Museum-quality Design Talkin’

Last night I went to a lecture by Paola Antonelli, the Museum of Modern Art᾿s Curator in their Department of Architecture and Design. The event was part of the AIGA New York’s long-running series of “Small Talks,” which features various luminaries of design speaking in relatively intimate venues — a really great program, by the way.

Antonelli is responsible for a series of acclaimed design exhibitions at MoMA over the past decade or so: “Humble Masterpieces,” which examined objects modest in size and price that also happen to be indispensable design accomplishments; “Workspheres,” which examined the evolving ideas behind the spaces in which we work; and a comprehensive retrospective of the legendary designer Achille Castiligioni, among others. They’re all original and impressive curatorial visions, but they also all focus on design in three-dimensions; architecture and industrial design have benefitted the most from the museum’s surveys of the design arts, while graphic design has suffered the most by neglect. In fact, the museum’s own permanent graphic design collection is somewhat narrow, devoted almost exclusively to twentieth century posters, which doesn’t exactly make for comprehensiveness.

Just Like Starting Over

Thankfully, Antonelli recognizes part of her duty as curator includes broadening the scope of this collection. In fact, she organized an all-day symposium back in February that took a serious look at what was missing from the museum’s graphic design collection and made some significant strides towards a plan for acquiring past omissions while also actively collecting into the future. It so happens this was the same symposium to which I alluded somewhat cagily back in February; along with several other designers, I was invited to join in that discussion.

I never got around to writing about the symposium or my experience. This was partly because it was preliminary in nature, and I felt it was inappropriate to make inadvertent and/or premature declarations as to Antonelli’s intentions. I also never wrote about it because it was a crazy, all-star, super-group assembly of graphic design luminaries that left me in awe and greatly humbled… I never got the consent of the other attendees to disclose their participation, but I have to say it was a roomful of living legends, extensively lauded practitioners of the craft who have made lasting and significant contributions to our profession over many, many years… and then there was me, a goose among ducks.

Ideas by the Pound

That said, it was an amazing experience to have been allowed to take part in that dialogue, and I enjoyed it immensely. It was also my first prolonged, first-hand exposure to Antonelli’s significant and far-reaching design knowledge. She’s easily one of the smartest minds in design today. What’s more, as I saw last night at her Small Talk lecture, she’s also one of the most eloquent voices in the field, bringing an unforced, almost effortless charm to her discussion on MoMA’s history, its relationship with the design arts, her curriculum vitae of exhibitions, and her thoughts and theories on design.

Some of what she said yesterday evening, through the lens of my inelegant paraphrasing…

  • “Good industrial design is concentrated where there’s good industry.” There’s a whole paper — an entire book — to be written on whether that applies to graphic design, whether good design is contingent on the presence or absence of sound economics. Not to mention whether design is a forerunner of good industry or a follow-on… I wish I had the brains and time to author that.
  • Her definition of ‘modern’: “Everything that does not hide the process of its making.” I asked her to elaborate on this, as it’s my feeling that, in fact, many modernists go to enormous extents to hide the evidence of their process. In response, she drew a distinction between modern and modernism, and that modernity readily reveals its procedural origins — I might also imply that she drew another distinction between mechanical process and manual process.
  • On the cultural shift in design philosophy between MoMA’s inception in 1929 and its current state, Antonelli contends that, where designers once believed in standardization as the key to universal truth, “We now know that what will improve the world is mass customization.”
  • “If I were to start a museum today, I would not have a collection, but rather only show exhibitions. Collections are too big a responsibility.” I’ve only been modestly exposed to the challenge of rounding out MoMA’s own design collection, but I don’t envy the enormity of the task, so I can empathize with her plight. She also spoke briefly about the idea that future exhibitions may be assembled “without space, money or people,” which I interpreted to mean shows that don’t necessarily reside within the museum’s physical walls.
  • On her own definition of what constitutes design and what can be collected as a design specimen by a museum: “You have to stop your definition of design at some point, or design can be any act with intention in the world.” She said, too, that for her, she employs the benchmark of “where form stops” as a useful indicator of where a conceptual intention is no longer a collectible example of design.
  • Her GTD quote of the evening: “Ideas are a dollar a pound. The important thing is in picking which ones you want to make happen.” I’ll buy that.


  1. Erik: the iPod would qualify within the confines of her definition of form. In fact, the original iPod is a part of the permanent collection. Chris is right in assuming that if there’s no form, then there’s nothing collectable. A diagram of a business process design might be collectable, for instance, but the process itself would not be.

  2. It’s funny that the original iPod is in the permanent collection, when to almost anyone’s eyes the later iPods are by far better designed products. This is a great example of how museums don’t just celebrate greatness in design, they also celebrate firstness in design. The fetishization of some artifacts over others not because they are better aesthetically or because of any objective design standard, but because of their historical importance.

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