Pac-Man at MoMA: Interview with Paola Antonelli

The museum's senior curator of architecture and design speaks about a show opening this month about the diversity and pervasiveness of design in the virtual and physical worlds


A few art-world eyebrows were raised when Paola Antonelli, the head of research and development and the senior curator of architecture and design at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), announced the addition of 14 video games, including classics such as “Pac-Man”, 1980, to the design collection. Ideas that challenge conventional museum practice aren’t always readily accepted, even when they come from inside one of the world’s most prestigious cultural institutions. Antonelli is determined to change the common perception of design as merely furniture-driven and ornamental, and is steadily doing so through challenging and increasingly less object-based exhibitions, such as “Mutant Materials in Contemporary Design” (1995), “Design and the Elastic Mind” (2008), and “Talk to Me: Design and the Communication Between People and Objects” (2011). In a bid to bring together gamers, art critics and designers, the games will be available to play in the exhibition “Applied Design”, which opens this month.

How did MoMA come to buy video games?

We organised a symposium in 2006 because we wanted to discuss the future of the museum’s graphic design collection. It was begun in the 1930s but it was mostly composed of posters and ephemera – the kind of graphic design that is still important, but doesn’t even begin to represent what communication design is today. We talked about the categories that we should tackle: typefaces and fonts, film titles, interfaces and interaction design [the practice of shaping digital things for people’s use] and we talked about video games too. You can look at a video game as a cinematic artefact, an illustration feat, or as interaction design. We decided to take the interaction design route.

How did you choose?

The criteria were very similar to those for interface design. An interface is all about behaviour, just like a video game, although games have more freedom and a less immediate need for functionality than the interface of an ATM. The concept of “five-dimensional immersive design” [design that simultaneously addresses virtual and dimensional environments] is key to this: it deals with the liminal space between the virtual and the physical worlds, which is the one in which we will live the most in the future.

What responses has this acquisition generated and what are you hoping for the show?

I had very few negative reactions – one was a very reactionary piece in the Guardian [which accused MoMA of philistinism]. John Maeda [the president of the Rhode Island School of Design] responded to it on a blog post for Wired and they even had a radio debate on the subject. I purposely chose not to have an arcade in the show at MoMA, only the screen and the controller, which is just what you need to connect with the interface. I think it’s necessary to show that video games are a great form of design and to explore this new dimension that will be part of the future.

Is design still overshadowed in art museums today? People still expect to see Picasso.

I think Picasso is one part of the museum and it certainly always will be, and it’s important for us to have that because we believe that Picasso has something to teach the audience. But MoMA was also founded to be a museum for the art of our time. We need to document that and the public has an expectation of that too. We have an educational mission centred around the idea of “the modern” that is ever evolving.

You must be regularly asked, is design art?

To me design is design. I don’t know what art is. If someone can give me a definition then more power to them. I cannot do it and I don’t need to. I think design has to aspire to be really great design and that’s more than enough. Thank God Alfred Barr added an architecture and design department in the museum and I don’t need to argue that point with anybody.

What role do fairs such as the Salone del Mobile have in the international design landscape. Are they still relevant?

It used to be that design was all about industry and it was very geographically anchored to the means of production. Then it became more dependent on the tertiary sector of design, on showrooms and fairs. In my opinion, the geography of design is now set by schools. You can’t talk about Italian design or British design—it’s old-fashioned. It really is about whether someone comes from [the Design Academy of] Eindhoven or the Royal College of Art in London. In this kind of scenario, meetings like the Salone are still very important because they are great business opportunities. The problem is that design has spread out in many directions and I think it’s important for the Salone to attract corollary events that are about interaction design and interface design.

There’s sense of progression in your exhibitions at MoMA, which went from being primarily object-based to the intangible. Has your view of design changed since you’ve been a curator?

It’s definitely moved more towards the “five-dimensional”. The common thread is always how people live and what design can do to make life better. If design has more to say in the immaterial realm then I focus on that. I can’t deny that furniture excites me less and less. I still get excited by some pieces, like Dirk Vander Kooij's Endless Flow rocking chair, 2011. There needs to be innovation in the process and in the material because otherwise how many more chairs do we need? You need to justify your use of physical resources and your occupation of space with real innovation, real talent and even fantasy and delight. I’m not so much of a moralist to think everything needs a purpose.

Do you think mainstream, high-end design is too focused on aesthetics?

I wouldn’t say it’s too aesthetic, in many cases it’s not meaningful enough. There are many designers that do wonderful work but I have become more demanding.

How did you come to see design in such broad terms?

It’s probably a factor of the Italian university system. At the time, we were 15,000 students studying architecture in Milan and it was like a jungle, but with such a feeling of freedom. We were so many that it was impossible to do anything practical, so we did a lot of theory, and what I learned from it is that architecture is part of design. Design is a method and an attitude that can be used on many different scales and applications. When you start a design process, you have to measure expression, your talent, the materials at your disposal, the life-cycle of the object, the environment, the people, but it’s the same whether it’s a chair or a skyscraper. One of the theories that I have developed is that, in the coming years, the practice will be split simply into theoretical and applied design, just as in physics. There will be people who do things and others who will think of how to do them.

Where are the main battlegrounds in the world of design today?

I think designers are proceeding in really interesting directions and there’s a widespread sense of responsibility and awareness for context, environment, people’s needs and fair trade. If anything, the problem is that there is not enough recognition on the part of governments and public institutions, with some exceptions. Asia is really advanced—creative industries and design have been specifically placed at the centre of governmental policies, like in Singapore, Indonesia and Korea. The West is so behind because it has not understood the importance, diversity and pervasiveness of design.

• Applied Design, Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2 March-31 January 2014

Paola Antonelli

Graduated in architecture at the Polytechnic of Milan

Worked as the design editor of Abitare and a contributing editor to Domus magazines

Joined MoMA in 1994 as an associate curator of architecture and design and became senior curator in 2007

Appointed director of research and development for MoMA in 2012, a newly created role

Lectured at the World Economic Forum in Davos, and has taught at the University of California, Los Angeles, and the Harvard Graduate School of Design

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Pac-Man at MoMA? it’s no game'