If you cannot let people try, the distance is really dangerous – part 1
Feb 25, 2011
Paola Antonelli, photo © Robin Holland, montage © Dimitrios Tsatsas, Stylepark

Jochen Stöckmann: The MoMA is primarily known as an art museum. How can you demonstrate the usefulness of design, of daily life products and their function in such an environment?

Paola Antonelli: One of the biggest problems of design in museums is that museums usually create a distance between people and objects. And so, you have to count on tricks to make people feel how it is to use these objects. In some cases people are familiar with the objects. They point and say: "Oh, I know that toaster, it doesn't work well!" You know, the Braun toaster. Everybody says it doesn't work, but it is beautiful. But in the cases of "work spheres", we had also some commissions by designers, that people could actually use, or at least understand in their use because it was an exhibition about how people work. In 1999, it was that time, when technology really started to be part of our life, but people were still very dissident. And also technology was not very good. Remember: It was the moment, where you thought, you could travel and work - but then, you had always the wrong plug or you would dial your server at home and it wouldn't pick up. We thought this was a good moment to talk about what design could do to enable people to work well. And to enjoy technology and use technology without being frustrated.

The exhibition had a lot of products already existent, but also six commissions, based on real problems. For example: the cubicle. If you are working in an office, how can design make this more livable? In that case the designer was Naoto Fukasawa - Japanese people are used to staying in very small pieces. He took OLED, in that time a quite innovative technology, and made these screens in top of your cubicle, where you could project your own personal sky. You could have a friend, who sends you a sunset from Hawaii or a dawn in Vienna. And you would have it on top of you, moving, so you will have that sense of breezing. Another issue was working at home. It was very funny, because at that time people were very scared about working at home, they were afraid that professional life and family life would be contaminated. They had strange theories like you should put your computer on a timer, so it turns off at 9 p.m. and it doesn't turn on until the morning. Or you should change your clothes before you go to the other room. So I asked Hella Jongerius to work on this problem. She said something very smart, as she always does: People know when to work and when not to work. She did the opposite, she made all these beautifully, comfortable home domestics things, that could be used either for work or for family life. She predicted, what happened afterwards, what it really meant to work with technology.

Working with computers or any kind of digital instruments is accompanied by the loss of concreteness and first-hand knowledge. The people, the "users" don't see, don't realize what's going on inside these black boxes. The designer can try to visualize some of the "content" on the surface or decorate the objects - but he always will have trouble to cope with this problem caused by the abstraction of work.

Antonelli: I disagree with you on the principle: The more we get into computing technologies, the more younger designers and engineers are discovering crafts. And what is interesting, I noticed it in furniture design - Hella Jongerius is one, but also Demakersvan or Patrick Jouin - there are many designers, who use computer aided technology and also know how to make things by hand. Because the more advanced the technology and the more advanced the material, the more you need to use your hand at first to experiment. But there is also the phenomenon of hacking, hackers. There are all this people that are engaged in physical computing, for instance the "Make Magazine". More and more I'm noticing people who are working physically on computers, physically on objects and also working first hand on the programming of software. One of many problems with platforms like the iPad or the iPhone is, that they are so closed. And people instead are really enjoying working on open source platforms and are waiting for the android tablet. So, at first technology was very cryptic and very difficult to understand, and very abstract. But now it's very material to work with. I think it's people of a certain generation that are kind of intimidated by technology and therefore applied it only as a methodology and not as a real material.

Recently a lot of computers or cell phones were treated by designers not as material but as a decorative object, refined with a surface of black varnishing, looking like Japanese handicraft.

Antonelli: It's changing. One of the best known Japanese designers, Tokujin Yoshioka, just came out with a new cell phone which basically has translucent plastic covers and you see everything inside. It's funny, it's the opposite of the black box, and it's a Japanese designer. The aesthetic is too much about the inside. I wish, it was not a black box but a little more opaque, it's too much about the inside.

But the inside is a task for designers: good manuals are a challenge.

Antonelli: The next show that I'm working on is called "Talk to me", and it's about the communication between people and objects. We have a project from the Royal College of Art, these designers have created an integrated manual with a new cell phone for people that are not very understanding of technology. Basically the cell phone is inside this book if you open the pages. And for every page you are told exactly what to do. For the first page is the SIM-card, for the second page you open the cover and insert it here. It's really quite amazing how clear it is. But also you might have noticed how tired people are of complicated interfaces. The whole movement of rebellion against remote control is finally starting to pay off, because using the iPad as a remote control with very simple iPad or iPhone with very simple interfaces is something which is an achievement of advanced technology. Advanced technology can help us to make things simpler and clear.

If you are exhibiting this technology in the MoMA, what's the difference in the presentation of design and fine arts and where are links, opportunities to collaborate with other departments?

Antonelli: There are seven departments at MoMA, we are all interlinked. There is painting and sculpture, drawing, printed and illustrated books, than photography, film, media and performance and architecture and design, we collaborate a lot. Certain collaborations are completely seamless, painting and drawing, sometimes photography. I would say that sometimes the two departments that have the hardest time interacting are film and architecture and design, especially design. Film - why? Because films have to be shown in a theatre. It's difficult to show films in a gallery setting and give the full immersion and the full experience that they deserve. A problem with design is, when you show it next to sculpture, it gets sucked in by sculpture, it's very weird. I tried some years ago an exhibition, were we put together design and sculpture based on materials like we had Joseph Beuys' "Felt Suit" and Gaetano Pesce's "Feltri". That doesn't work, because the design immediately gets treated or perceived as sculpture. If you cannot let people try, the distance is really dangerous.

