Catching Waves: Paola Antonelli on Curiosity, Arrogance, and Elbowing to Make Room
By Julia Gamolina
Paola Antonelli is Senior Curator at The Museum of Modern Art in the Department of Architecture & Design, as well as MoMA’s founding Director of Research & Development. She has curated numerous shows, lectured worldwide, and has served on several international architecture and design juries. She has taught at the University of California, Los Angeles; the Harvard Graduate School of Design; and the MFA programs of the School of Visual Arts in New York.
With a Master’s degree in Architecture from the Polytechnic of Milan, Paola Antonelli has also earned Honorary Doctorate degrees from the Royal College of Art and Kingston University, London, the Art Center College of Design, Pasadena, and Pratt Institute in New York. She earned the “Design Mind” Smithsonian Institution’s National Design Award in 2006, and in 2007, was named one of the 25 most incisive design visionaries by Time magazine. In 2011, she was inducted in the Art Directors Club Hall of Fame and in 2015, received the AIGA Medal. In her interview, Paola talks about the room she makes for others in design, advising young architects to detach themselves from building and to embrace that and those not in the mainstream.
JG: What was the first spark of interest in architecture and design for you?
PA: As a child I wanted to be an astronomer - architecture and design were not my primary interests, at all. In college, before switching to architecture, I studied economics and was interested in journalism. However, I grew up in Italy - in Milan in particular. In a way, design was part of my life, it’s really part of the fiber - the fabric - of the place. During high school, I worked in the PR office for Armani for example.
While studying economics for two years, I was also working on the style page of a major Milanese newspaper in the afternoon, and that made me realize, finally, that these are the kinds of things I wanted to focus on so I switched to architecture.
What did you learn, and specifically, what did you learn about yourself, while studying architecture?
I went to architecture school in Milan at the Polytechnic. At that time, it was still with the Old Regime, which meant that there was no admissions exam, we paid about $200 per year at school, and there were 15,000 of us studying architecture, in Milan.
What I learned about myself is that I can be really resourceful to get myself noticed, and also very independent in setting my own path. Since there were so many of us, you could technically graduate without having ever done a studio or architecture class. So what I did was, I looked at the official European curriculum for architectural studies and I followed that. That’s what I learned about myself - that I really could get by, even in the most chaotic situation.
Before you started at MoMA, there was a period in which you were in Los Angeles, and there were a couple of other steps along the way. Walk me through those years.
At the beginning, I was a gopher; I was doing all sorts of things. First, when I switched to architecture in school, I was quickly recruited to install an exhibition at the Triennale di Milano.The curator, Vittorio Magnago Lampugnani, was the Deputy Director of Domus, and he also took me on as a collaborator. It was one of those typical situations in Italy where you’re a collaborator, you have business cards and a desk, but you’re not an employee. You know what I’m saying? [laughs] You don’t have any benefits. I went on like that for about four years, and in the meantime, I came to the United States for the International Design Conference in Aspen in 1989. I co-organized it, because it was about Italy.
From Aspen, I took a trip to Los Angeles, and I really loved it there. I landed a teaching position at UCLA and started going back and forth between Milan and Los Angeles, still working for Domus. When our art director at Domus, Italo Lupi, left for Abitare, to become the editor-in-chief there, I went to Abitare. My life became Milan, Los Angeles, a boyfriend in San Francisco, and there were no direct flights, so I would stop in New York. This went on for three and a half years, until it got a little stale.
How did you finally get to MoMA?
That’s when I opened ID magazine, the old ID magazine, Industrial Design Magazine. I opened that and there was the announcement - the ad for my position - at MoMA. I answered that ad, although I already knew the curators - especially the chief curator, Terry Riley, since I had interviewed them for my job at Abitare and Domus. I answered that ad in the magazine and I got my job.
You had said in a Gentlewoman interview, “How can anyone resist MoMA?” but what else was it about that particular time and that particular position that excited you? What was the opportunity that you saw for it in yourself?
I’m going to be very very honest: none. I was catching the wave, because I would never have forgiven myself if I hadn’t. I had no idea exactly what I would do, which is somewhere that I found myself often in life. I applied for and accepted the position because I had to. I would have never been able to live without saying yes.
The big question mark is why did I apply in the first place? Maybe for the same reason. I was really ambitious, even if I didn’t know what I was ambitious about [laughs]. I’ve come to believe that things happen for a reason. Even though I don’t know how to surf, I always use that metaphor. I found myself catching waves, even big scary ones, all my life.
That’s a great metaphor. You’ve been at MoMA now for 25 years. Can you walk me through the main milestones during your tenure there? Any moments that were significant for you, that developed you, etc?
The milestones are always the exhibitions - that’s how I remember my life at MoMA. They were all very important to me for very different reasons - for good and for bad. My first one was in 1995, Mutant Materials in Contemporary Design, and it happened really fast. They asked me, “Can you do a show there in eight months?” and I’m like “Yeah?” Another big wave.
My most recent one here at MoMA is Items: Is Fashion Modern? I had never done an exhibition on fashion - it was really a design show with fashion as the subject. The great secret of every contemporary design endeavor - whether it’s an exhibition or a website - is that you get to discover new worlds. Design captures everything. Design is an enzyme. It helps every other discipline become life. By doing contemporary design you get to plunge into completely different worlds. When I was doing Design and the Elastic Mind, I got to meet all these scientists. For Items, I got to meet all the fashion designers, but also garment manufacturers. Literally, every single exhibition in my career has been a new field of research.
