Interview with Paola Antonelli Ozlem Ercil and Gokhan Avcioglu 8th July 2002,

Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) Queens/ New York 

You made design an interesting subject for museums and you created exhibitions about global subjects regarding chronological materials.  You’re coming from a country which is at the center of design.  If you compare New York and Milan; in terms of design, Milanese design is more upfront whereas in New York art is more at the center.  Do you agree with this statement and why?

The biggest difference is that design is normal in Milan, good design is a normal thing.  I am a daughter of two doctors, who didn’t particularly prepare me well in design and art, but I grew up with all the contemporary designers.  I grew up with Castiglioni objects, I grew up with my Interlubke bedroom, and there were some antique pieces from my grandmother.  There was also what you would just find at a regular store, it’s not that my parents went and looked for something fashionable.  It’s a little bit like recognizing whether food is good or not; you recognize that design is good, bad or just normal.  In New York the word ‘design’ is used whenever there is added value.  It’s used for objects that are too decorative, too expensive or something that is elitist, something that you can’t get normally. So it’s the opposite of normal that’s why everyone is going crazy now because Philippe Starck is designing objects for the discount retailer Target.  Big deal!  You know what I’m saying?It should be normal, but instead the idea that somebody who is a ‘‘designer’’ is lowering himself to design objects that cost five dollars seems to be such a crazy position.  In fact they say ‘‘one hundred objects one crazy man’’ that is the slogan.  To me it’s just so funny. Big deal, he designed some really interesting objects, for not putting him down or Target.  What I find amazing, is the way the campaign is set up to show that something exceptional is happening. 


 In Europe design objects are not so economically priced.  Do you think what Stark and Target are doing is selling design at a much lower price?

When Flos did those little lamps, you could buy a lamp for seventy dollars in Italy. I mean good design in Italy is at normal prices.  Because of the exports, everything else costs at least half of the price it costs here, which is a normal price.  So to buy a lamp here for ninety dollars, in most cases you’d have to accept some compromises in relation to the design.  I don’t know why, instead in Italy, for the same price, you will have a greater area of possibilities. You could go for bad taste or good taste.  It’s your freedom of choice and it’s also the fault of the press.  You know, they call anything design.  The media really is a little bit confused about what design is.  

Could you name another city where design is more at the center? Are there any other cities in the world like Milan?

I was just in Brazil.  The capital of Brazil is definitely a city where architecture is at the center of everything. It also depends on the form of the design, for example Tokyo for another kind of design.  It really depends… there are other cities in the world that are as visually obsessed as New York and Milan but in a different way maybe. 

What are your thoughts about contemporary American design?

America is big and also American designers come from all over the place.  So it’s very uneven.  It’s not a phenomenon like Dutch design or like Italian design, that at different times in history, it had a certain consistency and certain cohesion.  Design in America really varies, so much between the East Coast and the West Coast and then between individuals and schools.  For instance, it’s funny that there are good Turkish designers in New York and in LA there are great architects; and good industrial designers and the best graphic designers used to be in San Francisco. So it really varies a lot.  I just wish that Americans felt a little more secure about their design tradition, because they have a great design tradition but they feel very insecure.

 As we saw in the International Contemporary Furniture Fair (ICFF 2002) American design appeared like it was still in prototype-phase, a little bit amateur, why?

I understand what you are saying.  American designers don’t have much of a choice because in Italy we have middle sized family companies.  Cappellini, Cassina, B&B, Edra and Driade.  They’re all families, and they’re middle sized. They’re not big so they can take risks.  They can make good working prototypes, and then maybe they put one into production. They have the money and the flexibility.  In the states there is a lack of mid-sized companies that are interested in trying new designers out.  So whenever a big company like Steelcase or Herman Miller tries a new prototype, the overhead is so enormous, that they cannot make mistakes.  So in order not to make mistakes, they take a very conservative approach and they only commission super famous designers. Therefore the problem is really structural.  It’s not only education or the designer’s skills or anything, it’s really because they don’t have the backing of companies and the backing of the whole structure like it exists in Italy.

 About the exhibitions you’ve created, which one was more exciting for you? We read that its ‘‘Mutant Materials’’ but that was two years ago.

