Marquise Stillwell
Episode 7: Paola Antonelli on Her Philosophy of Design and The Power of Objects

In this episode, I speak with design legend Paola Antonelli, who has contributed her expertise to MoMA since 2014, serves as the Senior Curator of the Department of Architecture & Design and also Research and Development. We discuss her career and philosophy of design as power. For Antonelli, her “gift” as a creative is to lose herself in objects, in the process of understanding how they work, what’s behind them, and their purpose. Antonelli sees a responsibility in sharing this gift with the world to empower people to make better decisions and take control of their lives. She is the co-host of Design Emergency and received the Smithsonian Institute’s National Design Award in 2006, and in 2007 was named one of the “25 most incisive design visionaries” by Time Magazine.

Marquise: So welcome to The Sweet Flypaper podcast. My name is Marquise Stillwell.

Neil: And I am Neil Ramsay.

Marquise: And today we're speaking with Paola Antonelli, extraordinaire, curator and works in R&D at MoMA. She's done so many things. It's it's hard to just break down her career, but interesting conversation. Obviously, you've been to MoMA. Have you met with Paola?

Neil: Yeah, but you mentioned Paola's hard to put in a box, and I think that's really kind of the resonating theme here. They all do multiple and many, many things. I had the pleasure of seeing Paola with Frank Gehry many years ago. I think she was speaking at an event here in Miami. The power of design again and then design emergency. I'm a huge design emergency fan, by the way. So it's Paola and Alice Rawsthorn. And also her focus, which is our focus here, on really integrating design into many other things besides artifact objects and really looking at design, and I'm not saying design on a broader sense, but integrating design with a more open behind, and really realizing, and she spoke to this on design emergency. Like that series, how they should tell you all these different ways that we are influenced, and highly influenced, and how important design is in our daily living. And good design as we know we often don't even know it's there.

Marquise: Yeah, it's invisible.

Neil: Yeah, exactly.

Marquise: Yeah, she also speaks of designer as power, and the work that she's done is really showing how design can help amplify narratives and conversations beyond what you may visually see. It's visceral the way that she really approaches the work.

Neil: Yeah, and with the problems we have Marquise now, not that we haven't had problems for an eternity, but with the wicked problems let's say. This idea of really re-engaging design into many other conversations and educating, I would say the general public, on how valuing in design and designers in things that aren't just about making things look pretty or decorative, let's say. That is instrumental. That's key.

Marquise: Well, without further ado, let's jump into the interview with Paola.

Neil: Looking forward to it.

Marquise: Welcome Paola. Welcome so much. Appreciate it being here.

Paola: Thank you, Marcquise. Really happy to be here with you.

Marquise: There's so much to dive in and talk about, but what I always like to do for people who are listening, who may not know everything that you do, why don't you just describe how you would say what you do, not just the job description, but what would you say you do?

Paola: I have one gift, many things that I don't know how to do, but the one gift that I have is to recognize the power of design. To really appreciate and lose myself in objects that range from sneakers to chairs, to interfaces, to video games, to even people's behaviors and information programs. And I really lose myself so much as to understand almost as if I had x-ray vision, what's behind them, the purposes what's wrong.

What's right. Um, the quality and I would like very simply to give this power, the superpower also to people because design. Is for people and people are the ultimate critics of design. So if I can enable people to citizens to really understand design, they then will be empowered to, um, demand better to push back, to recognize what is good and what is bad.

So it's very simply adding to people's general awareness of the world and culture and, uh, agency.

Marquise: Yeah, I've listened to some of your interviews and read about your talks. And one thing that really resonated with me was this idea that I'm distilling this down. That's not word for word you've said, but that objects carry energy and objects carry story.

And I'm really fascinated for how you're able to see those stories and that energy in things that are. For some people just seems like a simple thing. That is a paperweight, right? It's not something that you may not hold tender to. And then some, you do talk to me about what you see from an energy standpoint.

