For over 20 years, Paola Antonelli has been curator of Architecture and Design at The Museum of Modern Art in New York, and there’s no sign of her slowing down. From her very first exhibition, Mutant Materials in Contemporary Design (1995), to the blockbusters Design the Elastic Mind (2008) and Talk to Me (2011), she has continued to stretch the perception of design. The controversy created by having video games such as Pac-Man and icons like the @ sign to MoMA’s added to the permanent design collection, not to mention the online exhibition Design and Violence (2014), are indications that she’s onto something. Since 2012, Antonelli has been applying her talent for innovation to her new role of R&D director at the museum. Her passion for food is no secret – she spoke about it at SXSW, TED, and MAD Copenhagen, and the design world has been anticipating her book Design Bites for years.

DAMN: At the Reasons Not to Be Pretty symposium in Italy in 2010, there was some speculation about the impossibility of an exhibition focused on violence and design in regard to the design museum’s role in social change. What part does beauty play in these kinds of design?

FGM rose poster, 2009 Designed by Volontaire for Amnesty International, distributed for free as part of the campaign against female genital mutilation Photo: Niklas Alm/Vostro
Paola Antonelli: The Design and Violence exhibition was not about pretty and un-pretty design, it was about design for good or evil and all the shades in-between. You could argue that plastic handcuffs have a form that’s in keeping with the progression of contemporary beauty, but the project was mostly about function and meaning. It was an attempt to show how much ambiguity there is in contemporary design and how everything humans do is double sided. Once I started looking at everything around me from that perspective and measuring the temperature of ambiguity on the spectrum of good and evil, it became clear that there are very few things that are purely good or purely evil. The only way that ‘pretty’ factored into the curatorial concept of the show was that it still remains a gauge with which to evaluate design. For instance, the poster about Female Genital Mutilation by Amnesty International and Volontaire has a strikingly elegant form even though it is talking about such a difficult topic. To paraphrase Angélique Kidjo, the great Benin singer and activist, its effectiveness is due to the fact that if you really want to change the behaviour of an evil group of people you don’t confront them head on, but rather you do it in a way that does not put them on the defensive.

Is that why the exhibition took place online? Are physical museums limited to being hallowed spaces of goodness?

Classic AirWair Dr. Martens, first introduced in 1960 Photo: Melanie Levi
I agree that museums do tend to err on the side of the positive, at least in design. However, after we did Design and Violence online, the V&A Museum in London launched its Rapid Response Collection and the Marta Herford in Germany presented a similar exhibition. MoMA itself is also collaborating with Trinity College’s Science Gallery in Dublin to physically stage the original Design and Violence exhibition, which opens in October. I believe, however, that when a design is dangerous, pernicious or negative, that needs to be stated, and there needs to be room to discuss it. This is why I don’t choose to display negative, inadequate, or mediocre design at MoMA, because the museum is not set up for that.

However, some of design’s dark side will come into play in our next exhibition in 2017, Items: Is Fashion Modern?, which will be the first display of fashion at MoMA in 73 years. In the initial public discussions, held in May, we featured 26 of these crucial wearable items, listed from A to Z, and highlighted these for good and for bad. For instance, for H = hoodie, the speakers were an activist from #blacklivesmatter – Deray McKesson, and a fashion designer – Kerby Jean-Raymond. With all the recent turmoil and police shootings in the US, showing the hoodie is not about an object being pretty or un-pretty but about how it becomes a window to the most horrible aspects of human nature. In this design exhibition, the objects will be used as a pretext to uncover so much more, good and bad, regarding how humans create, make, and live together.

Paola Antonelli Photo: Robin Holland
Kinematics Dress, 2013, by Nervous System (Jessica Rosenkrantz and Jesse Louis- Rosenberg); laser-sintered nylon; image courtesy of Steve Marsel; MoMA, New York; Committee on Architecture and Design Funds
What about the good and bad aspects of food design?

I still remember when, almost 20 years ago, Martí Guixé started working in that field. It is a very important and exciting field. But I must confess that all the attention given to the connection between food and design ever since has become almost overwhelming. As you know, I’ve been working on the Design Bites book (which is about basic foods as examples of good design) for the past 15 years, but right now I’m quite tired of the whole topic – the super chefs, the celebrities, the television shows featuring hordes of people munching on anything, often with their mouths semi-open. It’s getting stale. I would like to see a show on how to boil an egg! Often this voyeurism comes at the expense of the true quest for a special experience.

Not to mention the fetishisation of 3D-printed food, which is going to be awful.

