Paola Antonelli: “The museum is a mirror.”

Another great Swiss Miss Creative Morning, this time with Paola Antonelli, Senior Curator of Architecture and Design at the Museum of Modern Art in NYC. I have a soft spot for former architects (or rather, “trained as but never worked as” like myself) because the interdisciplinary connections can be rich. She talked about this today, and her own attraction to “the curious octopus” — she says this is how she wants to live intellectually in her own mind — multiple arms reaching and grabbing and connecting architecture, design, art, science and technology. That’s how I want to live too!
I’ve seen Paola speak before and I marvel at her ability to engage an audience. I’ve never seen anyone do it quite as well as her, except perhaps this guy. She’s got an ease, a passion, a sort of casual fluidity to the way she speaks that belies her real position (considered to be one of the most powerful in the art world). Maybe it’s an Italian thing? I just got back from Rome, where this kind of bravado is really in the air.
Paola talked about design of course, and how the design community in NYC has shifted during the last 16 years. She started by comparing Milan’s regional strength (design) to New York’s (art) in 1994, when she arrived here. There’s a kind of normalcy in the way design belongs to life in Europe, and how it breeds a kind of everyday design culture that she felt was lacking in America (I admit, I still feel this). She traces this inferiority complex back to the 18th century, when we began importing culture from France. But she recognized New York’s strength in contemporary art (“in Italy art ended with Dada”) and today she traced the coming-together of art, design and architecture through technology and economic crisis from 1994 until now.
Here are a few notes:

  • Today ours is a generation of lost architects — only 70+ year old architects get to build — so many architects have turned to design (so true!)
  • While Apple has raised the everyday design standard there’s been a decrease in the object as we now turn to interdisciplinary, ethereal, conversational and experimental design.
  • Romanticized or not, Paola proclaims that this is a great moment for design — it’s a force that means good business, good politics and good image-building
  • Design education has shifted from silos to interdisciplinary programs
  • Technology pre-9/11 was a time of great promise but a lot of frustration (difficulty in making connections). Her Design and the Elastic Mind attempted to show how that has changed — how technology now seamlessly brings together design and science to create objects and scenarios, to plant the seeds. Of all of the exhibitions that she has created, this is her favorite.
  • When curating a show she likes to leave it unfinished. Like architects who have a desire to never complete the project, she says that if you leave an exhibition unfinished you give a gift to the public — you let them finish it. You leave them with somewhere else to go.
  • Her newest project at MoMA is called Talk to Me, exploring the overt communication between people and objects. Designers are the interface, bring innovation to life, write the script for this dialogue.
  • This is an exhibition about process, so rather than present a checklist, she’s blogging the show as it forms and transforms (a big “minestrone”).
  • Paola shows us a diagram: “media” (the real world) on the left, and “digital media” (the ethereal) on the right. The space in-between is where we’ll live in the future, the liminal space of augmented reality where the real and the ethereal merge
  • The “@” symbol: a non-acquisition for MoMA — her proudest in the last six months
  • With a mission to educate, she feels that this kind of museum acquisition (“tagging” rather than purchasing) is very important, a must for the collection. “It’s like the symbol is in the air, and we captured its shadow.” From the middle ages the symbol has been in use and in 1971 it was re-used, recycled and repurposed — this is what we want design to be.
  • The idea of “tagging:” objects that you really can’t have because they belong to everyone, things that are in inner or outer space (or even entire buildings — should they be part of a museum’s collection?)

More re: the “@” symbol: “The museum is a mirror, it makes us feel validated. These are the services that we already use, but can’t posses. The more design becomes conceptual, digital and liminal, the more we have to adapt our ideas about curating.”



