Paola Antonelli joined The Museum of Modern Art in 1994 and is now a Senior Curator for the Department of Architecture & Design, as well as the founding Director of Research & Development. She teaches the course Fashion as Design, which looks at a selection of more than 70 garments and accessories, ranging from kente cloth to jeans to 3D-printed dresses, and explores their profound impacts—social, cultural, economic, and environmental—on the world. She has taught at the University of California, Los Angeles; the Harvard Graduate School of Design; and the MFA programs of the School of Visual Arts in New York. Read on to discover more about the course and her experience as a curator at MoMA.
What led you to become a curator?
I was studying to receive my Master’s degree in Architecture from the Polytechnic of Milan, and while I was studying, I started working as an editorial assistant on various projects. I also worked as a journalist for an architecture and design magazine called Domus and Abitare. There were many different platforms to which I applied my desire to talk about design; it was quite organic. I had never worked at a museum before MoMA, I simply answered an ad in a magazine and got the position. I started in 1994 and was an Associate Curator and then made my way up the ranks until I arrived at the position of Senior Curator. A few years ago, I started the Department of Research and Design, where we explore the idea that museums are community centers for society—places where people can test ideas and experiment on new models for living together through art.
What does Fashion as Design mean?
Design is a wide umbrella that encompasses different applications, ranging from furniture, architecture, video games, to typefaces and fashion. Fashion is a form of design. It’s very often shown as a moment in history according to a narrative that is based on the creation of an object. In an exhibition of design that has fashion as a topic, it’s important to focus on the garments: the way they are built, the technology behind them, the social context, and the economic consideration. Not only for the way they look and the style they provide, but also as objects of design production.
What are some challenges in presenting Fashion as Design?
This course is created by a group of design and architecture curators touching fashion for the first time. We were on a steep learning curve but also had a lot of curiosity and were very interested in finding new ways to consider fashion. We started from a design platform and moved towards fashion, so the challenge was how to consider fashion as design.
In the course you discuss how garments can inspire heroic transformation. Which Hero is your favorite?
I was very excited about the Bruce Lee tracksuit. Bruce Lee is such a universal hero for kids and adults all over the world. We worked with his daughter Shannon Lee and it was fabulous to hear her talk about her father in heroic context. We also brought in an amazing tailor who reconstructed the track suit by looking at photographs of Bruce Lee in action.
Who should take this course?
Fashion as Design has a point of contact for everyone. We all enjoy clothes and design is in everyone’s lives. We might not know it until we see it, but the moment we realize what design is, we realize that it’s part of everyday life. This course is for everyone, not just for women or people who are interested in high fashion; it’s about the clothes we wear everyday. I consider this course a progressive discovery of the depth, importance, and wonder of the clothes we wear everyday.
Do you have any advice you would give a young person starting out as a curator?
First of all, there are so many different ways to be a curator—you don’t need to be in a museum. I think it’s a really exciting career and you’ll never be bored because you’re always tackling new subjects. Ultimately, what is important to understand is that a curator is a communicator and someone who wants to share his or her passion with the world. There is an exchange of information that makes our work really valuable. When we understand that people get it and that we were able to communicate our ideas, that’s when we succeed.
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