Exactly! Tech novelty should not trump real quality. I still believe places like noma [Chef Rene Redzepi's gastronomic mecca in Copenhagen] are exceptional. I had the good fortune of eating there; the whole concept is extraordinary, especially how it relays the experience of foraging and getting to know your context. As usual, though, when a new ‘recipe’ for success appears, there are the pioneers and then there are the followers that imitate it without the substance. On the design side, Martí Guixé, Marije Vogelzang, and a few others are the real-deal pioneers. What is key to their practice is not only the performative side of the food, but also its quality. We really need a bit more critical discourse. I’m still waiting for the person in food design who is the equivalent of Neri Oxman in biological engineering or Hella Jongerius in furniture design – someone who takes the excellent and the mundane, the high-tech and the ancient and crafted, and combines them together in a seamless, thoughtful way. When there is a novelty, there’s a moment when everyone jumps on board and produces loads of enthusiastic crap. Later on, people start catching up, becoming more critical, and the second wave is always better. It happened with website design, with 3D printing, and it’s going to happen with food design.

Biological engineering and synthetic biology still feel so alien. Should food design be fetishising or speculating?

People are reluctant to adopt practices that seem pseudo-scientific, only adopting them when they show their everyday potential – like the sous vide, for instance. The same goes for bio design, although that’s going to take a very long time. I tasted synthetic meat chips and even though they were only okay taste-wise, they felt wonderful because of their future promise. In the realm of scientific experimentation, often taste and flavour are not considered important yet – that will happen. What is crucial is understanding what can be done.

When I think about food, I think of four spheres of making – old-school, homemade, people’s food; the industrial food complex; designers and chefs; and scientists – people like Nathan Myhrvold. He used to be the Chief Technology Officer at Microsoft; he made gazillions of dollars and then decided to open a food institute and publish a series of books called Modernist Cuisine. They contain wonderfully geeky principles about food, ideal temperatures to break elements and release flavours, etc. He is also a chef, and his food is absolutely delicious. People like him, Ferran Adria, and Rene Redzepi innovate by transcending these four spheres.

In Ezio Manzini’s book Design, When Everybody Designs, he talks about the Slow Food Movement as being one of the greatest examples of design for social innovation. If 40% of the world’s food goes to waste, isn’t that the level at which food design needs to happen, not this self-indulgent navel-gazing done by elite chefs?

Absolutely. Which is why my book is about foods that are not designed by anybody. My classic example is pasta. Every time a famous designer tried to make pasta, he – because it was always a man – failed miserably. Giorgetto Giugiaro even put it in the supermarkets, but no one bought it because it was obvious that one part of it would overcook. That’s why the banquets hosted by Marije Vogelzang and Parisian artist Lucy Orta, which leave the drama to the participants, have been wonderful at demonstrating the power of collaborative or participatory food design. Even at Redzepi’s MAD Symposium in Copenhagen, the highlight for me was when all the fancy chefs started cooking together, very roughly, just making a mess.

Originally published in DAMN°58 in September 2016.

This article appeared in DAM58. Order your personal copy.
Salad / Nathan Myhrvold and his culinary colleagues love to cut things in half. Photo: Ryan Matthew Smith/ Modernist Cuisine LLC; courtesy of The Cooking Lab
Traditional Pot Roast / Nathan Myhrvold and his culinary colleagues love to reveal the individual cross-sections. Photo: Ryan Matthew Smith/Modernist Cuisine LLC; courtesy of The Cooking Lab
Nathan Myhrvold; photo: Chris Hoover/Modernist Cuisine LLC
Martí Guixé in Fake Food Park: Martí Guixé for Kids at NGV International Photo: Wayne Taylor
Fruit Ball, 2016 / Fake Food Park: Martí Guixé for Kids; courtesy of National Gallery of Victoria, Australia
Fake Food Park: Martí Guixé for Kids at NGV International Photo: Wayne Taylor
A meal by Marije Vogelzang and chef Johan Cuypers for the inaugural CHEFIFY HK event in Hong Kong, June 2016; courtesy of APE Photography
A sculpture by Lucy + Jorge Orta featuring loaves of bread baked by the residents of Peterborough, each one cast in aluminium, 2016; courtesy of Metal Culture
70 x 7 The Meal, Act XXXIX, 2015 / Lucy + Jorge Orta created a table setting at the Harvest Festival in Peterborough (England) for 500 guests who filled the Cathedral Square to welcome in the harvest moon and take part in a revival of the city's 8000-year-old agricultural heritage; photo: Chris Porsz; courtesy of Metal Culture
Forest flavours, chocolate, and eggnog at noma Photo: Laura Lajh Prijatelj/HdG Photography
noma chef René Redzepi Photo: Laura Lajh Prijatelj/HdG Photography
Thiago Castanho and Rodrigo Mocoto at MAD Copenhagen 2015; photo: Mikkel Heriba; courtesy of MAD
Bo Bech and Alex Atala at MAD Copenhagen 2015; photo: Mikkel Heriba; courtesy of MAD