When thinking about the masterpieces in MoMA’s collection, one might be forgiven for visualizing Picasso’s Demoiselles (1907) or Jackson Pollock’s One (1950). The canon of visual art and design—a force that has shaped popular opinion—has, for centuries, held large-scale painting in high regard. Even the Oxford Dictionary entry for “masterpiece”—(noun): A work of outstanding artistry, skill, or workmanship”—uses Picasso as its defining example. We’re not arguing with the Oxford Dictionary—we still get wonderful chills in front of such works—but masterpieces come in all shapes, sizes, and mediums, taking form for hundreds of different reasons. Indeed, in 2004 we organized a show called Humble Masterpieces, in which we proudly displayed some pièces de résistance in MoMA’s design collection—the Post-it Note, for instance, or Chupa Chups and the Bic Cristal pen, to name just a few—acquired over the decades by several curators.
So we’re very happy to announce that this fall we have brought five new humble masterpieces into the fold. We’re delighted to introduce Arduino, Ototo, Makey Makey, the Colour Chaser, and the DIY Gamer Kit, all soon to be on display in the design galleries in the new year. While all five might be small in scale, their significance for contemporary design—and the world at large—knows little bounds.
Like Botanicalls and Little Bits, which we acquired in 2011, these objects reflect the deep and central role technology and interface design now play in education, production, and our everyday lives. In their own unique ways they allow audiences—artists, designers, and active maker-culture enthusiasts, pros, children, and amateurs—to engage with the processes and final products that are usually the preserve of electronic engineers.
A tiny but powerful microcontroller, the Arduino is an open-source, programmable microchip housed on a circuit board that fits in the palm of one’s hand—an apt metaphor for the control over design functions that it allows its user—and a pillar of contemporary maker culture and practice. Designed by a star-studded team, the Arduino can be programmed to drive components such as sensors, LEDs, and motors in order to build and develop all kinds of interactive objects. This new building block of design has resulted in applications as diverse as light sculptures, digital pollution detectors, and tools to help people who are unable to use such common interfaces as a computer mouse. Beyond its concrete applications, the Arduino acts as a platform for the interdisciplinary practice that lies at the heart of so much compelling contemporary work across science and the humanities.
Ototo, the vision of London-based design team Dentaku, is an experimental synthesizer that enables any object to become a musical instrument through “capacitive sensing.” Capacitance (measured in farads, after the 19th-century English physicist Michael Faraday) is the potential for a body or object to store an electrical charge. The Ototo measures the latent capacitance of objects it is connected to, and when these objects are touched the energy in the player’s body is joined with that in the object to produce a note. Designer Yuri Suzuki, creator of the Ototo, is also responsible for the Colour Chaser, a miniature vehicle that follows a circuit drawn with a black marker and translates color data drawn on top of it into sound. Suzuki has described how his own dyslexia spurred him to reinterpret the processes of composing, reading, and playing music (see video above). The DIY Gamer Kit, designed by Bethany Koby and Daniel Hirschmann and their team under the name Technology Will Save Us, allows users to flip the paradigm of passive entertainment consumption by building their own handheld console. Last but not least is Joylabz’s Makey Makey. Originally funded through Kickstarter and based on research undertaken at the MIT Media Lab, the video (below) offers a window into the myriad possible applications of this elegant and powerfully simple design toolbox of microcontroller, alligator clips, USB cables, and connector wires.
In an age when design can be as much speculation as concrete product, when design is recognized for its inherent violence as much as its positive power, and when we understand not only the potential but the limits of access to it, what constitutes a masterpiece of design? Is it the beauty or usefulness of the object, or of the interface itself? Is it the scale of its application or its cultural resonance? All of our new acquisitions are low-cost, countering one possible definition at least—that money or expensive materials define masterpieces. (Keep in mind that one of the most enduring and widely used icons of communication design, the @ sign, is incredibly simple, accessible, and free—yet this does not diminish its power, nor its place in MoMA’s collection).
We are not sure we can—or want to—define a (design) masterpiece as easily as the Oxford Dictionary seems to. However, we have long suggested that contemporary design, and indeed, design in general, is so much more than just chairs. Thomas Widdershoven, creative director of Design Academy Eindhoven, recently echoed our own research and acquisition strategies when he stated that “technology and food have replaced products and furniture as the new frontiers for designers…. [Students are engaging with] real-world issues. They really want to make a difference in the world.” This is not to denigrate the chair (or any other facet of furniture design, for that matter). However, the term “masterpiece,” especially in conjunction with design—a discipline so beautifully and powerfully connected to real, lived experiences—is ripe for rethinking.
As design curators, we have an instinctive response to designs we find compelling, and when that feeling survives the passing of time, we know we’re on to something worthwhile. We believe our new acquisitions will withstand that test. All promise to make a difference—not just in the utopian “design can save the world” kind of way (always good, but often a high bar for any one object), but at the very micro level. We all know what it feels like to master a skill previously thought completely outside our abilities, or to unlock new possibilities of experience and thought. It’s exhilarating, life-changing, and (healthily) addictive, the same reason people keep coming back to see MoMA’s Pollocks and Picassos—and, we hope, this new group of humble masterpieces.