And from a story standpoint, when you're touching an object,

Paola: There are some cultures in the world in history that already had that in them like animism, you might have heard about, it's like recognizing a soul to objects or Shinto religion. The fact that there are gods that are just built into everything that is around us, including human made objects.

And also there are these amazing kind of stunning instances of humans falling in love, sexually erotically with objects and marrying the tourists. So it runs the whole gamut, but I believe that without running to such extremes, yeah. Objects really embody so much, right. It's um, the idea of the designer and the design might be anonymous.

And then the struggle to go from the idea to the actual objects. You have to go through so many reality checks. You have to have a sense of the materials at your disposal. Maybe you are interested in having a responsibility towards the world. So you also think of ecology. I mean, just think about the complexity.

That goes into, I'm going to say something silly. If any new Yorker is online, the MetroCard machine and the Metro card itself. Right. So think about the universes for good and for bad that are embodied in that object. So not only. It's made and it's complex, but also it communicates with us. And I think that that is an achievement.

There were people even before that had this relationship with objects, but then it's an achievement of the digital evolution, right? The fact that we expect people to have a conversation with us. And also objects to have a conversation with us. Right. There was an exhibition that we did at MoMA in 2011.

There was called talk to me. That was exactly about that. Yeah.

Marquise: One thing that I do appreciate also with your work is that museums sometimes can feel like they're just displaying the work right. As if it's just designed porn or just to cut to a simpler term, right. But what I've seen in your work and in heard is that you go deeper.

Like you really start to think about the design, not just even the stories, but the responsibility of the designer themselves. And you've been talking a lot about how we need to hold designers and others more responsible for the work that they're doing. And the impact that they're having. Talk a little bit about some of the challenges and struggle with that balance between just displaying something for the sake of someone walking through, but then creating something that really engages with the audience that is walking through and surprises them.

Paola: It's so frustrating not to be able to let people touch things. I mean, the very first show that I did at moment was in 95, it was called mute and materials. People could touch the objects, right? So we had duplicates, there were objects and platforms and tables that were far away. And then duplicates of these objects that were closer to people with a little tag that said, please touch.

But that was the first and last time that the museum, let me do that because you can imagine we have, um, Something like 300,000 visitors coming to see a show of that kind. You just cannot keep up. Right. So we would like to, I just want you to know people. We would like to be able to let you touch things.

We cannot do it. So you try any other way possible and digital artifacts. Thank God can have that non haptic. It's still very much direct kind of interaction. So when we started acquiring. Video games and interfaces. We were able to gain that interaction back. But what you're asking me about is the responsibility of the designer.

Once again, this is about explaining to our audience. What design is. There is a goal, a goal that could be for a corporate client, or it could be instead of speculative object. And then there are the means of disposal of the designer, right? They could be materials such as wood or an iron, or it could be code, or it could be just narrative and the artistry of putting together a video or a film.

So we have to always think about it that way. When a designer declares a goal, declares their card, then we are allowed to see how they got to the final product. And we're allowed to kind of understand, and responsibility is always there because designers almost by definition work for other people. It's almost as if they were taking me once upon a time.

I used to think that designers almost take a Hippocratic oath. Now I kind of opened my eyes to the reality, which is not as Pollyannaish, but still they work for others by definition. So responsibility is just part of the game.

Marquise: Yeah, no, I agree with you. It's so interesting. A lot of people in my world, they have no idea what I do.

When I say I'm a designer. They want me to point to something. Right. They want me to go, isn't that insane?

Paola: Oh my God drives me, drives me crazy. But do you know when you said that you're a movie director now, people know when you said that you're a music producer now people know, so you and I have to get to the point that people know when we say I'm a designer, they know what we mean.

Marquise: Absolutely, yeah. And to be a designer is to be all those things as well. Right. And I drew the leave that we got into a place where, because of commercialization, everyone needed to focus on one thing. Right. They needed to figure out how can I duplicate this? Talk a little bit about where design is going and how do we get to that place where people respect the process.

