MoMA’s senior curator of architecture and design explains why the concept of utopia has always been a driving force for all types of designers.
“Designers at all scales imagine a place that does not exist (yet), populated by beings, tools, interfaces and experiences that represent our contemporary goals and aspirations.”
That was the thesis presented last week by Paola Antonelli during her presentation at DesignThinkers, a visual communications conference held annually in Toronto. The concept of a utopia, she told a packed audience, has inspired, even sustained, designers for years as they continually seek to reach some form of perfection or ideal. In turn, design can build pathways to an imagined better world. “Design has become its own centre of gravity,” Antonelli said. “It’s about building bridges.” That purpose has perhaps never felt more essential than it does this week.
Antonelli is already well-known for her curatorial vision, which has seen MoMA’s rarefied design collection expand to include even non-objects objects like Pac-Man and Tetris. She has even acquired the @ symbol, and made the case that emojis are museum-worthy, too.
During her talk, she gave some compelling evidence that utopia has long-been a collective goal for many creative minds. Here are eight design objects from her weird and wonderful list of examples that represent contemporary ambitions and dreams for a better, happier, cleaner, healthier and more connected world.
1. The Sacco chair by Piero Gatti, Cesare Paolini, and Franco Teodoro
The original beanbag chair is Antonelli’s idea of the perfect seat. Born in 1968, a time of social and cultural revolution, the endlessly duplicated Sacco lets the user decide on its form. Inexpensive, portable, dynamic, it’s a chair of the people, Antonelli posits.
2 Quinta Monroy housing by ELEMENTAL
This was the name-making project for the Chilean social good architecture firm led by Pritzker winner Alejandro Aravena. In 2004, the team was challenged to build housing for 93 families living in a 5,000-square-metre slum, and they were equipped with only a meagre subsidy of US$7,500. The nearly utopian solution Aravena and his ELEMENTAL came up with was to build half a home for each family, and with just enough space to live in the incomplete structure. With an identical amount of adjacent empty space, the families were then able to expand their homes on their own terms, and when ready and able.
3 The IKO Creative Prosthetics System by Carlos Arturo Torres
While an intern at Lego’s head office in Denmark, Carlos Arturo Torres of Chicago imagined a prosthetic limb for kids that would feel more like an enviable toy. With the help of Lego’s research lab and a Columbian rehab foundation, Torres designed a modular prosthetics arm that allows children to customize their limb with attachable Lego-made toys. Azure featured the prototype last year, and it has since won a number of awards, including a top student award handed out by Core77.
4 No. 13 prosthetic leg by Alexander McQueen
Another prosthetic that smashed norms and expectations: this elm leg, beautifully whittled with flowered vines, by the late fashion genius Alexander McQueen for Paralympic athlete Aimee Mullins. Mullins donned the leg, along with a brown leather corset and a cream silk lace skirt, when she opened McQueen’s 1999 spring/summer show. The design confronted the fashion industry with its ignorance of disability. Did it inspire a streak of changes in the industry? No. But for a moment, utopia was closer.
5 Photorealistic androids by Hiroshi Ishiguro
Ishiguro is the director of the Intelligent Robotics Laboratory at the Graduate School of Engineering Science at Osaka University, Japan, Naturally, he has built his fair share of robots – including this one, the Geminoid HI-2, created in his own likeness. Ishiguro builds robots not just to test the boundaries of what’s possible, but to better understand what makes us human. “The question always revolves around what a human is. I try to understand humans by creating life-like robots,” he told Vice in 2015.
6 Impossible Baby, Case 01 by Ai Hasegawa
What if same-sex partners could have children that were genetically related to both partners? To imagine that romantic vision, artist Ai Hasegawa examined the genetic information of a real, same-sex couple and used it to create DNA profiles of their potential children. Armed with those profiles, she created the children’s likenesses and developed family snapshots, where the kids are pictured with their two mothers.
7 Selfmade by Christina Agapakis and Sissel Tolaas
Fascinated by the similarities between cheese and human micro-biodiversity, Agapakis (an American scientist) and Tolaas (a Norwegian scent expert), sought to explore how synthetic microbes could be created from manipulated organisms. They swabbed the armpits, noses, feet and bellybuttons of cheesemakers, scientists and artists – including Olafur Eliasson – and used the bacteria to create artisanal cheeses, 11 varieties in total. Could this harnessing of microbiology be a utopian solution to the world’s food shortages?