The Museum of Modern Art's Paola Antonelli explores design's role in a changing universe
Alastair Gordon -- Interior Design, 1/1/2008 12:00:00 AM
Everyone thinks that progress goes in a straight line. Actually, it keeps looping around in unexpected ways—backward, laterally. That's what keeps design fresh.
In the catalog essay for her "Design and the Elastic Mind," Paola Antonelli writes about the dramatic pace of 21st-century living: "working across different time zones, traveling with relative ease between satellite maps and nanoscale images, gleefully drowning in information, acting fast in order to preserve some slow downtime." Then she considers how designers cope with these kinds of "displacements."
The show runs February 24 to May 12 at New York's Museum of Modern Art, where Antonelli was just promoted to senior curator of architecture and design. Sitting in her office, in an Aeron chair facing a Sacco beanbag chair for guests, she talked about neurotic robots, balancing past and future, and the dark side of technology.
This is an exhibition of concepts rather than products.
I started out by looking into unusual collaborations. Most of the contributors to the show are students, scientists, or designers you've never heard of. Hardly anything is really in production.
Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby, who are actually somewhat known, will present Design for Debate—that's what they call it. The general scenario is that, in the future, there will be these robots that take care of us. But what if things went the other way, and we had to take care of them? Dunne and Raby made these beautiful robots that are very needy and kind of nervous. In order to make them work, you have to stare into their eyes for five minutes—then they start. Technology is innovative, but designers still play an enormous role.
And what exactly is that role?
It's to take technological revolutions and turn them into usable objects. The example I'm always citing is the Internet. It began as lines of DOS code until Mosaic came along, and users were able to push "buttons" and open "pages." Basically, that's what designers do. They act as an interface between scientists and the public.
How do designers help us cope with the 21st century's constant displacements?
Anything that requires adaptation begins with a displacement, and then you move on. Yesterday, I was watching the 1970's movie Dog Day Afternoon, and people were putting money into pay phones, one of those things we once took for granted. Look back at all the funny predictions: "Oh my god, the telephone, the airplane are not going to work." These are signs of malaise. Designers help us go through that. Not with any kind of humanitarian idea—it's just what we do.
Is elasticity of mind a happy thing?
It's a very happy thing.
Are we more elastic now than we used to be?
Some of us are. Some of us resist it. It's a question of know thyself. Know your own degree of elasticity and arrange the world around you so it matches. For example, I keep at least one day of the week free from meetings.
How do designers help us become elastic?
The more advanced the design, the more they try to inject some familiar ingredients, so people can metabolize it—like the idea of archiving family photographs digitally. The further you go into the future, the more you need the past. That's something science-fiction writers discovered a long time ago.
Tell us about the idea of scale.
You can go from the resolution of your mobile phone's screen to the resolution of your high-definition TV, and you don't even think about it. It's instant adaptation.
"Slowness" as a concept seems important now, too.
It started with slow food and led to slow tourism, and now there's slow prototyping. A young designer in the exhibit developed a honeycomb vase that bees make, gathering around their queen. Slowness has come back because we generally go very fast. What's beautiful about design today is that all these extremes call for their opposite extremes.
Are you also flirting with the dark side of new technology?
There's some dystopia in the exhibition. In particular, a graduate of the Royal College of Art, Michael Burton, creates creepy videos about how future biotechnologies will make class differences deeper. And a lot of design students are obsessed with the idea of the future being too antiseptic. They're talking about things like "pet dandruff" and how sickness will become a recreational activity. You'll go into a room and sniff powders that make you sick—then everyone will vomit together as if it were fun.
How do you filter all this?
Gathering the information is very chaotic and organic.
Is curating an intuitive process for you?
Very. I just throw out my net as wide as I can. With every exhibition, I try to open the door to a world that I don't know.