Design objects should not - or not only - perceived as sculpture. What are the criteria to acquire them for the MoMA collection if not beauty or formal qualities. Is commercial success a criterion?

Antonelli: Success on the market is also one criteria, it never hurts. The success of a design piece is a synthesis of many forces. It all depends on the intention of the designer. If the piece was made for the mass market, than the success is one of the criteria. Instead, if the piece was experimental and it was meant only to test a technology, than it doesn't matter. Very important is the initial idea. You need to find out, what the designer set out to do - and then you look at the final object. Is the idea still there, is it still alive despite all the compromises that a design object has to go through? Was he or she able to maintain the integrity of the main idea, is it fulfilling that idea? Is it a good addition to the world? If the designer said at the beginning, this object has to be sustainable, it has to be bought by millions of people, it has to be non-toxic - I'm going to look if it is true! If instead the designer said I don't care about anybody, right now I'm only testing this new material to see whether it is toxic or not, to see whether we can sit on it or not - than that's all I'm going to think of.

You have to do a lot of empirical studies, investigations about the intentions of the designers?

Antonelli: It's not that difficult. The most successful objects are the ones where you can read the idea in the object and you can go backwards.

Going backwards in design history, were there objects which not only symbolize, but also demonstrate the change of direction, a new paradigm?

Antonelli: There are many! Very often they are linked to technology, because designers are the ones who take technologies and make them into objects. First that I thought of is the walkman. The second is the World Wide Web, when they created an interface. The iPhone, definitely the iPod. Also the first MacIntosh 128K in 1984. The Motorola Star TAC, the first clamshell-phone. The first transistor TV by Sony. Let's go back in history, you see, I'm very contemporary. The "Sacco", the bean bag chair - that's a gigantic change in paradigm - as was may be the "Panton chair". The "Wassily chair" by Marcel Breuer. Definitely design is the embodiment of progress. And some objects really pushed like a trampoline into the future.

To represent these jumps into a new era, what causes more difficulties: the Boeing 747 or the invention of the World Wide Web?

Antonelli: Definitely the Boeing 747, but the creation of the World Wide Web is not easy. Recently we have started to collect things, which are not traditional objects. We tried to collect several interfaces and visualization-designs. The first ones we collected were John Maeda reactive books, books which have CDs inside. But they are quite old, so they need to be shown on old Macs. They are interactive - but you need to find the old keyboards. The World Wide Web: You can still kind of show it, but we will like to collect the first graphic user-interfaces, they were developed by Xerox in 1981. A colleague went there to Palo Alto, talked with the people: They kept nothing, they don't have the old computers, they don't have the software. So, how do you show it, pictures and videos? Can you collect a website? Not really, because when you take a website off the World Wide Web, it is dead. So you doing taxidermy almost. Paradoxically, one of the hardest objects to collect or one of the easiest to display was the @-sign. I proposed it for the collection and it took me seven months to convince my colleagues - and it took me no time to put it on the wall. It was an example of something easy to show and hard to conceptually champion. All these kind of new technologies are complicated to show. You need to decide whether to show them interactively or just as videos and we have a lot of debates about it.

What do you offer the visitor to understand the cultural background of software, operating systems or the @-sign? Umberto Eco for example compared DOS with the protestant church, called Mac a "catholic" system and draw the conclusion, that Windows should be something in between both, like the Anglican Church.

Antonelli: This kind of "Mitteleuropäer"-thinking wouldn't work in the United States. What I do is, I give the background of what I have discovered about the @-sign and why I made it a design object. I do it on a label on the wall and then, if you want you can go at the MoMA-Log and you can find out more. Basically I say: When we think of design today, we think of something that should be elegant, sustainable, in connection with tradition, but at the same time progressive, personal, but at the same time universal, low cost. And the @-sign is everything. And more over, it's immaterial. It's also perfect paradigm. It was born in the middle ages, you can find it in the monks doing things by hand, it was the ligature "et" in Latin - and it remains a ligature today. And when the e-mail was invented, the @-sign was already on the keyboard, it was called "commercial et". It was no need to redo the keyboards, it was perfectly economical, in keeping the tradition, a beautiful rebirth. From a curatorial viewpoint it's also wonderful because it's an impossible acquisition. It's a public domain object. So it's pioneering to say we need to possess this object in order to have it in the collection. It's mine, it's yours, it's everybody's. It's a butterfly - and I took the shadow of the butterfly and put it on the wall. But of course, I cannot be that poetic when I do my label. I give a background and I try to explain in a way as clear as possible, that design is not only cute chairs and cars, but it's visualizations, it's maps and interfaces and it's even concepts - like the @-sign.

Please continue reading with part 2

Paola Antonelli, photo © Robin Holland, montage © Dimitrios Tsatsas, Stylepark