March 24, 2010  |  Behind the Scenes, Design
@ in Context: Criteria for an Acquisition


Screenshot of “@ at MoMA” post

Our recent acquisition of the @ symbol has challenged what most people think of as a typical object that a Museum acquires.  We thought it best to let you in on our process—how we think about shaping our collection here at MoMA.  As you know, museums are defined by their collections. Each collection has a unique point of view that is carefully shaped by its curators, who are always mindful of historical precedents as they look ahead to future developments. When it comes to contemporary design, MoMA’s collection seeks to remain on the cusp of innovation and to support the emerging talents, ideas, and concepts that will become tomorrow’s designed environment.

We choose to emphasize the diversity and ingenuity of contemporary design practice as it spans architecture and product and communication design. We strive to present a broad selection of new products and concepts in our collection to reveal how designers cleverly address the major and minor aspects of our everyday lives, surprising us and guiding us with their bold experimentation. How do MoMA curators select and propose works for the Architecture and Design Collection and frame them within the wider mission of The Museum of Modern Art? There are no hard and fast rules, but there are several criteria that come into play in the discussion.

Form and Meaning. The formal, visual qualities of an object are tied to beauty, an important prerequisite in an art museum, but also an elusive and subjective one. Objects are expected to communicate values that go well beyond their formal and functional presence, starting with the designer’s idea and intention. The best design embodies the designer’s original concept in the finished object in a transparent and powerful way.

Function and Meaning. The appreciation of function has changed dramatically in the last few decades. Some objects are designed to elicit emotions or inspiration, and these intangible purposes are also considered part of their functional makeup.

Innovation. Good designers transform the most momentous scientific and technological revolutions into objects that anybody can use. With this in mind, curators often look for objects that target new issues or address old ones in a new way.

Cultural Impact. MoMA has always privileged objects that, whether mass-marketed or developed experimentally in a designer’s workshop, have the power to influence material culture and touch the greatest number of people. Their impact can either be direct–effective the minute they are purchased and used–or unfold over time through the inspiration they give to other designers.

Process. Curators don’t stop at the object–they also take into account its entire life cycle as a product. This includes the way it is designed and built and the economy of means in its production, distribution, and use; the way it addresses complexity by celebrating simplicity; its impact on society and the environment; and the way it ages and dies.

Necessity. Here is the ultimate litmus test: if this object had never been designed and produced, would the world miss it, even just a bit? As disarming as this question might seem, it really works. Try it at home.


The criteria builds a case as one reads through this explanation of context, for it is context that makes design the science that it is. As well, the design process imposes an ultimate solution that answers to a particular context. So, although the @ symbol has a charming way of meeting these criteria, what sets it apart from other utilitarian developments such as a shovel? It is my opinion that this acquisition is more about the pop nature of having a big @ symbol to play with. Forgive my ignorance if there is a hole shooter already in the gallery.

The use of the word “acquired” is baffling. Who did you “acquire” it from? Did money change hands? Does this mean that MOMA now intends to assert copyright or trademark rights to “@”? The entire premise that you “acquired” this from anyone under any circumstances seems preposterous. However, if something has actually occurred here in terms of a business transaction, I’m going to set out to “acquire” “MOMA.”

MoMA, Thank you for bringing forth the history of @ with detailed explanations of it’s origin and usages today. The recognition of one of the most prolific 21st century symbols utilized today in ALL electronic mail communications is really a SIGN OF THE TIMES. I think in this case acquired is more in line with artistic recognition and prominent display of a cultural icon. Recognizing its impact on society, changing our verbal exchanges and hand written letters into electronic messages utilizing the symbol that makes it all possible. This one simple design has catapulted the worlds movement of communication and truly deserves the recognition MoMA is bringing to the “@” symbol

Brava, Ms. Antonelli! I enjoyed reading about the historical background of the @ sign. Last year I saw an art show in Los Angeles called “Sequences/Characters” that explored electronic visual language, including the @ sign. For example, the emoticon — a series of keyboard symbols — for “flirt” is @;-). It may interest you to visit the artist’s website:

“Those whom the Gods wish to destroy first make great”

I am a librarian and am somewhat interested in copyright law, and was wondering what does it really mean to have acquired the @ sign? Can MOMA decide at a later date that people cannot use it?

I’ve been searching the Net for images and/or artistic replies of artists to MOMA’s @uisition. Haven’t seen any, so as an artist, maybe I am the first to reply. Refer to my website where I posted a signed image where the @ is rotated so as to function as a different design (looks like an insect’s or alien-being’s head). Ms. Antonelli is quoted in ARTnews that the @uisition is emblematic of “tradition updated for modernity”. True. The artist’s role, in turn, can be to upstep this tradition, to even change the way viewers see the @, freeing it to function as a new glyph. Check it out @ my website I am no graphic designer, but I sculpt with oil-on-canvas-&-wire which is much in the same spirit of upstepping a tradition for modernity.

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