art, she emphasized how designers need to be mavericks allowing themselves to design new or successful objects by pretending that they, either never existed, or that people will be able to have a new behavior with them. Finally with the exhibition "Design and the Elastic Mind" she focused on the worlds of science and technology. While “technology always comes into play when design is involved, science does a little less. But designers are great at taking big [scientific] revolutions that happen, and at transforming them so that we can use them”.
This Summer Ms. Antonelli will open the new MoMA exhibition “Talk to Me” based on the theme of communication between people and objects. Firmly believing in a process of productive biofeedback, reinforcing findings, and redirecting ideas towards and sculpting the thesis, her team reshuffles how they contextualize and categorize the fruits of their research creating an organic exhibit (new suggestions are evaluated all along at the exhibit queue).
So, finally, Paola Antonelli not only represents Design in the world, but also surveys it and monitors its whereabouts and direction, which is hopefully a portrait a few years in advance of where the world is headed. With the ultimate goal (maybe not even if, but because she’s Italian), as the World Technology Network noted in their 2004 award assignment, "to insistently promote design’s understanding, until its positive influence on the world is fully acknowledged."
Sources and more reads:
Fabio Volo interviews Paola Antonelli: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Taawn83LnZA (from 6:15)
Giampiero Bosoni’s “Italian Design”: http://www.momastore.org/webapp/wcs/stores/servlet/ProductDisplay?l...
Paola Antonelli at TED 2007, successful designers treat design as art http://www.ted.com/talks/paola_antonelli_treats_design_as_art.html
Paola Antonelli at TED previewing "Design and the Elastic Mind": http://www.ted.com/talks/paola_antonelli_previews_design_and_the_el...
MoMA: Design and the Elastic Mind: Introduction http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zi1loLVyk-k
MoMA: Design and the Elastic Mind: Organic Design http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LBdGU1_1l-8
Interview with Paola Antonelli, by Wendy Ju, August 2007: http://ambidextrousmag.org/issues/08/antonelli.html
2012 update: MoMA has appointed 18-year museum veteran Paola Antonelli as its first Director of Research and Development. Dividing her responsibilities equally between the Department of Architecture and Design and the newly created R&D department, Ms. Antonelli will evaluate new initiatives and identify unexplored opportunities for the museum, particularly in the digital realm.