But it’s still Mutant Materials. It was the most fun to make because it was the first one here so it was really interesting because I had lots of freedom. It was my first exhibition, everybody was saying ‘‘let her do whatever she wants’’ it was a lot of fun.  It was my first experience of seeing people in the galleries, so I really liked it.  I liked every other exhibition too but that one was the most fun to prepare.

 What is your next project or book?

I am working on two books, one of them is on the design collection here at MoMA that’s coming out in a year. It’s an illustrated book with essays about design objects. Then I am working on a book which is my own, my project.  It’s about food from all over the world as great examples of design.  I don’t know when it’s coming out.  Then I am working on an exhibition for MoMA.  It’s a strange story because it’s an exhibition that I had proposed in March 2001.  At that time it was entitled ‘‘Emergency’’ with a subheading; ‘‘When Good Design is a Matter of Life or Death.’’ It was an exhibition on fire trucks and their emergency equipment, anti-mine booths. Then 11th September 2001 happened.  We had worked on it for eight months, everyone at the museums was like ‘‘Oh my God’’. So then we took it off the schedule saying that we can’t do it.  But then we regretted it, because everyone was interested in that subject.  So I renamed it ‘‘Safe’’; now I am working on it again, and now it doesn’t really have a position in the schedule because in the meantime the schedule was filled. I am looking for a good time to do it.  And finally when everyone commented on the fact I was not going to do the exhibition I proposed a TV program instead. 

Are there any designers you admire always?

I love Christopher Dresser because even though he lived during the 19th century he was creating shapes that could have been designed yesterday. I really like that.  I like the ancient Greeks because of the same reason.  They were so modern and if we come more towards our times I still love Achilles Castiglioni.  He is my master; he was my teacher.  There are so many designers that I like. Among the ones that I am working with, I like Hella Jongerius very much. I like Ayse Birsel’s work a lot, I like Ali Tayar, I like the Campana brothers.  I also like historically important architects such as Le Corbusier and Carlo Scarpa and John Lautner. I like objects more than I like designers.  There are some objects that really make me cry, some are so beautiful, perhaps some don’t even have a designer like ‘Post-it’ notes. 

Do you think that museums have enough architectural exhibitions?

MoMA and Pompidou in Paris are doing them but what about other museums and cultural centers?  I think there is enough architecture, however there aren’t enough design exhibitions.  In terms of architecture I see a lot of exhibitions happening.  MOCA in LA are doing an exhibition called ‘’Hundred Years of Architecture’’, that will tour around the world.  There are museums that are devoted to architecture; for instance the Canadian Center for Architecture in Quebec, or the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York.  There are exhibitions on architecture pretty much everywhere.  It’s funny because exhibitions of architecture are difficult for the public. Not many people know how to read a technical drawing.  Therefore unless you do it well and you make an effort to be really inclusive with the public, it might not work out.  Design exhibitions are even worse to think about.  They’re the ones that aren’t happening. Especially contemporary design. In the States there are hardly any, except for the Cooper-Hewitt Design Museum in New York.  Architecture here and all over the world has an established position already as a cultural reference for people.  Design is still a little confused because people don’t really know why they should admire a big pen unless you explain what the wonder is in a big pen. You can’t really expect people to really have such respect as they have for architecture that took years and billions to build.  It’s about trying to explain how amazing design is and everything that goes into it.   

What are your thoughts about museum stores? What is the future of museum stores? The MoMA store in Soho is a store itself, can the MoMA store exist outside of New York without the MoMA museum? Could there be one in Miami or Istanbul?

The Metropolitan Museum has done that and its working very well. I don’t think we are ready to do that. We want to keep the brand close.  We aren’t going to open museum branches around the world.  We already produce our own objects.  We have a special catalogue but its MoMA products only, so those go around the world.  You can go around the world and find a lot of MoMA products.  But as far as opening stores, I don’t think it’s not viable yet. I don’t think we have that intention yet.  

How do you select the products?