Um, they respect the journey to get there and that we're able to actually not just expand that understanding definition, but back to the point of responsibility, where is design going and where do you feel like we need to be.

Paola: So interesting design is going in the right direction or right directions in that.

But I liked very much is that it's, entering in many different areas that have one common DNA, which is that thinking of the goals and means right. Having always the sense of achieving a realization of an idea, but then. After this DNA is taken into account, then it realizes in many different, many, many different branches that go from interfaces to video games to, I can even think of agriculture systems, you know, so you can really apply this idea of design to so many different areas.

The problem that we still have is the outreach and the communication of design. Because we might be the best at everything that we do, but we need to teach people that they need us and that they should hire us. Right. So I see still, there are some areas in which designers are already a given, right?

Let's say urban planning. You need to have the planners and these planners are designers. But when it comes, for instance to legislative bodies, even laws are a form of design, but designers are not necessarily thought of as necessary elements of the ingredients. So I have a very, um, in Italy we would say panic because.

Pan means everything, but I don't think it works in English. I have a very Omni comprehensive, and I'm never as idea of design, which makes it more complicated to explain, because when you say design people, most people think immediately of chairs and cars, et cetera. I feel that there are two more important things to say though.

One is that the new generation. Is much more attuned to this multifaceted nature of design and has an easier time understanding the word design or at least not trying to define it, just taking it in without going immediately to a definition. So that's one point that is important. Point number two, jobs that is a harder problem.

Jobs and education. I feel that the big problem with design is how much a design education costs these days. Yeah. And the kind of debt that design students accumulate and carry with them. When they leave the school, they're immediately desperate to find a job. They don't have the time to experiment. They don't have the time maybe to set up one of these Agile's mall.

I mean, you know, it, you put together the epitome. Of what a design practice should be right now. I can see how people can look up to you as the model. It's not easy. And now it's even harder than it was when you began. Yeah, definitely.

Marquise: Definitely. What does the role of museums moving forward to help with educating and helping through?

Displaying objects to inspire young people as we're moving post COVID post, all the changes that have happened. What are you excited about in entering in this new space and how museums can play a strong role in that?

Paola: I have very mixed feelings and I have to preface it because I'm going to sound horribly tone deaf.

When I tell you that I am quite excited by. The predicament we're in the reason why it sounds tone deaf is that we're all bleeding. You know, we all the museums, especially in the United States where museums tend to be private, we are in trouble, financial trouble. Even those museums that seem rich were really seriously in trouble.

Many of our colleagues have lost their jobs. Thank God at MoMA, we were able not to lay anybody off, but. We tightened our belts. We took pay cuts, et cetera, et cetera. But what happens here is that it's a little bit, when you start mice and they show that they can survive better. It's a little bit, this kind of situation.

It had already begun before because all the protests, all the civil rights and injustice fights from before already had us all as curators and then as museum alert, but now even more so right. They still have the art on our walls. We still. Provide solace and inspiration, but we also provide a space for real discussion and real creativity when it comes to how to protest, when it comes to how to react when it comes to how to resist and how to survive.

And that's what I really like. I think that also curators are fired up, like designers are, and like people are.

Marquise: Yeah, no, I hear you. The way that I see it. And then when I come to MoMA or any other arts, then what I see is as idea of evidence. And that's one thing that that's really important, particularly for black and Brown artists, designers, and women for that fact as well is within the eraser society where we're trying to erase history.

We're trying to reinterpret history in many ways. Or reorganizing culture. How do you see our ability to continue to move towards providing places for evidence of work by certain individuals who have been left out? Um, I think that, you know, with the work that you've done in MoMA, I know that we've been trying to do that and pushing that.

I mean, there's a lot of questions and opportunities right now, especially with women artists, designers, you know, was one of the challenges with the Bauhaus film. Was around, well, where were the women? Is this truly designed? If you don't include women and minorities, can you really say that we've actually elevated to the highest level of opportunity?

