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.
Question: Who are you?
Antonelli: It’s Paola Antonelli, Curator of Architecture and Design, Museum of Modern Art, New York. I was born in Sardinia, grew up in Milan, so I’m Italian. Growing up in Milan exposed me to all sorts of design forms – from architecture, to industrial design, furniture design and fashion, and I used up all of it. And being born in Sardinia made me have one of the biggest breakthroughs in my life. That’s when I decided to move from economics to architecture. So that was basically the beginning of my new life. I was young and I was very arrogant. And I had enrolled at the hardest possible course at the university. It was this highfaluting course in economics at the __________ University. And I remember that two years after having started I was really unhappy. And I remember being on a rock in the sea in Sardinia saying, “What do I do?” And all of a sudden I decided, “You know what? I’m gonna go the opposite direction.” And it was a really quiet but very strong decision, because architectural school in Milan at that time was pure chaos. It was like 15,000 students, no structure whatsoever. Only a small fraction would actually graduate. Hardly anybody . . . Hardly nobody would become an architect. You know they would become pizza makers, chefs, fashion designers. So it was really the opposite from completely structured at the ________ to totally unstructured, all possibilities open, but also no knowledge of what the future would bring. There are some people that are born with a mission. I was not. Age nine I wanted to become an astronaut, so I wrote to NASA from Italy and I told them I wanted to become an astronaut. And they were very kind. They responded and they told me that’s wonderful. So you have to stay in school. You have to study, especially mathematics. You have to take very good care of your health, especially your teeth. Because you know at that time the pressure in the spaceships was not like perfectly fine-tuned. So I was happy. I was doing my whole thing. And then at age 11 I get my first cavity, so desperation. I can’t be an astronaut anymore. So I went from that to astrophysics. I was reading, you know, just whatever ___________ book I could find. Then I went from that to nuclear physics. In the meantime I was drawing garments and clothes. I mean completely all over the map. And then writing for a newspaper as a teenage hire, and then economics. So I changed many times. And but I have to say there is always a design in your destiny because I just ended up in the profession I was meant to be in from the beginning. I just didn’t know it. I just followed the waves. You know I consider myself a really good surfer even though I’ve never been on a board in my life.