February 10, 2006

An Interview With MoMA's Paola Antonelli

I'd been stuck on a comment I read last fall by MoMA Architecture & Design curator Paola Antonelli before her exhibition, "Safe," opened about children's product design, and so I decided to get her take on the Baby Industrial Complex. She had a bunch of travel for her new book [Humble Masterpieces: Everyday Marvels of Design], then the holidays intervened, but now that Davos is over, we finally found a chance to catch up. Here are some of the highlights of our conversation:

antonelli.jpgOn litigation
DT: In a roundtable last year, you briefly mentioned the powerful influence of product liability lawsuits on children's design. Could you explain more about what impact you see?
PA: What I've noticed is there's a latent form of protectionism that goes into this process of certifications and specifications.

I've heard from a lot of independent designers as well as non-US ones, and they regularly cite the testing requirements, but also the liability insurance costs, as major hurdles they can't afford to deal with.
And, it continues the sustenance of a sick system of lawsuits that I find just appalling, I mean, these warnings and labels that you see all over every product, they're just there to protect the corporation, not the consumer: "If you hurt yourself, its your problem, because now we've warned you." It's a pollution, children are the ones targeted, really it's children. Or really, it's parents, but it's everywhere now.

---

On high design for kids
DT: The last couple of years has seen a real emergence of modernist design and high-end design for kid's stuff. But then, even as I say that, there were these great designs "for the modern baby" fifty years ago, maybe it's just a cycle. And then there's the whole high-end stroller thing now, too, where there's been a lot of innovative design in a very traditional product sector. How do you see th-- who is this stuff for?
PA: Most of the time it, designed for the adults not the children. You don't buy cashmere sweaters for the kid. In some cases, these things just become accessories for adults, to be seen with.

Now you included the Stokke Xplory in "Safe." How do you see that, for example?
That's a combination of technological innovation and looks. It's like the Aeron chair: there's a certain elegance to it, but how much does it have to look like this? There's a concept [the raised seat on] the central axis that makes it, but you have to allow designers the liberty to interpret this as well, and so it's somewhat stylized. I remember when I saw the first Stokke, I was like, "Wow!" But innovative design always needs to be justified by real functionality.

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On children's design in MoMA's collection
DT: There are some classic designs for kids in the Museum's collection, the Gerrit Rietveld wheelbarrow, for example. How do you approach this category of objects?
PA: Well we don't categorize depending on their application, but we look at them as a whole. But there are various trustees agitating for more children's furniture to be considered in the collection, but--

Really? Like, the ones with grandchildren?
[laughs] many of them, but others, too.

It's just that I remember when that Lorna Simpson Laurie Simmons [d'oh, that's why I couldn't find it on Google again. Kaleidoscope House.] dollhouse came out, that a couple of trustees talked about how great they were and bought them for all their grandkids. But now that's out of production...
Really? Are you sure?
Well, the original company has been through a variety of incarnations...
That's true. Bozart and Cerealart.

---

On good design, affordability, and her top picks
DT: How do you see the baby- and kid-related design world these days?
PA: Actually, I find as a design critic, everywhere I go for children's design, I find it nauseating. It is really so bad.

Really?? It seems to me that design-conscious parents either have to go with really high-end, expensive stuff or IKEA, which is also a dilemma because you don't necessarily want to get mass-produced, cheap des--
Not cheap, affordable. Ikea is affordable. [She pronounces it ee-KAY-ah, and as we talk I want to, too, but I can't, because it'd be so obvious that I'm a poseur.]
Right, affordable, but the perception, too, is that it's cheap and everyone within the radius of Ikea has it, too and--
Really, people have this idea that by overpaying for something, they're getting good design, and it's not the case. Affordability is very important.

I remember how stunned I was when I saw this chair for dad and child. It's a double armchair, and it bascially has the child propped up so he is as tall as the dad. It was maybe two years ago, but I think it's still there, yes. I mean, the idea that the little boy can be as tall as his dad, this is just so sweet.

Well, I think what a lot of people do--I know we do it--is to pick one or two kind of classic things, maybe, and then fill out the rest, so to speak, with Ikea, because their basics are really simple and...affordable. Are there just no other good or interesting products out there, do you think? Why is that?
Well, partly, I must say, is that since I do not have children myself, I do not follow this category so closely. But it is also the case that there are not many good resources--magazines, journals--in the design world that publishes this information, either. Perhaps just a few websites [hey! over here!], but there needs to be more attention to this area.

But the kids that I know, they seem to love awful, little tacky things, Barbies and sparkly things, It would be very interesting to see a company that made designs that were exactly what kids themselves wanted.
Very interesting, indeed.

Related: The Ikea PS Trivas double armchair

2 Comments

I think you mean Laurie Simmons not Lorne Simpsons who made the doll house.

K

[thanks for catching that. it's fixed now. -ed.]

While I agree that we have problems with product liability and litigiousness in this country, I have to take exception to Paola's first answer. Every one of the warning labels and statements you see on a piece of children's furniture is written in the blood of someone's child. They are not there because companies want to absolve themselves of responsibilty, they are there because someone on a CPSC or JPMA standards committee looking at incident data decided they should be there. It's got nothing to do with "protectionism," and everything to do with "protection."

In the last 25 years, crib deaths have plunged in this country solely because of regulations and testing. Yet there was, sadly, a death due to a faulty (recalled) crib only a few weeks ago, proving that we still have progress to make. And that's something I think about literally every day.

[I don't think protection and protectionism are mutually exclusive, and her perspective is typical of someone who watched the effect of a single EU standard replace 14 separate national design safety regimes. And there's a distinction between CPSC labelling and "caution: hold knife by other end"-style disclaimers. -ed.]

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