"Not all design is for the general good,"
says MoMA's Paola Antonelli

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Interview Paola Antonelli

News: the creation of the first 3D-printed gun has upturned the notion of design as a force for good, according to Paola Antonelli, senior curator of design at New York's Museum of Modern Art (+ interview).

In an interview with Dezeen, Antonelli said that the arrival last year of the first working open-source gun changed her perception of the discipline.

"When the 3D-printed gun came out I was in shock and suddenly my view of design as something that does good for the masses was uprooted," she said. "I used to think of design as a benign force, but of course not all design is for the general good and we would be naive to believe so."

The gun features in Design and Violence, an online MoMA exhibition exploring "the dark sides of design" that Antonelli launched late last year.

"I've always thought that design and designers live by a moral code of conduct, almost like a doctor's Hippocratic Oath to do no harm," she said, explaining why she launched Design and Violence. "Yet [co-curator] Jamer [Hunt] and I kept talking about the dark sides of design that we were becoming increasingly aware of."

3D-printed guns developed by American Cody Wilson
The Liberator, the 3D-printed gun developed by American-based organisation Defense led by Cody Wilson

Speaking to Dezeen after her lecture at the What Design Can Do conference in Amsterdam last week, Antonelli described the first 3D-printed gun as "a pivotal object – an open-source design act that challenged my beliefs."

She said: "I found it to be so negative, but it also introduced an interesting challenge regarding how we feel about open-source design."

Antonelli spoke to Dezeen about how design museums need to evolve to maintain their relevance in a world where technology and the internet are increasingly important. "If we really want dialogue, then online is the best platform," she said, explaining why she launched the Design and Violence project on the internet rather than in a gallery.

"It is important to stay relevant and to look at museums as the R&D of society," she added. "Because curating design is tightly connected to culture and technology, my curatorial stance has had to evolve with technology."

Mine Kafon mine detonator
Massoud Hassani's Mine Kafon wind-blown mine detonator features in the Design and Violence exhibition

Antonelli added that traditional industrial design is becoming less interesting to her as a curator. "I ceased to be interested in furniture design a while back, not because I am not interested, but because I have not seen anything groundbreaking. There just has not been enough progress."

When asked about Dutch design, she recalled that when curating her 1996 exhibition, Contemporary Design from the Netherlands, she felt that they had become too reliant on generous financial support.

"The exhibition I did in 1996 was very complimentary, but I do remember at the time thinking that [Dutch] designers were all spoilt brats," she said. "I think it is fair to say that they got too much government support so now they have to learn just how tough it really is out there."

Here's an edited transcript of the interview conducted by Gabrielle Kennedy for Dezeen:


Gabrielle Kennedy: You joined MoMA in 1994 but what did you do before that?

Paola Antonelli: I trained as an architect and went on to work as a journalist at [Italian architecture magazines] Domus and Abitare. I also taught at UCLA and was a freelance curator. I had never worked in a museum before.

Gabrielle Kennedy: How has your job at MoMA evolved? How has the emergence of the internet affected your role?

Paola Antonelli: My job started with the internet. I actually began the MoMA website. I had to learn HTML and coding by myself and came up with this hilariously ancient website for the exhibition Mutant Materials in Contemporary Design. Because curating design is tightly connected to culture and technology, my curatorial stance has had to evolve with technology.

Gabrielle Kennedy: As MoMA's senior curator in the Department of Architecture and Design, what is your definition of design?

Paola Antonelli: Right from the very start of my term at MoMA I tried to look beyond a limited definition of design. I have done exhibitions like Workspheres, which explored how during the dotcom boom people were changing the way they worked. I also did the exhibition SAFE: Design Takes on Risk, which was about safety and design.

Gabrielle Kennedy: Design discourse in the Netherlands has moved on from product design to a broader embrace of the term.

Paola Antonelli: Yes but in the US it is harder to sell that idea. It is complicated because the American mind-set is more that design is about furniture and objects. Over there I think the best way to approach this is to not say it too loudly, but to just let it happen. Then people fall into it without prejudice.

