For Paola Antonelli, Senior Curator of Architecture and Design at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, great car design combines innovation and beauty. She shares her wide-ranging passion for industrial design and her department’s headline-grabbing acquisitions policy
Interview: Jonathan Bell
Portraits: Marton Perlaki
A video installation featuring SimCity, one of 14 computer games that feature in MoMA’s design collection
Paola Antonelli UNDERSTANDS the spirit of the motor car. As Senior Curator, Department of Architecture and Design, at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York, she is responsible for guiding and shaping the way high culture interacts with mass production. The Sicilian-born curator has spent her career embracing every aspect of design, from the seemingly inconsequential to the apparently irreducibly complex, helping to chart our understanding of why things are the way they are. To the untrained eye, car design is an art, not a science. Just as the motor industry grew out of steady, incremental improvements and efficiencies brought about by advances in materials, components and manufacturing techniques, so the physical form of the motor car has evolved rather than appeared fully formed. But like any form of evolution, there have been critical points—variations and mutations—that shaped the path that followed. For Antonelli, a car contains a hundred hidden histories, a web of relationships and threads linking the finished product on the street to the men and women who conceived, designed, built, sold and ultimately drove it.
Her enthusiasm for industrial design in all its forms is reflected in MoMA’s eclectic acquisitions policy, which has seen the department’s collection grow to 28,000 works, ranging from industrial machinery through to helicopters and computer games. And Antonelli has built her career on exploring the new origins of beauty and design excellence, regardless of the controversy or criticism her choices might engender, be it 14 classic video games from Pac-Man to Myst, or digital fonts and even the “@” symbol. It is the modern curator’s role to ascertain what would interest future generations, as well as presenting a cohesive selection of the forms and objects that define our own time.
MoMA’s automotive collection includes a 1948 Cisitalia 202GT (far left), the first car acquired for a permanent collection by an American art museum
Antonelli’s own background is infused with an interest in objects. Having originally studied architecture at the University of Milan, she subsequently received an Honorary Doctorate from Kingston University and is also Senior Fellow at London’s Royal College of Art. She has curated shows around the world, but frequently refers to the strong spirit and influence of Italian design. “In Italy, design is normal,” she told a TED conference audience back in 2007, “the kind of refined design that makes everyone think we’re so sophisticated.” There is obviously humour at play here, most evident in her love of design that crosses barriers or twists perceptions. Design and architecture have always been an integral part of MoMA. The department was set up in 1932, three years after the museum itself opened under founding director Alfred H Barr Jr. MoMA co-incidentally came into the world just as car design was emerging as the most public face of industrial design, a position it still holds today amidst overwhelming change. As Antonelli says, “perhaps the car industry is the last great industry in this post-industrial era”.
Working alongside Barry Bergdoll, Philip Johnson Chief Curator of Architecture and Design at MoMA, Antonelli has become a very public face for the museum, prolific on social media and taking to the stage at TED conferences to explain the ongoing evolution of design, curation and museology. She joined MoMA in 1994, overseeing the design collection during the birth and frantic growth of the internet age. Our collective understanding of design is far more sophisticated than it was 20 years ago, thanks to communication methods that can beam a new car design—and accompanying praise and criticism—around the world in an instant. Antonelli sees the automobile as the perfect distillation of the role and realm of product design. “From my viewpoint, car design is extremely interesting,” she says. “Designs reflect the way we
live and the concerns we have as a society.” The visual gulf between two of the exhibits, a 1940s Cisitalia coupe and a Smart car, reflects changing social priorities, yet there are also emotional elements at play. “Product design is about function and appeal,” she explains, “but if I had to find a non-emotional moment for car design it would be the Model T Ford. That symbol of extreme utilitarianism is design and manufacture, a product born without competition into a market without precedents.”
The finite nature of car production, the patina of age and the romance of a racing history are not things easily reproduced. Aston Martin has long recognised that some of its most celebrated models also represent scarcity, beauty and triumph. Their “design” might be a combination of numerous factors, from aerodynamic considerations, the technical limitations of materials and tools and the skills of the men and women who wielded them, and the changing perception of what a sports car should be. Their enduring appeal cannot be explained in purely rational terms.