Today’s Creative Morning was a treat. Liz Danzico hosted and the virtual guest was Swiss Miss herself with newborn Swiss Mister. Allan Chochinov of Core77 was the guest speaker and he kept it short and sweet with a song and a talk.
The song was “There A Hole in My Bucket” and Allan dedicated it to the virtual guests. Who knew that this song traces back to 1700, from a German collection of songs Bergliederb├╝chlein as a dialogue between an un-named man and a woman named Liese? Thanks to Wikipedia we find out that later versions were called “Heinrich und Liese” and credited as a folk song from Hesse.
Allan used the song as a metaphor for the design problem. A “cascading sequence of contingencies and consequences.” Who is the user? Is it @henry? We might call the bucket a container, or a vessel. We might say that the bucket is “a liquid containment and conveyance system.”
So what exactly does Henry need? What is the context? What about ergonomics? Ethnographics? And what about that relationship between Henry and Liza? Maybe “the bucket is the last thing we should be worried about.”
All important questions we ask when confronted with the design problem.
The client brief: “There’s a hole in our bucket!” Allan showed typical designer responses:

  • The systems approach (Honey Bucket)
  • The solution that doesn’t solve the problem (Lucky Bucket Brewing Co.)
  • The branded experience (Yankees-branded buckets)
  • In the end Allan called out for sustainable design: maybe all we need to do is re-imagine the good old-fashioned bucket. The old wooden one that’s been engineered to last forever. Sure it’s got a hole, but maybe the solution is right in front of us and needs rethinking (he showed great examples: the hippo water roller and the GRIP rake by Scott Henderson). Sometimes as designers our instinct is to add more design, more solution — stacked up solutions that are conceived as a patching together of more and more design. Perhaps we need less “might do,” less “can do,” and more “ought to do.”
    A thoughtful, important message for a snowed-in morning.


    Some really good advice.

    Just came from a brilliant short talk by Pentagram partner Michael Bierut at the SwissMiss Creative Mornings. His slides were great and so very tweetable (on purpose?) — short summary statements in giant type that filled the screen.
    The topic was clients.
    I was going to tweet during the talk. But because the bits really add up to a good story and a very specific philosophy about the client/designer relationship, I think it’s worth presenting them all together. So here they are. It’s some of the best designer advice I’ve ever heard and I want to share it, but I’m also putting the quotes right here on so I can come back and read them over and over again. Every day.
    Michael Bierut talks about clients.

    • Clients can be the best part of the design process.
    • Clients are the difference between art and design.
    • My clients are the same as yours.
    • The right client can change anything.
    • The best clients love design, or don’t give a damn about it. (i.e., they have confidence)
    • The worst clients are somewhere in between. (i.e., they have fear)
    • Never talk about “educating the client.”
    • What makes a great client? Brains, passion, trust and courage.
    • “You’ll never go wrong when you work with someone smarter than you.” (Tibor Kalman)
    • Warning: Your great client may not be my great client.
    • Great clients lead to more great clients (and more great work).
    • Bad clients lead to more bad clients (and more bad work).
    • Bad clients take up more of your time than they should.
    • Meanwhile, we take great clients for granted.
    • The trick is to reverse this.
    • What do I owe a great client? Loyalty, honesty, dedication and tenacity.
    • Once you find a great client, never let them go.
    • If you can find five great clients, you’re set for life.
    • “You’d better find somebody to love.” (Jefferson Airplane)
    • Good luck.

    Why not — let’s call them Bierut-isms.
    I can honestly say that I also share Mr. Bierut’s love of the designer/client relationship (point #1) and that I’ve learned many of these lessons the hard (and enjoyable) way during the last 15 years. It’s immensely satisfying to hear it reinforced in such a clear way by someone you have respect for and someone who’s been at it for awhile.
    Mr. Bierut ended his talk by saying that he was very lucky — he could name not just five but ten great clients in his career so far (“These people are why you’ve heard of me…”). Moving and inspiring to hear work so closely associated with the designer dedicated to the people who made it possible. He mentioned Fern Mallis (7th on Sixth), the architect Robert Stern, Terron Schaefer (Saks), Laura Shore (Mohawk Paper), Chee Pearlman (I.D. Mag), David Thurm (New York Times), Christy MaClear (Philip Johnson Glass House) and others. Proof that design is best when it’s a collaborative effort.