What does that actually mean? So talk to me about how you see that role and the opportunity to continue to push that.

Paola: This is such a huge topic. So I'm really thankful that you. Introduce this idea of evidence because it gives us a point of entry, right? So evidence means showing, proving, being testimony, showing testimony that this actually happened.

And as we know very well, there's been a dominant kind of like narration or the history of art. That was absolutely. Um, how can I say partisan? It was not real, right. So. I can tell you that with my colleagues, the effort to an earth, other narratives has been monumental and it goes back almost 10 years because, um, people might not realize is that well, they probably do.

Museums are like gigantic earth plates. They move slowly and with determination, especially new Zealand's as big as MoMA. There have been the study groups that began about 10 years ago that were very focused on different parts of the world, Latin America, more recently, African Saudi Statia, even Eastern Europe.

So all the study groups that were meant to fill in. Our QA. And there was also something called the modern women's fund, also at least 10 years old. So these study groups, they're not only study groups, they're also funded, you know, so they fund other curators from different parts of the world to come in and talk to us as going on trips.

Uh, they found acquisition. So it really is. I wish that I could tell the whole world how much my colleagues worked. I say my colleagues because they almost worked more in their departments. And the outcome was what people saw last October, actually two Octobers ago at this point, October, 2019, when we reopened with the new expanded building and we showed the outcome of our effort, amazing collections and new ways to look at modern art that really embraces a pluralistic view.

So it's been going on, it's still ongoing. I'm incredibly proud of what my colleagues have done. And we're trying, as you said, to provide evidence for the fact that if anything, the history of human creativity is even more interesting and deep than we thought. Yes, it's beautiful. There's nothing to complain about.

It's just an expansion to a new universe and I'm very grateful.

Marquise: And other things that you've said earlier, and even in reading around language and the importance of how we describe, how do you balance that with some of the work that you're doing? For example, folk art. Which I know for MoMA has always been somewhat of a challenge of how do you distinguish shouldn't folk are just be a part of everything.

And when you think about objects that come out of folk art, it's really reclaimed objects and re-imagined right. And so. How do you think about objects that may not be at a certain level at an architectural level, you know, in quotes, how do you start to unravel the language of how we describe artifacts?

Paola: You are so right and spot on because all of these different definitions are almost like balanced on museums, not only MoMA, but also for instance, I'm thinking of the Victoria and Albert in London, which until recently had categorization that were according to materials, you know? So the contemporary design curators didn't fit anywhere.

So it's really fascinating. When it comes to full cards. If you look at the history of MoMA, there were moments in which there was absolutely no qualms, you know, so acquiring and documenting for card, especially when it came to learning from Japanese. Mingei just to give an example, or there was a lot of interesting Latin American textiles.

So it's funny. I believe that this kind of prudence in a way is almost like a recent it's from the past, maybe 30 years. And now we're trying to break it again, break it again. How by putting the lens on other criteria, indigeneity for instance, is something that is incredibly important for us. And that goes without saying, I don't even know what folk art means.

You know what I'm saying? But it is an expression of folks of a certain material culture. So in that case, it just goes without saying. And another instance, which I had to kind of like dance around was the idea of fashion. Fashion is not normally the purview of MoMA. So fashion is of course, something that I am truly passionate about, but fashion can be both arts.

Design it can be business. So how do you tackle it in a museum that does not have a fashion department? And I remember when we decided that I would do a fashion show, I was very clear. I said, I'm not a fashion expert and we don't have a fashion department. So we have to be very clear on how we approach fashion.

And I said, I'm going to do a design show. With fashion as a subject. And that's where items came out off iTunes was an exhibition that was about the 111. Cause I liked that number, items of clothing that had. A really strong impact on the world. In the past hundred, some years on the New York centric world, you know, I had a great team.

There was composed also of Michelle Miller Fisher and Stephanie Kramer and aboard cart. And together we made all these different categorizations. So you can tackle fashion from a design standpoint, same with video games. When we started collecting video games at MoMA. Video games can be film animation, art design.