Where do you feel like you are in your career today?
I feel that I am definitely a different person than when I started, because I’ve matured and I know there are certain corners that have become softer. At the same time, my interests have stayed the same. It’s really a curiosity about life, so I find my topics by looking at life and looking at the world.
One thing I know for sure is that in my career, I’m not close to any end. I am always at the beginning or I’m halfway, you know?
That’s a great thing for our readers to hear. I’m finding that a lot of young women I know, they’ll finish a project or a certain stage, and they think “What can possibly be next? How can it possibly get better than this?” or “What else is there to do?” There’s always something next, something new.
If anything, sometimes, I feel guilty. I feel that I should start winding down, I should leave room to the younger people [laughs]. But I have a lot to do, I’m not going to step aside.
That’s the best example you can set for young women - to not stop, to keep doing amazing work, to show others they need to continue doing their work.
I’m making more room for people to do the work. Design doesn’t have much space. I’m elbowing to make space also for others.
Looking back, what have been some of the biggest challenges for you?
The biggest challenge has been that I’m not a politician. I am lucky, because I have a husband that is very strategic, so I check things with him a lot. But I have made several mistakes in my life that were absolutely of a political kind, and not being able to control my emotions or my feelings. Which doesn’t mean that I cried, quite the opposite. It was in disdain and contempt and outrage more than other emotions. I have an arrogance that is sometimes hard to control. Unfortunately, I’m not a man, so it doesn’t come through as confidence [laughs], but as arrogance.
Right [laughs]. You’d be an exceptionally confident, self-assured man.
Sexism was always another challenge, and it still exists. The last experience, in Italy for the XXII Triennale, was a sad reminder of how it’s still an incredible reality. It exists in the United States, but in other parts of the world it can be even more humiliating and infuriating. Sexism held me back for sure, and so did arrogance, and hubris, and the lack of political poker face.
I’m struggling with the same things. I don’t have a poker face at all. On the flip side however, what have been some of the biggest highlights?
The highlights have been the people I’ve encountered. When I came here to MoMA, the person that hired me was Terry Riley. I was not a career curator, I had never worked in a museum before, I had never done a major show completely by myself. Who would bet on me? But he hired me, and as an associate curator, not even as a curatorial assistant. People just take leaps of faith on you, and that’s amazing. I will be eternally thankful, even though I might have put them through hell, because of my lack of political skill. They still stood by me. Some. Others tried to throw me under the bus but I survived.
What has been your approach to your career?
Even though I always say that I live in fear and anger, and fear and anger are my friends - I’ve learned how to use them - the truth is, I am also quite fearless when it comes to learning another language, or traveling. Curiosity propels me. It has always pushed me in situations that might be uncomfortable or scary, but situations that I’ve learned to control. I’m always angry and fearful, and I transform those feelings into energy.
I love that. I’m curious - a lot of the people that I’ve interviewed for this are architects; you’re a curator. What can you say about the world of architecture from your perspective?
The world of architecture is tough. Now it’s becoming more pliable, because architecture has changed. But I studied architecture, I worked as an architect for six months, and then I realized that I could not survive - that it was just too tough. You need to be so absolutely single-mindedly obsessed about your goals to put up with the years that it takes to be able to realize a building, or make things happen.
The good thing is, today, architecture doesn’t just mean buildings. You don’t feel unrealized as an architect, even if you have not built a building from the ground up. Of course, that’s the goal in the end, but there’s so much more that happens in speculative terms or other scales that is as satisfying as productive. Architecture has changed tremendously. I also like to always link it design - In Italy, architecture and design were the same thing, once upon a time. Achille Castiglioni, who was my teacher, once said that Italian design was so great because there were no design schools. Which is true, we all went to architecture school and we were so many that we couldn’t really learn anything truly practical, but the theory was such that you would feel comfortable applying it to different scales.
What advice do you have for architects?
Many types of advice [laughs]. First of all, to detach themselves from the building, and to look at the work of so many wonderful practitioners that work at the meta-level or the philosophical level. For instance, I have tremendous admiration for architects or practitioners like David Benjamin, Skylar Tibbits, and Neri Oxman.
I love Neri Oxman.
These are the people that prepare the tools for the rest of the world to build more sensibly, more sustainably, and to create the foundations for new behaviors and even for social justice. These are architects that do not feel the need to build a skyscraper in order to feel realized. Rather, they want to work because they really want to change the practice of architecture from within. They want to put architecture in different position for conversation with other forces in the world. I love that.
So what I’m saying is to keep your mind really open, and go see what other disciplines are doing, what other practitioners are doing.
Finally, what other advice do you have for those just starting their careers? For young women starting their careers?
For anybody starting their careers: good luck, work hard, enjoy it as much as you can, and catch the waves. Don’t be scared of the waves.
For women, we still have quite a ways to go. Remember that. But it’s such an exciting moment. When I see the fluidity of gender, and the diversity that surrounds us, I am always really giddy inside. It makes me hopeful. Embrace everybody that feels other and that is not mainstream. Sometimes it’s even white cis males that are in that condition.
Finally, be very curious about other human beings and try to be a good person. Even though being a woman can still be a problem or a disadvantage in so many cultures in the world, ultimately it is a privilege. One has to embrace it fully and enjoy it.