Gabrielle Kennedy: Is it too much to say that product design is dead?

Paola Antonelli: People will always want knickknacks and there will always be good and bad design. It is true though that I ceased to be interested in furniture a while back not because I am not interested, but because I have not seen anything groundbreaking. There is just has not enough progress. Still, there are at least one or two pieces I buy for the MoMA every year.

Gabrielle Kennedy: What interests you now?

Paola Antonelli: Well you know I acquired the @ symbol and the Google Map Pin for the MoMA collection. I am also really interested in speculative design, where a scene builds up and there is reasoning behind it.

Gabrielle Kennedy: What about social design? That's hugely important in the Netherlands right now.

Paola Antonelli: No not really. The MoMA is after all an art museum so the work does need to have some sort of aesthetic quality. Perhaps in a different time, but for now it is more about conceptual design that has a realness to it. I think what we are attempting to do is use aesthetics as a means of communication.

Gabrielle Kennedy: What about Dutch design these days? You did a big exhibition on it in 1996, but do you like what you see now?

Paola Antonelli: The Dutch have a solid tradition of great design, but what has changed is government support so it will be interesting to see what happens next. Mostly I think designers need to not be afraid of this new environment.

The exhibition I did in 1996 was very complimentary, but I do remember at the time thinking that [Dutch] designers were all spoilt brats. I think it is fair to say that they got too much government support so now they have to learn just how tough it really is out there. I think it will happen though. They will find a way to make it work for themselves.

Gabrielle Kennedy: Have you seen anything impressive on this trip to the Netherlands?

Paola Antonelli: Lonneke Gordijn and Ralph Nauta from Studio Drift. They told me they were discovering a business model through trial and error. And of course I like Formafantasma, which has nothing to do with me being Italian. It’s their great mix of aesthetic and conceptual ideas that sets them apart.

Gabrielle Kennedy: How do design museums need to evolve to keep up with the changing nature of design and technology?

Paola Antonelli: Museums need to evolve with society and with culture. It goes without saying that the internet is an important feature of our world and has to inform the way a museum stands by its mission.We began the R&D Department at MoMA to deal with change – and not only in the digital realm.  In 2006 we started collecting 3D-printed objects. It is worth taking a look at our collection installation titled Digitally Mastered.

Gabrielle Kennedy: What role does a museum play in today's society?

Paola Antonelli: It is important to stay relevant and to look at museums as the R&D of society. There is room for curators to spot potential and lead the way. A good example is our online Design and Violence project, which was really a rebellious, almost guerrilla-like move.

Gabrielle Kennedy: How and when did you launch Design and Violence?

Paola Antonelli: We have not even been live for one year yet – it has only been seven months. I got the idea and without telling anyone just opened it using [open-source blogging software] WordPress. It has evolved into a flag for what curators can do when they really want to achieve something that is beyond the normal scheme of a museum's operations. It features objects that we feel have an ambiguous relationship with violence.

Gabrielle Kennedy: Where did the idea for the exhibition come from?

Paola Antonelli: I finished reading a book by Steven Pinker called The Better Angels of our Nature. In it he argues that society is becoming less violent and perhaps be default or design, a more moral place.

Now I wouldn't dare argue against him because I do not have the statistics or the proof. I don't have the benefits of Harvard labs behind me, but just something about this statement made me feel queasy. I started to look more closely at violence and particularly at the objects and design associated with violence. I think one way of understanding the world is by looking at its things and design objects can say so much, especially when they have an ambiguity.

Gabrielle Kennedy: Why is the exhibition online rather than in MoMA?

Paola Antonelli: It is hard to get away from the fetish of the exhibition and as curators we tend to think that unless we have put things in a glass box then we have not done our jobs properly. If you want to show people the amazing depth of Venetian glass, for example, then obviously you need a physical exhibition.

