What is beauty?

Paola Antonelli is an Italian-born curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and one of the world’s foremost experts on contemporary architecture and design. She received her MA in Architecture from Milan Polytechnic in 1990, and worked at the design magazines Domus and Abitare before coming to MoMA in 1994. At MoMA, where serves as curator for the Department of Architecture and Design, Antonelli has been a strong of advocate of treating design as art: she’s written that "everything is designed, one way or another.” Antonelli is known for her eclecticism, and has curated well-received shows such as Workspheres (2001), devoted to the workplace of the near future. Her recent exhibit SAFE included – among other materials – a UN refugee tarp, camouflage cream, and a baby buggy. Antonelli has taught design history and theory at UCLA and Harvard and is the author of Humble Masterpieces: Everyday Marvels of Design, and co-author of 2008 book Design and the Elastic Mind.

  • Transcript


Question: What is beauty?

Antonelli: What is beauty?  Well beauty is very interesting because it’s changed a lot in the 20th century in a much more interesting way – a much more interesting way than it used to be before.  When Philip Johnson, you know the great curator, and architect, and patron of MOMA, and one of the people that interviewed me for my job . . . and he was so provocative I cannot tell you.  He did a show called Machine Art in 1934.  He took propeller blades and coils and put them on white pedestals against walls as if they were ____________ sculptures, because he wanted to show people how beautiful design can be.  But at that time he was talking about platonic beauty.  He wanted to show an absolute beauty – something that is above the fray of the world; that is universal; and that everybody can recognize.  Now that idea completely burst during the 20th century.  And you know I used to be a punk, so hey!  What can you say?  You know beauty is so relative.  And you can see that today beauty is really up to the individual, and it’s more an expression of something that is a personal composition.  I used to say that it’s Madonna and _________ that kind of destroyed the idea of platonic beauty.  Because if you look at the __________ actresses – the ones that have profiles that look like not even ski slopes; that are completely vertical and are these beautiful Picasso women – they’re not classical beauty.  They are a beauty that is completely . . . that is completely subjective; but at the same time because it is so strong and objective it becomes universal.  So so much happened in the ‘60s, and ‘70s, and ‘80s in terms of new ideas of beauty in the body and human beings; the fact that, you know, the first Black model on the cover of Vogue.  You know just all of these different changes; or even the Dove commercial last year with the kind of heavyset women showing that they were beautiful too.  When it comes to the human body you can go through this narration very easily.  When it comes to design it’s not that different.  You can’t anymore talk about a certain platonic beauty.  But it’s more about what people see in the object.  It’s more about communication and meaning than it is about form.