You would be surprised if you knew what I would wish for if I could have one dream successfully turned into reality. I would love to spend a day roaming the brain of MoMA’s design curator Paola Antonelli. Her twitter handle is ‘Curious Octopus’, and for anybody who has seen her shows of the past two decades that must be no surprise. Paola is modern-day explorer that tries to see and create connections that tie together the most obscure and revealing aspects of contemporary western culture. Born in Italy, Paola arrived in the States as a young adult, and since then she has turned into a real New Yorker while constantly traveling around the world and trying to grasp all that is new, odd and revealing. On the day of the New York snowstorm that news channels around world projected as the worst storm the city would ever face. Paola and I were both worried to leave our apartments, and we spoke by Skype while anxiously waiting for the storm to start. Frankly it never really did, and we complained about anxious media and a self-protecting government that shut down our city unnecessarily for 24-hours.
Paola was seated on the floor of her walk-in closet in her pajamas, surrounded by slightly disorganized clothes and shoes. I sat in bed. We both heard strange bird sounds in the background and couldn’t figure out where they were coming from. First, Paola thought I had a bird, and later she suggested that Skype had a new feature to help us all survive the winter cold. It turned out to be the background soundtrack of one of her early shows, which was titled Safe: Design Takes on Risk.
David van der Leer: I have been struggling over the years to figure out where do sexuality and eroticism begin and end. Where do you think they overlap?
Paola Antonelli: Where do I think sexuality and eroticism overlap? Well, in a really good sexual encounter.
David: Yeah, and those certainly don’t happen often enough.
Paola: We all know that! (Laughs)
David: One of the things I realized getting to know you a little bit better over the years, is that you’re very charming, but I wonder if you are also good at flirting.
Paola: You make me so happy to even think that I could be good at that! I’ve always thought that I’m a really bad flirt. I am terrified if somebody approaches me with too overt and erotic interests. I will run the opposite direction.
Perhaps growing up in Italy – where men can be so overt and outspoken – has made me very conscious about flirting. In Italy, men tend to always put women in ‘their place.’ They are so unnecessarily and aggressively exaggerated in their flirting that you want to run in the opposite direction. Whenever you turn on the TV in Italy, you see women in very flimsy clothes selling soap or spaghetti. It’s terrible.These days when I flirt, however, I try to be an equal-opportunity flirter. So I also flirt with women. I love women.
I’m not gay, but I wish I were. (Laughs)
David: I’m sure Larry is happy you aren’t.
Paola: (Laughs) Yes, I know. I’m happy, too! I’m happy that I am a Larrophile. I’m larrosexual. But seriously, I want to be charming, I want to be alluring, and I want to lead by making people believe in what I stand for. I want to be seductive.
David: Do you really think about being seductive, about being erotic? And do you think about it for your work?
Paola: It is a means to an end, but mostly in installations. Frankly, I don’t see eroticism as one of the main components of design objects, but I do often think about the sensuality of design. Sensuality is more interesting to me.
Of course there are objects that are all about explicit eroticism. But to me for instance the erotic gestures of Carlo Mollino, for instance, feel a little too easy. His chairs are so blunt they are almost disturbing. Ettore Sottsass was at least more ‘pop,’ more humorous. And something like the Sacco chair the original bean bag from 1968 has a sensuality that is more unisex and also more contemporary.
David: Is eroticism more about sensuality for you then?
Paola: Definitely. But I do admire women that can be very open about it, like the character Superintendent Stella Gibson in the Netflix series The Fall played by Gillian Anderson’s.
She is so straightforward. She likes a guy, gets him the hotel key, and that’s it. Personally, I feel much more comfortable when things are less overtly erotic, and more about the senses.
David: How does sensuality translate into your shows? I was searching on websites for your shows for words like sensuality, sexuality, erotic etcetera and you probably don’t realize it, but you do occasionally use the word ‘erotic’.
Paola: Wow, I am so relieved, and in a way also surprised. I do think of sensuality when I make shows. It is simple. At MoMA there are always several shows up at the same time. Most visitors are not coming to see design shows, they are there for the art shows and the modern art collection. So I work extra hard to draw these people in, and one of the ways to do that is by creating a glorious sensual environment. Over the years, I have learned that people want to spend time in my shows because they are exhilarating spaces. There is no need for a caricature of a sensuous space, no need for soft, rounded, blob-like fixtures. Not at all. I work with the exhibition designers, play with color, and create a flow that is soothing.
