Curator Paola Antonelli
Designing 'Workspheres' for MoMA
(CNN) -- "It's a mess." Paola Antonelli is surveying her office at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
"Two computers because one is attached to the printer, the other one is not. There are piles of stuff on one and piles of stuff on the other. My desktops (on those computers) are as messy as my real desktop. It's really quite messy. Really messy.
"But I can pretty much find everything."
And if she had her way, would this curator in the museum's department of design and architecture have someone in to redesign her work space to be more efficient?
"No, I'd like to be able to do it, myself. I think it would be wrong" to have someone else do it. "Only one person can really set things around."
But many of us aren't architects, as Antonelli is. We depend on -- and may be victimized by -- others who design our workplaces. And this has been her focus for months as she prepares a new exhibition for MoMA.
"Workspheres: Designing the Workplace of Tomorrow" opens in February and is rooted in the idea that our lifestyles are beginning to shape the way we work -- and that this is different. The starting presumption here is that work, in the past, has been allowed to shape the way we lived. But as telecommuting renders many office centers obsolete and as wireless communications turn more and more workers into walking 24-hour employees, workplaces are morphing. Antonelli intends to show us some possibilities.
She'll make an official announcement on Wednesday at MoMA in New York of the six commissioned design teams and solo designers whose work will be seen in "Workspheres." Each commission will result in a built model of newly conceived work tools and environments.
Maybe, in one way, Antonelli's effort to conceptualize future workstations is hamstrung from the beginning because, she says, good workplace design starts with the worker, not the place.
"It's very personal," she says. "One can give suggestions, but you can't really design somebody else's space."
But she and her commissioned designers are giving it a try and will surround their new built models for the early 21st century with good design examples of work environments and tools from the 20th century.
Getting to work(spheres)
Antonelli, 37, says there are three reasons she decided to develop this major exhibition -- significantly one of the very first MoMA will open in the 21st century.
"One reason was my life and the frustrations I think everybody has. About organizing your time. About creating boundaries between your work life and your private life. The simple chaos of everybody's everyday life.
"Another thing that pushed me to the exhibition was that I couldn't stand any kind of work space design manual, book, Web site. There was such aridity in what I saw, such lack of human consideration. In most examples, not all. We all know there are some very human products around. But most manuals seemed like thermodynamic instruction books from a university. So I approached the subject because I found all this so deadly boring. You know?
"And the third inspiration comes from the past of MoMA. MoMA in 71 years of existence has done quite a few exhibitions -- especially in the design and architecture department -- that were about commissioning objects that related to contemporary real issues.
"In 1948, there was a competition for low-cost furniture because that was when all the GIs were coming back from the war, starting families and there was this booming middle class that couldn't have servants' quarters and couldn't have a living and dining room separate. The museum used its clout to call on some of the best designers in the world and one result was an aluminum prototype of fiberglass furniture. And in the 1970s, another exhibition called 'The Taxi Project' called on many people to redesign the Manhattan taxicab.
"So it was simple. The exhibitions I do always have some sort of educational or repositive nature, but I wanted to go beyond. And when I thought about it, the most crucial issue right now seemed to be exactly this: the way we work.
"There are two subtexts to the way we work. One, why do employers make us live this way? And the second is, how can we deal with technology?"
When good intentions go wrong
There's no end to the complaints of corporate employees today about the glass towers in which many of them work. Bad air, bad lighting, bad equipment, bad furnishings, lack of privacy, inefficiently laid-out traffic patterns, incorrectly programmed elevators, badly placed doorways, illogically clustered work areas. So why do so many employers "make us live this way?"
Antonelli's conversation slows for the first time. "You know, I haven't gotten to that point. I've tried desperately but I haven't really understood it yet. That's why I'm talking to experts to see if I can find out.
"There are certain economic considerations, of course. But still, I think sometimes there are bad advisors. I think it's nobody's fault. Mind you, there's been enormous advances made. It's a little bit like the atomic bomb. The scientists who thought up the atomic reaction didn't think it would lead to the bomb. And the people who thought up the cubicle didn't think it would become 'Dilbert.'
"Here in my office, I'm very lucky I'm not in a cube. I'm in a room. It could be better, but I can't imagine being in a cube.
"The intentions originally were very good," when the cubicle format was introduced to create a semblance of privacy for many workers in a single room. "The breakthroughs in such design in the 1950s and '60s were very important. It's just they were used, maybe, a bit too literally.
"But here we are. Things always have to come to a boil, and then they change."
Old world, new world
Antonelli has been in the United States for almost seven years. She's from the Italian island of Sardinia, and was raised in Milan.
"In Italy, this project would be much different. In Italy, there are still many people working in old buildings. There are fewer office buildings than there are here in the States. And since the market there is smaller, no one can reach the fabulous numbers of products that one production line turns out in the United States. Everything is on a smaller scale.
"So there, I would emphasize the technological part instead of the space-layout part of the focus. In Italy, as you well know, you have the problem of cell phones. It's less apparent here. There, everybody has the problems of compatibility, transferability" of data as the markets slowly move toward standards.
There were "several steps in between" for Antonelli to make in her career on the way to becoming a curator at MoMA, too.
"I got a master's in architecture, and had a brief stint as an architect. I discovered I wasn't cut out for it. I don't have much patience. You need a lot of patience in architecture. To deal with clients. And contractors. That's where I was really a disaster. So I just gave up.
"Meanwhile, I began working for architecture and design magazines," including three years at Abitare. "And I was traveling, teaching at UCLA and doing free-lance exhibitions. Then I came to MoMA. It was a bit torturous."
And with all the investigation she's doing into how the future may provision us for the work that lies ahead, in what workplace does Antonelli see herself in 10 years?
"I have no clue. Somebody was talking about ambition the other day and was asking me how far in advance do you plan? I said, 'You know, I'm not able to look beyond the tip of my nose.' I just am not able to.
"The biggest hurdle I face" in developing the show "is to make a connection between the museum, which is very organized and very schematic ... and this magma. It's a not-yet-formalized bunch of commissions. I have to keep things open-ended and be able to accommodate change and variations in a place that's set up structurally. It's an institution.
"But I find that 'Workspheres' speaks to everybody's gut. You just say what you're doing and they all have an opinion. And one hard part has been filtering through all the proposals. "
Antonelli would like to hear from your gut. She and the museum invite you to take the MoMA Online Survey in which you'll be asked about aspects of your work life including your daily commute; non-work demands including those made by children, pets, exercise programs; your employer's tolerance of life's requirements; your work schedules and meetings; your use of technology in work and more.
"There's been a lot of replies already," she says. "And we'll have a bigger Web site when the exhibition opens -- a photo exhibit of how people work in various parts of the world."
And if you're in the New York area now, note that Antonelli is the curator of the "Matter" and "Innocence and Experience" parts of the exhibition, "Open Ends," running through January 2, 2001.
The Museum of Modern Art is at 11 West 53rd Street in New York, 212-708-9400. Standard hours are 10:30 a.m. to 5:45 p.m. Saturdays through Tuesdays and on Thursdays, and 10:30 a.m. to 8:15 p.m. on Fridays. MoMA is closed Wednesdays, Thanksgiving and Christmas. Admission is $5 for adults, $3.25 for students with ID and seniors over 65. Children 15 and younger are admitted free if accompanied by an adult. Museum members have free admission at all times.
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Museum of Modern Art
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