So we approached them as design. So you decide how you're gonna get somewhere. And then you stick to your criteria.

Marquise: Interesting, because in one sense, I can say you've expanded the idea of design, but I always, I argue that that is design and you've expanded how people's perspective. On what design is. And I believe that that's the power of the work that you do is that you're constantly pushing us to think about design in a way that it should have already just been clear, but unclean talk about near Oxford and work and, you know, that's just so fascinating.

It's somewhere else where you've really been pushing us to think about. The intersection, this is kind of somewhere where Adrian Marie Brown and some of her thinking from nature comes into that.

Paola: Adrian Marie Brown. Goddess, Goddess.

Marquise: Yes, she's amazing. So talk a little bit about that and how the silk pavilion came about.

Paola: Sure.

Yeah, it's a good story because it starts with another exhibition which was called Design and the Elastic Mind and happened in 2008. Often this kind of exhibitions are places where you kind of gather all of these stray cats, right? All of these creative engineers coming from Lake. Weird courses at the Royal college of art or the MIT media lab.

And, you know, they don't really have a common platform or they're not recognized in the world as one thing or the other, and you bring them all together at moment, give them an exhibition. And all of a sudden they have ground under their feet to communicate what they do. Right. So design and the elastic mind.

Was an exhibition about design and science without the membrane of technology. So designers talking to scientists and just, you know, the scientists feeling free to speculate without peer review and the designers feeling free to have access to truly advanced ideas because that's what designers do then make revolutions happen.

And in the course of the research, I came across Mary. She was already at MIT, but she was in the architecture department and she was doing her PhD. And I really immediately recognized the kindred spirit because here was somebody that believed that nature does it best as all organic designers and architects have done in the future, but also understood.

That digital technology was a way to get closer to the secret of nature. So ever since the beginning, Neri focused, very single-mindedly on bringing robotics, design and biology together. And exploiting digital technologies and robotics to get really, really good, closer. And at the beginning, she was trying to simulate natural behaviors.

That's what she was doing in that for design and the elastic mind, she was kind of gathering a library of algorithms that would be able to describe natural behaviors like the Birch of a tree, for instance, and then could be infused in other artifacts. But then as we grew together and area, and I, and our idea of organic design group together, she got to the point of using not only 3d printing, but modeling, you know, so taking natural behaviors, um, modeling them and then reinserting them in the design process.

So that in the end you can not build, but grow. Structures objects and buildings. And so we've been wanting, ever since designing the elastic mind, we have dreamt of doing an exhibition together and it finally happened of course, when in the thick of the pandemic. So the Neri Oxman material, ecology exhibition.

Opened at the end of February closed at the end of August. No like, Oh, I can't remember even anymore when the, maybe it was mid October, you know, everything blurs right now, it was a fantastic exhibition. And please people go, material ecology. You can see the video of the exhibition, which culminated in this silk pavilion, which is a structure that Neri and her wonderful team.

Built together with 17,500 silkworms. Right. So talk about co-creation it's more than co-creation it's co-construction co-design yes. It's going towards interspecies, but not yet. There that's another point inter-species design is really complicated, but so Neri is very inspiring because of that.

Marquise: What's next with you.

I mean, this is an exciting moment right now where to your point, a lot of things have been broken. Um, we've been squeezed to do even more with less than we were already kind of going that way. What do you feel is that opportunity as you're thinking about. The museums that you walk in and then beyond the walls as well, and what we could do, and imagine outside those walls,

Paola: I'm going in your direction and I'm going in Joe Biden and Kamala Harris direction.

I'm going big. Right, right now there's no way, but to think big, not for arrogance, but just for necessity. So. Broken nature is this exhibition that is now in a various small reduced version at MoMA. That is about the idea of restorative design. So how can we be very responsible, different strategies to be responsible citizens without sacrificing?