David: Can you give an example?
Paola: Mutant Materials in Contem-porary Design (1995) was one of the first shows I curated for the museum. It showed contemporary design objects made with innovative materials – or with traditional materials used in a very innovative way. It was in the summer. New York City was white hot, humid, and pulsating. This show provided a completely different environment. Walls, ceiling, and floor were a very dark blue. It was a soothing cave with places where you could sit quietly, and people just wanted to be there. It was fantastic to see people spend so much time in there. Also, I let people touch the objects in the show – and it was the first and last time that I could ever do that.
David: No! Why was that? I love shows in which you are allowed to touch.
Paola: Me too, but after a few days we had spare parts all around the exhibition. The show was divided in seven different areas that were all about the sensuality of materials such as wood, metals, fibers and composites, glass, ceramics, and so on, and we had labels everywhere encouraging people to ‘please touch’. And people would go crazy. We learned that when you tell people to touch, they sit on things. When you tell them they can sit on them, they chew them. Really, they go from touchy to voracious!
…when it comes to materials there is an immediate language that is understandable to everybody. The sensuality – or lack there of – is immediately graspable…
David: If you think about objects like you had in that show, do you ever speak about their sensuality and is that sensuality universal? Say, we would take some of the most sensual objects to a tribe in the Amazon, would they find these objects sensual too?
Paola: Yes. When objects are really beautifully designed, they transcend their function. For instance, I remember that in the show there was a beautiful chaise longue in aluminum and fibers, by Alberto Meda. You could see it right away. Even in the Amazons, even if you never saw aluminum before, you would not only understand its function, but also appreciate its beauty. I think that when it comes to materials there is an immediate language that is understandable to everybody. The sensuality – or lack there of – is immediately graspable.
This reminds me of a designer, Marco Ferreri, that had found a way to apply wood veneer directly onto foam. He has created a monastic-looking chair that appears to be made out of solid wood, but then when you sit down on it, it is soft. It was such a strangely surprising experience.
David: You were one of the first people highlighting the beautiful designs and organic materials created by Neri Oxman. I have always felt there is a very erotic feel to her work.
Paola: Yes, and it is interesting. The words organic and sensual have become so intertwined, that now they are used almost as synonyms. Just think of the whole idea of organic design. When I think of it, there has only been one moment in history when organic design didn’t mean sensual – and that was right after the Second World War. Then, it meant well organized and laid out to maximize efficiency. It was suddenly almost like a complex notion system of organisms. Otherwise, throughout history, it’s been about the idea of doing it like nature does because nature does it best, it has generated the most sensual shapes. Neri is at the forefront of the new phase of organic design, which encompasses not only shapes, but also structures and means of generation and fabrication.
David: Let’s jump up in scale for a moment because I know your world is not limited to objects as some people may think. Our notion of eroticism is constantly changing, and I wonder where you see it heading over the coming decades on the scale of cities?
Paola: I don’t know if I am up-to-date with the latest forms of ‘urban eroticism,’ but in one of the documentaries about the High Line, Liz Diller has a point that stuck with me. She speaks of the illicit aspects of space. It’s very interesting because for me the beauty of cities – the eroticism of cities – lies in all the things that you cannot do “–”officially. For instance, do you know the couple that organizes these parties in off-limit spaces like water tanks? Such a wonderful idea.
Another illicit urban practice that I love is Parkour. It’s usually done by really young and super-athletic guys and they use the city, the buildings, the steps, the monuments, all of it in ways that it is not meant to be used. Somehow I find it very exciting. I just wish I were a bit more athletic, I wish I could do it, too. They climb walls, jump from balconies onto cars. It may happen in New York, too, but it is more a French banlieue thing. It is a form of rebellion that to me shows how versatile a city can be.
…Milan, Florence, Moscow, Stalingrad, Leningrad, St. Petersburg, Reykjavik, Lagos;
they’re all women to me… Some of them leave me cold, and some of them I find sexy and to die for…
David: Are there any cities to you that are not erotic?
Paola: Yes. There are cities that are absolutely not sensuous to me. For instance, Rome leaves me completely unaffected. On the other side of the spectrum is Rio. It is so sexy there, perhaps even a little too much. I usually don’t drop my jaw just because I see a handsome guy, but in Rio my jaw almost became dislodged. Thinking of it, I have a problem with cities that are too monochromatic. I am a New Yorker, and a lack of diversity just kills me. White cities, are simply very unsexy.
