Paola Antonelli

The curator behind our forthcoming exhibition on the work of architect and designer Neri Oxman talks about surprising materials and speculative design.
MoMA, Paola Antonelli December 18, 2019
Paola Antonelli. Photo: Marton Perlaki
Paola Antonelli. Photo: Marton Perlaki

Paola Antonelli is a senior curator in the Department of Architecture and Design, and Director of Research and Development at MoMA. She is the organizer, with curatorial assistant Anna Burckhardt, of the upcoming exhibition Neri Oxman: Material Ecology and the current exhibition Energy. We asked Paola to tell us about her job and what excites her most in the galleries.

You organized MoMA’s exhibition on Neri Oxman. What’s one thing you’d like people to know about her work?

Neri is an outstanding architect who is interested in shaping a better future for all, including other species. By harnessing science and technology and speaking their language, she contributes something more precious than buildings: revolutionary new ways of making and new materials that will then be used by hundreds of colleagues. She is a testament to the fact that buildings and products are not enough to describe how vast and exciting the world of architecture and design is today.

What five words would you use to describe the exhibition?

Experimental, organic, visionary, generous, hopeful. Come to think of it, these adjectives also describe Neri.

Neri Oxman and The Mediated Matter Group. Silk Pavilion. 2013
Neri Oxman and The Mediated Matter Group. Silk Pavilion. 2013
We are today facing very urgent and deep problems...and speculative designers cannot afford anymore to just dabble in science fiction.
Paola Antonelli

What’s the most surprising or innovative material used in Oxman’s projects?

It is hard to pick one. Every material she uses is old but new—either brand new in its use, or manufactured in a brand new fashion. Take glass, for instance. Glass is millennia old, but nobody ever 3-D printed it before in the way that she does. Neri and her team invented the new technology. But then she also uses pectin, melanin, bacteria, and she “hires” silkworms as her construction crew.

How do you see “material ecology” impacting practical design today?

Neri demonstrates the importance of mastering technology and connecting with other scientific fields, from biology to physics, in order to speculate on firm grounds. Speculative design, the discipline that imagines possible futures through design at all scales, is very important. However, we are today facing very urgent and deep problems—the environmental crisis above all, and then issues concerning privacy, geopolitical imbalances and tensions, anxiety related to the spread of AI-enabled technologies, and much more—and speculative designers cannot afford anymore to just dabble in science fiction. They have to propose ideas and solutions that are plausible and imaginable, however far-fetched. Neri is always believable because, while her design is arrestingly elegant and could be enough for anyone interested in objects for their own sake, her science is strong and her technology effective. Her beautiful forms are demos for groundbreaking innovations.

An installation view of the Energy exhibition, with Neri Oxman’s Cartesian Wax, from the Materialecology project (2007), at far left
An installation view of the Energy exhibition, with Neri Oxman’s Cartesian Wax, from the Materialecology project (2007), at far left

What’s one of the most surprising things about your job?

How influential my choices can be. I learned early on, when I started at MoMA 25 years ago, that because of the institution I work at, I have the power to give visibility and credibility to designers, movements, and types of design—video games, for instance, or digital fonts—that have not yet received it, even though they deserve it. Nothing makes me happier than to see a great talent recognized by the audience, by the press, and by other colleagues.

Who was the first artist whose work interested you and why?

Wow, difficult. I grew up in Milano and I was surrounded by design all the time. When I was barely a teenager, I used to help out in the afternoons at Fiorucci, the coolest store in the world. So I would like to say that Elio Fiorucci was the first designer whose spell I fell under.

Which artwork are you most excited about in the new collection galleries?

Sarah Sze’s Triple Point (Pendulum). It speaks about the precarious states of our existence, about fluidity, about potential, and it does so with hundreds of objects—a dream for me. In it, I see hope in chaos. I missed it at the Venice Biennale in 2013 and I was looking forward to seeing it installed.

Sarah Sze. Triple Point (Pendulum). 2013
Sarah Sze. Triple Point (Pendulum). 2013

What art book has a permanent place on your coffee table?

Our own Modern Women book. I am very proud of what my colleagues and our trustee Sarah Peter have accomplished since she started the Modern Women’s Fund.

Tell us about one thing that has inspired you lately.

School Strike for the Climate, Fridays for Future, Youth for Climate...I am impressed by Greta Thunberg’s anger and how it has managed to galvanize millions.

What’s one problem you’d like design to solve?

Not solve, but help solve. No one individual or discipline can do the deed alone. How to make a more responsible, altruistic, and ethical way of living normal and desirable.

If you weren’t a curator what do you think you’d be doing?

I would be a journalist. I consider myself a curator-reporter already.