What do Susan Kare’s graphic designs for user interface icons, The Living’s mycelium bricks, and Formafantasma’s speculative Botanica series of vessels have in common? Apart from each being compelling contemporary design experiments in their own right, they’re also part of the newest crop of acquisitions welcomed into The Museum of Modern Art’s collection, and all are now on public display in the recently opened exhibition This Is for Everyone: Design Experiments for the Common Good.
The exhibition takes its title from British computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web, who lit up the stadium at the 2012 London Summer Olympics opening ceremony with a simple tweet: “This Is for Everyone.” His buoyant message highlighted how the Internet—perhaps the most radical social design experiment of the last quarter century—has created seemingly limitless possibilities for discovering, sharing, and expanding knowledge and information. Design is often thought of through the same lens as the Internet—for everyone—yet we don’t need projects like Design and Violence to tell us that design is not always in the service of the greater good, or that design is not inherently democratic. And indeed, only 40 percent of the global population has access to the Internet. Acknowledging this friction, visitors entering the exhibition see the title of the show projected on the gallery wall morph into a variation in the form of a question: from “This is for Everyone” to “Is This for Everyone?” and back. Through both theme and content, this exhibition tries to disrupt some of the assumptions handed down to design, its exhibition, and its histories. It highlights that the answer to the question is contingent, not only on the works on display and their authors, but also on the perspectives and experiences brought to bear upon them by MoMA’s visitors.
In the case of some of the new acquisitions included in this exhibition, the answer to that question—Is this for everyone?—is: yes, hopefully, if not now, then in the future. Before design objects, whether physical or digital, debut in the world, they undergo intensive prototyping. Even when they are conceptual, speculative, and not immediately viable, most design experiments are created to prompt dialogue and to anticipate concrete needs, problems, or conditions—in other words, to actively support a greater good to come.
Esoteric or specialized, perhaps, but universally remarkable in their balance of form, function, and vision, investigations like the Wyss Institute’s Human Organs-on-Chips demonstrate new, radical intersections of synthetic biology and design. The Wyss Institute at Harvard University has developed ten different prototypes of “organs-on-chips,” a still-experimental technology designed to replace often expensive and ethically fraught human or animal testing in the pharmaceutical and medical industries. The chips—including body parts such as kidneys, lungs, and the gut—simulate human organs’ mechanical and biochemical functions, and can be used singly or in combinations to test the effects of new drug treatments on human physiology. Removing some of the pitfalls associated with testing means, theoretically, that drug trials could be conducted faster and their viable results disseminated more quickly.
Some of the new acquisitions on display in This Is for Everyone are more directly accessible and flexible in their application. Graphic symbols and icons designed to be universally legible are part of this category. Building on recent MoMA acquisitions like the @ symbol and the Google Maps Pin, several graphic design icons—and icons of graphic design—debut in the galleries, including the International Electrotechnical Commission’s power symbol, the International Symbol for Recycling, and the Creative Commons symbol. The IEC power symbol—or, more formally, IEC 60417-5009—was synthesized from the language of the earliest binary switches, which were marked with an I and an O to denote, respectively, a closed electrical circuit (device on) and an open circuit (device off). In 1973, these two symbols were combined into one now-familiar icon, the official definition of which was, initially, “standby setting,” although common connotation (and a 2002 Lawrence Berkeley National Labs report) now wins out when most of us call it the “power symbol.”