What makes us human and what makes us either the creativity and pleasure that we take in things, you know, so restorative design. But the next step is to really think though how to look at the world, you know, so I'm interested in systems design. And I'm interesting in inter-species. And even in this case, what is inter-species design?

We don't know it yet, but you know, it's something that I'm exploring. I was yesterday discussing with Luchea through you still, who is a wonderful curator. She's the curator of general ecology at the serpentine in London. You might know her because she was the curator of the Lithuanian pavilion that won the golden lion analysis.

So yeah, Hans

Marquise: Albert was in our film of the Bauhaus,

Paola: Sheila. No, no, I hadn't saw Rick. Of course. Yeah, exactly. So I was invited to speak at a conference and I said, I would like to have a conversation with Luchea about what it means to really think of interspecies. So when we're talking about decolonizing, let's move past decolonizing with humans.

Let's also think about decolonizing. Other species and our attitude towards the world. So that's why I'm thinking big. And, and I'm trying to make sure that museums, no, there's another facet of my activity, which if you don't mind, I would like to let you know about which is the MoMA RND. You know, so it's this department, but it's a department of one and a half.

Cause it's me and a, and a research fellow. And it's a lot of RM, very little deep, but we started several years ago to prove that museums can be the RND of society. So we do this, these like salons monthly or bi-monthly you can watch online if you want. Some of them are really fun, but they are salons in which people.

Can come to think about death or aging or protest or angel. So like, you know, and, and we have all these different contributions, great speakers, some videos, and we always send a reading list that people love. So that's, to me really important. So as a museum, we are, uh, not in a very expanded systems and we need to do our part.

Marquise: Well, thank you so much for this conversation. I felt like we could just talk all day.

Paola: Oh yes, we could. You asked me and I haven't asked you.

Marquise: You can ask me a question. You can ask me one or two questions. It's a level.

Paola: I don't know. I have an Instagram live and I'm going to invite you on that, Design Emergency. Do you know about that? Yes.

Marquise: Yes. I would love it.

Paola: The one that I do with that list roster, for sure. No, but yeah, I would like to ask you has your sense of purpose, which was already super strong, changed or redirected itself after the lockdown and now still during the pandemic.

Marquise: Yeah, I think that it's similar to you. I see this as the unfortunate gift, um, for those who are running around the world, traveling and I was traveling.

Almost 150,000 miles a year and it forced me to slow down and it forced me back to how I got to where I am. Right. It was those moments. And if there's one thing that I, I miss the most was this moment of boredom and finding myself loss. And because I was just on this almost like this treadmill of life, this going, going, going.

I wasn't able to just slow down. And I got to a place particularly early in the pandemic where everything had released frozen and we'd like stopped. We didn't know what to do. And I found myself picking up books and magazines and other things I hadn't touched in a while. I think we've all kind of nested and gone through our drawers that we hadn't touched in a while, cleaning things out.

And I was going back and touching those objects and touching those moments again. And I think that that has probably been the best thing that I've gotten out of this and serve in it. And it has allowed me to push myself forward by having some moment of reflection.

Paola: How did that percolate down to your practice? Did you establish new goals?

Marquise: Yeah, I just, I actually stripped it down. I mean, we, we actually were in flat ironers of the city of New York city. We moved to red hook and to a, more of a warehouse space. Yeah. So we went from a white box down to more of a warehouse space and that process of stripping back on the layers and realizing what you don't need anymore.

Right. I mean, I've realized that this is probably going to be awhile and when we go back, no, one's going to come into the office nine to five anymore with heads down. Let's reimagine how we want to work together and play together. And do we need the white box and everything to be perfect anymore because we've become scrappy.

You know, you don't have your laptop in your home. I, that has been the pivot as well in re-imagining how we work.

Paola: And do you have the water now?

Marquise: Exactly. Exactly. Yeah, but I would love to come on your IG live and talk more and have fun with it. It's so engaging the work that you do and the way that you think.

Paola: Thank you. Right back at ya. I really appreciate it. Thank you for having me on.