How Paola Antonelli brought fashion into MoMA

"I want people to understand that design is so much more than cute chairs," says the museums' senior design curator

Published September 18, 2018 5:00PM (EDT)


Paola Antonelli, the Senior Curator of the Department of Architecture and Design at MoMA, never thought she’d become a design curator.

“It all happened by chance,” Antonelli said, “and not by chance.”

She’s originally from Italy, and in 1989, she became the Italian coordinator for the International Design Conference in Aspen, an occasion for industrialists and designers to meet in order to create better corporations and products. From Aspen she landed in LA, where she started teaching at UCLA.  Then, after three years of living between LA, her home in Milan and her boyfriend’s home in San Francisco, she wanted a change. That’s when she noticed an ad at the back of ID magazine for an associate curator position at MoMA. She answered the ad and got the job, which led to a career of showing audiences how design is everywhere.

“I want people to understand that design is so much more than cute chairs,” said Antonelli. “It is first and foremost everything that is around us in our life. It’s like food. You want to understand food because you want to be able eat better. You want to prepare food better. You want to make sure that you get served the kind of food you want, that nobody tries to give you food that is unhealthy for you. Same thing for design.”

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For the MoMA exhibition “Items: Is Fashion Modern?” Antonelli included clothes you may have in your own closet: a pair of Levi’s 501’s, Doc Martens, the Breton shirt, a white t-shirt.

“When I got to MoMA I realized there was no fashion in the collection,” said Antonelli. “There was only one Fortuni dress,  and it was mysterious as to why it was even there. It was donated to the collection in 1987.”

Antonelli wondered how she could narrator the history of modern design without any fashion.

So she started adding clothing to the collection, piece by piece, and inadvertently created a list of garments that changed the world. It started in 2004, for an exhibition titled “Humble Masterpieces,” when Antonelli included a simple white t-shirt, a garment that for her is both timeless and universal. Then the list grew and sat in a drawer until the director of MOMA asked her if she’d ever considered making a exhibition from her list.

“Our life is filled with garments and things we can wear that are important to us individually and collectively,” said Antonelli, “so making a list is quite easy, but what’s been harder for me is to reduce the list to an ensemble of objects that make sense.”

To hear how Paola Antonelli, the “oracle of design,” deals with rejection, listen to Episode 4 of "Design The Life You Love."

"Design The Life You Love" is a podcast series hosted by renowned designer Ayse Birsel that explores the idea and practice of designing your life. Subscribe on RadioPubliciTunesStitcher or wherever you get your podcasts.

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By Ayse Birsel

Ayse Birsel is the Co-founder and Creative Director of Birsel + Seck, the award-winning design and innovation studio working with Herman Miller, GE, Colgate-Palmolive, IKEA and Toyota, among others. The New York-based designer is the creator of "Design the Life You Love," a book and coursework that teaches designers and non-designers how to create a meaningful life using her design process, Deconstruction:Reconstruction™.

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