Like the IEC icon, the set of Creative Commons symbols for sharing and attribution also signal the close proximity of some universal graphic designs to the technologies that underlie our digitally connected culture. Established in 2001 by academics and activists Lawrence Lessig, Hal Abelson, and Eric Eldred with the support of the Center for the Study of the Public Domain, Creative Commons provides licenses that allow creators to retain copyright and proper attribution for their work while enabling others to share and make use of it. The standardized Creative Commons logo, designed by artist, animator, and filmmaker Ryan Junell, consists of the characters “cc” enclosed in a circle—the second “c” bringing a deliberately new meaning to the traditional copyright icon ©—and perhaps even to the linked C’s of Chanel, one of the most “infringed” logos in history. Junell’s clear and elegant system includes additional symbols that indicate the terms granted by the copyright holder, such as the requirement for attribution, or to restrict the use to noncommercial purposes. In 2006, Creative Commons designer Alex Roberts reconceived the “attribution” icon (originally “BY:”) as the stick figure we know and use today. We have also acquired, jointly with our colleagues at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Susan Kare’s precious archive comprising her preliminary studies for the Graphic User Interface icons she created for Apple in the early 1980s. Her process, part of which occurred just a few weeks before she was officially hired at Apple, is documented in graph-paper sketchbooks. Using one box to equal one pixel, Kare designed intuitive icons for various functions a computer user might undertake (for example, a pair of scissors symbolized cutting text). The pictogram icons were designed to be an instinctive language that could be understood and loved by users in many different countries.
Ushahidi’s BRCK—another new entry into the collection and a paradigm of the universal approach celebrated by the title of show—is a robust mobile Internet hub intended for areas without traditional, cable-based communication infrastructure. Designed by the Nairobi-based software company Ushahidi, BRCK is powered by a long-life battery and tethers to whatever phone, Ethernet, or Wifi networks may be immediately available, allowing connectivity in areas where electricity and Internet are unreliable. Similarly designed to allow users to switch between multiple, previously discrete and closed systems, F.A.T. Lab’s Free Universal Construction Kit enables ten different children’s construction sets (including Lego and Zoob) to become interoperable, subverting corporate interests. The Kit’s eighty, 3D-printed adapter parts are freely available online for download and printing. In this case, both the digital and physical formats carry the message of open source, accessible, and interchangeable design.
Formafantasma’s Andrea Trimarchi and Simone Farresin also focus on “making” in their carefully researched series Botanica. The designers’ moniker can be translated from the Italian as “ghost shape,” underlining the mutable and conceptual approach they take to material objects. Their series of ten vessels, of which MoMA has acquired five representative examples, resulted from a period of investigation into the history of plastics. The designers experimented with polymers and resins based on scientific experiments from the 18th and 19th centuries, a strand of Enlightenment discovery that predated the Industrial Revolution. Botanica’s delicate, vase-like forms are a speculation on what design might look like if the modern discovery of oil had never happened. Their rusticated surfaces, organic materials, and handmade shapes are an archaeological record of historical materials science and a provocation tied to our contemporary concerns around oil dependency. The work of architect David Benjamin grapples with related issues of sustainability, materiality, waste, and neutral impact in his design of fungus-and-corn-shuck building bricks that are made with and can degrade leaving zero carbon footprint (and which were on view as part of the Young Architects Program at MoMA PS1 last summer).
All the new acquisitions included in This Is for Everyone (and the designers behind them) tread a thoughtful path between imagining a better world through design, and acknowledging that there is no uncomplicated version of the greater good. Curators like us are ready to acknowledge this important principle, mediated by the designers’ efforts.
While a crucial part of any curator’s job is to care for objects that already belong to their institution, it’s also important—especially in the fields of contemporary design, art, and architecture—to enrich such collections with new works that revisit the Museum’s mission and update it.
Carefully adding to a museum collection helps expand the ways in which curators can, through objects, better understand collective and individual cultural experiences, and preserve them for future audiences. We hope these new acquisitions are already supporting such objectives as part of This Is for Everyone. They, alongside more established collection works, allow us to critically examine the ideal of “design for all,” as well as the myriad ways in which design intersects with the ambiguous and evolving idea of the common good. From initial explorations to finished, market-ready products, and from hybrid digital-analog investigations to universally accessible objects, This Is for Everyone highlights diverse works from MoMA’s collection that celebrate the complex—and sometimes ambivalent—promise of contemporary design.