If the goal, though, is to use objects as a text or a prop to better understand violence in society, then you can't do that with a physical show. You need the back and forth of the internet because it allows for more questions and commentary. The internet really is a powerful tool for the dissemination and discussion of information. If we really want dialogue, then online is the best platform.

Of course one can curate in many different ways: you can teach, write journalism, write academically, curate physical exhibitions, make documentaries. I think the point is to have a goal in mind and then to use whatever method maximizes that.

Gabrielle Kennedy: How do you define violence for this project?

Paola Antonelli: On the website we use a very broad definition. Violence is a manifestation of the power to alter circumstances, against the will of others and to their detriment. From there we have sub categories like hack, stun, penetrate, manipulate, intimidate and explode that all help to make the thinking of violence and design more systematized.

Gabrielle Kennedy: A lot of the objects on the Design and Violence website are controversial - the open-source 3D-printed gun, for example.

Paola Antonelli: I used to think of design as a benign force, but of course not all design is for the general good and we would be naive to believe so. When the 3D-printed gun came out I was in shock and suddenly my view of design as something that does good for the masses was uprooted. It was a pivotal object – an open-source design act that challenged my beliefs. I found it to be so negative, but it also introduced an interesting challenge regarding how we feel about open-source design.

Gabrielle Kennedy: How do you feel about open-source design?

Paola Antonelli: To be honest I do not think I have resolved it yet in my own mind. I am still leaning in favour of open-source, but I just do not know. It is heavy.

Gabrielle Kennedy: Open-source design gives designers an awful lot of power. Are they ready for that?

Paola Antonelli: I think it is probably too utopian to keep it completely free, but maybe it can be somewhere in the middle. I can’t agree yet to having all open-source completely regulated.

Gabrielle Kennedy: How do you select the exhibits?

Paola Antonelli: From the start I was looking for ambiguous objects that were not necessarily black or white when it comes to violence, but that really make you think. A lot goes into deciding what to include, especially as I do not want it to be historical. I have mostly tried to keep the objects to 2001 and after because we felt that violence in the United States changed then. For Europeans it changed a little before perhaps.

When we think about design we are also thinking about aesthetics so everything included represents and explores a subject, but is also impeccable design. And then there is the attached commentary, which comes from all sorts of different people from Camille Paglia, and Arianna Huffington, to Christoph Niemann and John Thackara.

Gabrielle Kennedy: Which objects have generated the most discussion?

Paola Antonelli: The Violence scent was one of our first objects. Berlin scent artist Sissal Tolaas collected towels full of sweat and testosterone at cage fighting matches.  She then analysed the chemicals using gas chromatography and distilled a "scent of violence". A sample was sent to Anne-Marie Slaughter at Princeton. She has an expertise in violence. The construct is that the object becomes the lens through which a writer can discuss an issue.

The stiletto heel also started an energetic discussion headed by brilliant American feminist Camille Paglia. This shoe design symbolizes so much. It is really loaded.

Also there is the green bullet, which uses copper instead of lead at its center. It means that the food chain and water supply are not contaminated, but it is strange to think that a bullet designed to kill people is more OK because it is safer for the environment.

And Temple Grandin says that her Serpentine Ramp makes a slaughterhouse more humane. I like the project because it has generated a widespread conversation and even [animal rights group] PETA agrees that it can help.

Gabrielle Kennedy: So can we design an act of violence to be more humane?

Paola Antonelli: This discussion gets into really dangerous territory and it is something I am still thinking about. You end up exploring all sorts of questions like "Is execution always ugly?" and "Is Euthanasia a form of violence or a form of compassion?" Right now my focus is more leaning towards the discussion of what secretive acts are going on that could become more visible via design.

Gabrielle Kennedy: Should we draw a distinction between designing violence to look more humane versus designing violence to be more humane? It is not very useful if design is just making things look nicer.

Paola Antonelli: This is part of the project – parsing the very different ways in which design intersects with violence. Is something that just in the end seeks to cover up violence worse than a design that is baldly aggressive or intends to harm?

