We need to kill the label “green” – part 2
Feb 26, 2011
Paola Antonelli, photo © Robin Holland, montage © Dimitrios Tsatsas, Stylepark

Jochen Stöckmann: 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 with its icons a "catholic" system and draw the conclusion, that Windows should be something in between both, like the Anglican Church.

Paola 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 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 writing 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 don't 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.

Do you recognize a history, an evolution of curatorial ideas at the MoMA?

Antonelli: There were so many groundbreaking curators. When you start with Philipp Johnson, in 1934 he did the "machine art"-show. That was a big deal talking about paradigms, because he took pieces of machinery, the ball bearing or propeller-blades and put them on white pedestals against white walls and there were Brancusi's sculptures. And another one, Bernard Rudofsky: He wrote "Architecture without Architects" in 1964, but before that he had done "Are Clothes Modern?" in 1947. Another one was Emilio Ambasz, in 1972 he did "Italy. The New Domestic Landscape" and in 1976 "The Taxi Project" about New York Taxis and how to redesign the Mall. Another one of these inventive curators was Cara McCarty in a small show - it was gorgeous - only with masks and helmets, it looked like an anthropological museum exhibition.

You mentioned the exhibition "Italy. The New Domestic Landscape" and I was thinking of Alessi, Olivetti and all the other Italian enterprises, known for their good design. In Germany it was not only Braun with Dieter Rams as designer which had great success. These times, are they changing?

Antonelli: Yes and no: I mean, the geography of everything has changed. It used to be, that design was where the industry was. So it happened that Germany had an amazing heavy industry and electronics industry. Italy had great furniture industry and than it had mavericks who was really sensitive to that. But lately, industry is no more an anchor. You can have something designed in Copenhagen, manufactured in Shenzen and sell it in Buenos Aires. I feel that today the centers of design are represented by schools. And designers move everywhere they want. Italy still has good design, because it still has a few good manufactures with the right size to take risks and give the designers opportunities - and it has always its furniture fairs. But when I think where design is, I always immediately think of schools: the Royal College of Arts, the Eindhoven Academy of Art and Design, the Rhode Island School of Design, which is now changing, the MIT MediaLab, certain schools in Korea. Education is, where the research and development happens.

Was education also an assignment, an aim of the MoMA?

Antonelli: Today the mission of MoMA is educational. MoMA is an institution that is supposed to educate with all of its different departments. And in design's case the founding director Alfred Barr said, that design was the opportunity for everybody to have art in their lives. It was always seen as affordable art. And the commercial aspect of design was always celebrated. At the beginning, in the 1930s and early 1940s the catalogues of exhibitions of design carried the price and where you could buy the object. Then there was a whole series called "good design" that MoMA-curators would organize together with the merchandise, they would pick objects that were for sale everywhere in the Unites States and call them "good design" with a little label. There was a lot of idealism about the idea that design was as a force for good. Also the MoMA-store, the retail arm of MoMA was born out of this idea. All the money we make with the MoMA store goes back into the MoMA-programs.

Catalogues in former times were very important. What's about the internet, does or could the World Wide Web substitute a whole museum? I don't have to go into the MoMa any longer when I searched the website.

Antonelli: You don't have to - but MoMA is still a place. Let me go back for a moment to what I think is a museum: It's hard to define museums especially at a moment where art is so much more than painting and sculpture and so on and so forth. But one thing is important: museums are places where you change gears. If you are in a city like New York that is so overwhelming, a museum should be a place where you come down and you look at things more in depth. It can be stimulating. And instead: when you are in a smaller place, a quieter city it's a place where instead your blood pressure goes up. If you think about in that way, museums have a physical presence, a real estate. I always see the internet as another form of real estate, as another building. It's a building that has different lots and that has different rhythms and different circulations. You need to make sure, that you don't try to repeat the same museum on the internet. Our website is constructed in such a way as to of course prepare you to a visit at MoMA if you want to. But also it can be something that lasts after your visit and something that gives you a different experience if you don't come and visit at all. We redesigned our website a few years ago and we keep on redesigning and thinking about, of course we added all the social network. But we try first and foremost to represent the collection on the web. Because we feel, that's an amazing patrimony and there you can really have a good sense of why MoMA is such a unique place. And you can see more of the collection then you can see in the galleries, it's always impossible to show everything in the galleries. It is a different space, it is not MoMA on the web, it's MoMA's representation on the web.