David: Do you think that it’s mainly cultural how we perceive cities? Or do you think landscapes, or the shape of cities influences our sense of eroticism?
Paola: I think it’s cultural. Perhaps cities are unisex? Although in the past, there were so many women leading their cities. Just think of Lucrezia Borgia in Ferrara.
Cities do have gender in the Italian language. Italian is really interesting, because there’s no neutral form. Everything is either or male or female. So whenever I think of a city I now realize that for me it’s always a female city. Milan, Florence, Moscow, Stalingrad, Leningrad, St. Petersburg, Reykjavik, Lagos; they’re all women to me. Strong women.
David: I didn’t know you when you were twenty, but I wonder what you were like. Were you a wild girl?
Paola: Yeah. (Laughs) There’s a club in Milan that I used to go to… it used to be called Plastic. I was one of the co-promoters of this club. First I was sort of punk, and then I became new-wave. I was out every night. The funny thing is that, while I was pretty wild when it came to having fun, dancing, the works, I never got really drunk took drugs, which I’m kind of sorry about. It just was not my thing. Marijuana I couldn’t really smoke because I was always on a diet. I was a really fat teenager, and with one puff of a joint I would eat the house. So that was a no-no. I think I tried cocaine once, and I liked it so much that I said: ‘I better not touch it.’ So, I was a pretty healthy enjoyer of life. I was having a fun time, but never really walked on the edge.
David: Interesting. Already then you were trying to feel things out and explore things, and trying to form an opinion about life, so that was just another way of doing what you are doing now.
Paola: Yeah, it’s true. I was singing in a band. I was just doing the whole thing. They used to call me Blondie. (Laughs)
But let’s jump back to cities for a moment. There is something I forgot to tell you. I believe cities have an immediate impact on us, and many times this has to do with smell and with typefaces.
Paola: I know it sounds silly. But take Paris. All the fonts in France tend to be italicized. Also, the moment I get into in the metro in Paris, I smell that rotten egg, sulfuric, smell – it doesn’t even matter that it’s a bad smell – it immediately makes me feel like Paris. It’s like when you smell the sweat of a man that you love. That rotten egg smell is wonderful to me. Rotten egg smell and italicized fonts; to me that’s Paris. And butter.
And then when I get to London, it’s suddenly all rounded. Think of the Underground spaces and their fonts. Then I recall this certain mixture of curry smells in certain neighborhoods; it’s fantastic. Los Angeles, oh my god! I used to live there. It was the first time that I was away from Italy. At the time there was no GPS, and the map of Los Angeles was this thick book. I would get lost all the time. For me, it was the smell of the sun on your skin, and cigarettes. I would be in the car with my arm out, smelling sun and cigarettes, and singing along with the radio. Such a wonderful time! When I say cities are sensual, it’s because I think of them as characters. Some of them leave me cold, and some of them I find sexy and to die for. Like New Orleans, or Rio, and New York. Then on the other side you get Vienna. It’s nice to have a coffee with whipped cream, but I am sure you understand when I say that it leaves me completely cold.
David: Yeah, it’s very interesting. I love the notion of typefaces influencing our read of the city; that is something I’ve never thought of.
Paola: It’s immediate, it can be the first thing you see. I remember the first time I arrived at JFK airport in New York City, towards the end of the 80s. Everything felt like a shock. It was all so messy. It truly felt like arriving in Calcutta then. I remember leaving JFK, and seeing the typeface on the freeway signs. The letters on those signs were bordered by little reflective dots, to be seen at night. At that time there was so little maintenance that many of the letters would be dented because of missing dots. It was like missing teeth in the lights of taxis. This incredibly sexy city, falling apart. It was really a Gotham-like feel.
David: That must have been an amazing time indeed, and now we’re cleaning it up so much that it almost getting boring. It is getting clean, organized, gentrified.
Paola: It’s true. But I hate those people that have nostalgia. There’s very little left of the kind of grit and adventurous feeling of yesterday. But still. I was coming back from the airport yesterday, I always love my ride back into the city on the BQE. I love it when you suddenly see Manhattan appear in the distance. It’s always breathtaking. Also, what’s that water recycling plant near the canal in Greenpoint? Every time I see it, I cannot take my eyes off it. I keep looking at those giant shiny metal boobs. I then think there must still be cool underground parties that nobody knows about. In a city like New York, no matter what you do, you still have so many crevices, and so many hidden places. You cannot sanitize it completely. You can always find illicit places here.