Jamer Hunt from Parsons The New School for Design is doing this project with me and we have deliberately stepped back from making calls online about morality or right and wrong. I think the project would have suffered if we had editorialized in that way. The way media works today means that people are often "fed" their outrage or "coached" into a particular position. We cannot claim to be unbiased, but we want people to have space to make comment based on their own individual reactions rather than telling them what they should think.

So we don't draw distinctions. Our audience is smart enough to do this themselves, and having them discuss these shades of grey – or in the eyes of some, black and white – is the best part of the project. We learn a lot. We get to participate too rather than act from a sovereign position.

Gabrielle Kennedy: Does a designer need to have an opinion on how their design is used? Is morality involved?

Paola Antonelli: Until recently, I've always thought that design and designers live by a moral code of conduct, almost like a doctor's Hippocratic Oath to do no harm. Yet Jamer and I kept talking about the dark sides of design that we were becoming increasingly aware of. We were seeing this both historically and in contemporary settings.

There's the more obvious things like weapon design and prison architecture. But in the post-2001 era, the design interfaces, systems, and architecture responsible, for example, for the credit crisis, or those implicit in cyberwarfare and immigration policies became really compelling to us. Almost morbidly fascinating. And part of that fascination comes from the public - you, me, laypeople, whomever – not really knowing the designers or what they think of the havoc they have wreaked.

We know all about designers who make life-saving or life-changing things. And we know about, for example, people who have given us "classic" violent designs, like Mikhail Kalashnikov. But I think most of us would be hard-pressed to name those who really orchestrated the recent economic crisis, or the architects who design execution chambers. We do not know anything about those who design DDoS attacks, military weapons, hacked protest objects or our political adverts.

So I think morality is always involved in design, but it's a two-way street. No design is made in a vacuum, and it isn't received or used in one either. We are all complicit. Most designers do have an opinion on how their designs are used, whether they make it public or not. Kalashnikov is an interesting example – in his mind, the AK47 was "a weapon of defense, not offense."

Gabrielle Kennedy: Is there any such thing as immoral design?

Paola Antonelli: Yes, and the Design and Violence website helps us understand that. Also, because there are many kinds of moral codes, not all "immoral" objects are universally immoral.

Gabrielle Kennedy: Is a designer implicated in the outcome of his or her work?

Paola Antonelli: Everyone is implicated in their actions, no matter if they are a designer or not. However, in some cases it is impossible to foresee every consequence of what we do on the micro and macro scale. The work of designers becomes – as products, systems, interfaces – the tools of many others.

Perhaps by contemplating what can go horribly wrong with design, we can strengthen our commitment to "first, do no harm". That is one of the roles of Critical Design, and should be taught in school along with ergonomics and history.

Gabrielle Kennedy:  What is the ultimate goal of Design and Violence?

Paola Antonelli: Design can help us to understand violence better and I like using design to ask really serious questions – to tackle the most urgent issues of society. Violence has been with us since the beginning of time and if we can get people talking about that then we are on track.

So our first goal has been just that – to get people talking and thinking, to see if others saw value in the thoughts that were percolating on our heads.

Our longer-term goal, which is still being calibrated, is to find partners in other places – schools, other non-profit institutions, places with subtle and overt histories of violence – where the torch might be passed or lit for conversations, research and actions related to the overall theme of the project. But it is a sensitive subject, and so we want to tread lightly and thoughtfully.

  • http://www.libertydisciple.com/ The Liberty Disciple

    Assigning morality to design is the pinnacle achievement for thought police. Design is amoral like guns are amoral. Finding morality in objects is a way to manipulate how people perceive the world around them.

    It’s what the user chooses to do that has a moral basis. Personally, the idea of “design for good” is a concept that I find morally lacking.

  • http://www.libertydisciple.com/ The Liberty Disciple

    It’s always “we”. Do us a favour and speak for yourself. Some people have been waiting for 3D printers to design weapons. Some have waited to design hats. Perhaps others are waiting to design things no one has imagined.

    Let’s discuss the morality of each person’s decisions, like the decision to make claims about everyone without their input.