Paola Antonelli: The Quiet Influencer

Published: 18 Nov 2020
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In the space of just a few weeks in autumn 2020,  Paola Antonelli, Senior Curator at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in the Department of Architecture & Design, as well as its founding Director of Research & Development, has received two of design’s highest honours.

The first, awarded in September, was the London Design Medal, which is ‘bestowed upon an individual who has distinguished themselves within the industry and demonstrated consistent design excellence.’

The other, which followed in November, was the German Design Awards’ Personality of the Year accolade, given for her ‘extraordinary contribution to design being perceived by a broad audience as a diverse cultural asset – and therefore as part of both an individual and societal identity – rather than being reduced to just aesthetics and functionality.’

Often, such awards are given to well-known designers who have created a collection of products that have re-thought the boundaries of design; Antonelli is not a name widely known, but within the design industry she is exulted for her work that helps the public understand the power of design, and its importance to the world around us.

‘For many years now, she has used her roles as curator and author to impressively visualise the strength with which design influences the development of culture and society and shapes the world we live in,’ said Lutz Dietzold, CEO of the German Design Council, explaining the jury’s decision to award her Personality of the Year. ‘Simultaneously, she uses her work to hone an awareness for a conscientious approach to design in connection with people and nature. Not only among designers, but also among anyone who buys products and integrates them into everyday life.’

‘Nothing makes me happier than to see a great talent recognised by the audience, by the press, and by other colleagues.’

‘Antonelli’s goal at The Museum of Modern Art is to promote design’s public understanding until its positive influence on the world is universally acknowledged,’ said the organisers of the London Design Festival. ‘Her work investigates design’s impact on everyday experience and possible futures, combining design, architecture, art, science, and technology.’

Antonelli’s notable exhibitions include ‘Broken Nature: Design Takes on Human Survival’ which examined design strategies to deal with major issues such as the current environmental crisis and social inequality.

In 2020, with the coronavirus pandemic changing the way much of the world lived and worked, she, along with the UK-based design critic and author, Alice Rawsthorn, created a series of interviews and curated content, called Design Emergency, which looks at design’s ability to solve problems in a catastrophe. Though it began with the pandemic, the series has expanded to look at other emergencies, such as the recent explosion in Beirut. ‘Design is one of our most powerful tools in the COVID-19 crisis,’ said Antonelli and Rawsthorn. ‘The ingenuity, resourcefulness, and generosity of designers and their collaborators worldwide has produced innovations that are helping to protect us from the pandemic, to improve its treatment and to prepare for the radical changes it will introduce to our lives in the future.’

Antonelli has lived in New York since the late 1990s but she was born in Sardinia in 1963 and grew up in Milan where, she once explained, design was in the ether. Despite this, she first went to business school before having a waterside epiphany and switching to architecture. ‘I [still] remember the moment when I decided to switch from economics to architecture,’ she recalled. ‘I was on a rock by the sea and I made that decision. It became clear that I was not happy doing economics. That was the most pivotal moment for me, to become someone interested in architecture and design.’

She went on to attain a Master’s degree in Architecture from the Polytechnic of Milan. She was teaching design theory and history at the University of California when she saw an advert for the an Associate Curator job at MoMA.

Almost from the start, her influence was radical to the time – exhibitions such as ‘Thresholds: Contemporary Design from the Netherlands’ and ‘Humble Masterpieces’ displayed everyday products as museum exhibits. In 2007 she was made Senior Curator.

‘I learned early on, when I started at MoMA, 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,’ she said in an interview with MoMA magazine. ‘Nothing makes me happier than to see a great talent recognised by the audience, by the press, and by other colleagues.’

On receiving her London Design Medal, Antonelli highlighted design’s ‘breadth, versatility, diversity, and its power to influence society in all aspects of life, everywhere, and at all levels of impact.’ She continued: ‘Design is important, and it is an important moment for design. I thank the jury for recognizing me, as being an effective advocate for design and letting the world understand and embrace it, is my life’s work.’