To make MoMA a different place, do you need a specific atmosphere? Do you create such an atmosphere for every exhibition?

Antonelli: It really depends on what you are trying to achieve. Sometimes, when you have a monographic show or a show that is concentrated on one very specific theme that is also a formal theme, the atmosphere happens. I tend to do thematic shows that need to be held together by an atmosphere. And my trick - since it's design and people usually don't come to MoMA to see design - I'm always trying to make a very distinct place that is different from the other galleries and that is soothing or attractive. The first show that I did in MoMA was 1995 in the summer, real hot outside. You would get into the galleries, they were dark blue. It looked black, but you felt that it was not black. So, dark, really cool, these floating white surfaces and then these amazing objects, they were all made with new materials. And then there were places where you can sit - that's always important. I always count on an atmosphere because I need it.

You did an exhibition about "safety and security". Wouldn't it be interesting to examine the opposite, danger and weapons?

Antonelli: One of the first things that I proposed when I got to MoMA in 1994 was: let's acquire a Beretta. And they told me "no weapons". No weapons in the design collection, it's interesting. Of course, you can have weapons represented in paintings, sculpture - it's sometimes very, very somber, we have the whole Baader-Meinhof-Series by Gerhard Richter. But design is very literally. When you show a Kalashnikov in a painting, it can be a commentary against violence. When you show it in a design collection, it's an incitation to violence. When it's there, it's to be used. So I understand the implications. If you see design as progress, and if you want to portrait design in the modernist way, the Bauhaus for example, then you have to show examples that can be dystopic, but dystopic towards the good. There isn't anything utopian in a Beretta, it's a Beretta, a Beretta, a Beretta. But I've been thinking about an exhibition about violence in architecture and design. In that case, in a temporary show, I might be able to make some points. But I would need to give the right context.

You are working on a book about food and we talked about objects and their representation in a museum. Concerning food Marx said in his materialistic manner "to prove the pudding is to eat the pudding".

Antonelli: I agree with Marx! It's very funny, because throughout my career at MoMA I was obsessed with the idea of making people understand that design is not only chairs and cars. At some points I was thinking, what if I show them with something that they can eat! The idea behind this book is, that when you buy the book you won't be able to buy the book, of course, but I'm quite sure that you probably have eaten at least 30 percent of the stuff in that book. You already would have had it in your mouth. It's interesting, because it is not about designer food, it's about foods, that come from material culture. It's about foods, that generations of people have worked on to make it perfect. It really is design without designers in a way, and - plus - you can feel it in your stomach.

Recently in Berlin, receiving the Lucky Strike Designer Award, you claimed that "design is a political act". Was this a credo in favor of "green design"?

Antonelli: I do not believe in green design, I believe in design that is sustainable. But that label "green" has come to signify what it shouldn't. Let me first backtrack: Germany was always the example that we all are near to follow. I remember years ago when the German public rejected packaging by an American cosmetic company because it was so wasteful. That was before "green" was trendy. It was admirable. What happened was, that green design very often reject delight, it's almost - we talked about Protestantism - about like punishing yourself, self-flagellating and expiating all of your guilt with objects that are non-guilty themselves. The truth is: it should be sustainable and delightful, it should be green and a pleasure. We need to kill the label "green" in order to really be able to have green design. So much of design is a political act, the political charge in design is enormous. I go back to the idea of politics at the ancient Greece, which is any kind of interaction between citizens that has to deal with establishing some norms. Design is very often political - and the best design happens, when designers know, that they can be political and use that power.

Interview with Paola Antonelli - part 1

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