“Really good designers are like sponges—they are genuinely curious, absorbing information that comes their way and transforming it so that it can be used by people like us,” Antonelli says. MoMA’s position at the junction of art and design, desire and function, art and commerce, suits her—“80% of people come here to see a Picasso”—giving unprecedented access to a public that might not realise it’s actually interested in industrial design. The pride of MoMA’s automotive collection is the 1948 Cisitalia 202GT. Featuring Battista “Pinin” Farina’s groundbreaking 1946 design, its red-painted aluminium body shape defines a template that still stirs the emotions today; a fastback two- door coupe that uses sculptured surfaces to contain the function, from the raised front and rear wings that wrap around the wheels to the faired-in cockpit and prominent grille and headlights. Just 170 were built before 1952, when Farina started his company’s long-running collaboration with Ferrari. “You get it because it is just so gorgeous, it’s truly an irresistible shape—it’s beautiful,” Antonelli enthuses.
The Cisitalia is also famous for being the first car to be acquired for the permanent collection of an American art museum. A gift from the Italian manufacturer in 1972, it was restored after a long sojourn on an Italian chicken farm. Back in 1951, this particular model featured in a MoMA exhibition organised by the curator Arthur Drexler, alongside the strictly functional Willys Jeep and a selection of six more traditional—if very elegant—designs from Mercedes, Bentley, Lincoln, Talbot-Lago, MG and Cord. Exhibited at the dawn of the modern consumer era, these automobiles represented the intersection between functional engineering and expressive beauty. That 1972 acquisition still represents a sixth of MoMA’s automotive car collection, which also runs to a 1963 E-Type (given by Jaguar in 1996) and Ferrari’s 641/2 F1 car, donated in 1994. In 2002, the collection doubled when the museum acquired a Smart Car, an original Willys Jeep and a VW Beetle.
Antonelli speaks of the early cultural impact of the car. Despite the apparent cold, rational logic of the very first assembly lines, artists found the emotive powers of the nascent automobile hard to ignore; she notes how the Italian Futurists wrote, printed and painted elaborate paeans to the thrill and glory of driving at speed.
Among MoMA’s vehicles is a 1945 Bell-47D1 helicopter, designed by Arthur Young, that had a maximum speed of 192mph and served as an aerial ambulance during the Korean war
Antonelli is alive to the emotional appeal of the car. “I love Le Mans and historic car shows,” she says. “I love the way cars co-exist with us.” It’s also clear that she has an educated understanding of the qualities of an Aston Martin. “It would be terrible if Aston Martin went the way of strict function,” she laments, before adding—almost apologetically—that as an adopted New Yorker, she has no need for a car herself. A local car-sharing Zipcar station provides her with a variety of machines for all her motoring needs. “A car used to be something you possess,” she muses, “but more and more people are becoming more promiscuous about these ideologies.” She likes “how the car industry is responding to these things. And you can still have aspiration with Zipcar. You don’t need to own, you just need to have access to the network.”
Nevertheless, Antonelli believes that sculptural emotion will always be a part of car design. “I go to many design schools and, first and foremost, they are creating emotional, sexy shapes,” she says. “Only after that do they evolve into real objects.” Of the cars in the MoMA collection, the Cisitalia still defines that approach, although with thousands of items to exhibit, the museum’s cars will always sit alongside other objects, serving to contextualise different aspects of the evolution of 20th-century design. In 2002, all six cars were exhibited together for the first time in the ninth show in the museum’s history to be dedicated to automotive design. Will more machinery be added? “We will grow the car collection, absolutely,” says Antonelli, although she won’t be drawn on what’s next on her acquisition wishlist.
MoMA’s other vehicles include the Bell-47D1 helicopter and an Airstream Bambi travel trailer, as well as Vespa and Vincent Black Shadow motorbikes—a truly eclectic selection that’s still representative of the core qualities of the collection. As Antonelli says: “We’d never ever separate beauty from function.” In fact, she admits she doesn’t even define design as “industrial design” any more, nor people as mere consumers. Objects shape identity.
In 1934, MoMA’s Machine Art exhibition set a bold agenda by treating industrial objects such as ball bearings, propellers, glass flasks and a microscope as beautiful objects in their own right. Today, the relationship between design and desire is strengthened by marketing and jostled by the ebbs and flows of fashion, technology and taste. Rare is the object that transcends its era and becomes an all-encompassing symbol of a time, place or person. As an aesthete, Paola Antonelli recognises the innate sculptural qualities of the automobile, an intangible something that emerges from the combination of pure function, technology and the quest for beauty in all its forms. As an academic, she recognises that now, as then, the car has the power to incite desire. Describing the DB5 as her favourite Aston Martin, she also admits to being drawn to the sharp lines and chiselled surfaces of the CC100 concept car. “It’s a human right, beauty and elegance,” she says provocatively.
Car design synthesises innovation and beauty, symbolising the moment but also—if you get it right—continuing to resonate through culture for many decades. At MoMA, Antonelli catalogues the physical forms that our desires have taken. The shape of the future, however, is harder to ascertain. www.moma.org