There’s a whole department; its called retail, they work on this.  There’s a department that has inside marketing people, buyers and people that develop products.  So it’s a big collaboration.  I work with them a lot. The buyers travel all over the world.  They go to all the fairs.  They pick up objects and then bring them back and order samples.   We meet once in a room filled with staff.  We just say yes or no, discuss and I also give suggestions.  People send me objects, then there is another person developing products so she shows me the products and we discuss them together.  At times I find a product and send them to her.  It really works that way and the criteria has a lot to do with marketing and sales.  There is a lot of pragmatism.  They are running a store, at the same time there is continuous consciousness and respect for the image of MoMA. 

 What are your ideas about museum stores as a source for other museums?

It depends on the museum.  If a museum like MoMA is so devoted to design.  It makes perfect sense to have products that are made under the label.  Especially a museum like MoMA which is devoted to a certain quality and design.  That means that any product that has the MoMA label is a well-designed product and has a guarantee of quality for the public.  In the 40’s the museum used to have a program in collaboration with the Merchandise Mart in Chicago called ‘Good Design Exhibition’.  Basically, the curators of the museum would pick certain objects produced in America but they would give the Good Design label to, these objects were then exhibited.  These were all consumer products like tea pots, normal things that you could buy everywhere, a hairbrush for example.  In that case MoMA was not producing anything but putting a label of Good Design on to things, so producing things is an even stronger statement.  I think it’s absolutely fine for museums to produce things if they stand for quality.  You just need to be creative, consistent and focus on high quality and then why not? If you have something to sell as a souvenir, as a product.  I don’t have a moral problem with that, I think it’s a very good idea. 

Products sold in the MoMA sore are more conservative compared to the products that are exhibited in the museum.  What is the reason for this?

It is an eternal argument and discussion between us.  They try to sell what brings in money.   They cannot be too adventurous.  They have a business to run.  Sometimes we take risks but you also see what people want and buy.  I have learned a lot from them.  I’ve been working with them very closely for the past 4-5 years, I’ve learned a lot.  I understand and respect what they do and they understand me.  It’s a really a great collaboration and I really enjoy working with them. 

 Many designers have an architectural background.  Especially Italian designers.  Can we say that architects are more successful when it comes to design?

I think that architectural schools, at least how it is done in Italy, provide very good training for designers. When I went to architectural school in Italy, we were taught very general as well as very specific subjects at the same time.  They were general because we were taught a lot of history, history of architecture, history of art, history of design, philosophy.  Hegel, Adorno, Heidegger, Jung… history was really taught and studied seriously.  There is one course I took in which the test was an oral test.  You had to draw by memory, by heart, about 180 different church plans.  So it was really serious, and at the same time you also had to study building sciences, mathematics, very specific studies and design was part of it. What came out of that was a sense of scale that doesn’t really matter.  Design is more of a strategy, a way of thinking, but can be applied to a building, applied to an object or applied to a poster of course.  The materials and techniques involved are different. When you are designing a building it’s a matter of how concrete works. You must understand what you need to do as well as knowing what tools to use; plastics for design, concrete for architecture, ink for print; so for me it was the best preparation.  But instead if you go to a school that only specializes in design; you have a restricted view that can end up being almost artistic which is a very big loss.

 Since there are not that many contemporary architects coming from Italy, do you think history can hinder contemporary architecture?

There aren’t many good architects coming from any part of the world.  There are hundreds of architects but only a very small percentage of good architects.  If you think about it, Italy produced Renzo Piano, France has many great contemporary architects, Spain has many good too.  I don’t think it’s a hindrance.  There are always 5-6 architects from each country that are really outstanding.  If you see countries that don’t have tradition they are not particularly better at contemporary architecture.  It’s not that America has better contemporary architects from the rest of the world.

 MoMA moved from Fifth Avenue to the periphery in Queens.  What is the meaning of this? Why Queens?What is the importance of being in Queens?

We knew we were going into a construction period and we didn’t want to keep the art where you have dust and vibration.  So we knew we had to move the museum elsewhere. But before that, we had already bought the Queens building, because we wanted to consolidate all of our storage.  This is because we have dozens of different storage facilities in Connecticut and New Jersey where all the art is.  So we had bought this building in order to use as storage, and we have bought it here because it’s close enough to the midtown location; easy to access; secure; it has two big loading bays.  So it’s perfect for that.  We also searched midtown for a building where we could have a temporary museum, but no building was good enough in terms of security and climate control; we always had some problems.  So the director at some point said ‘‘we’re already upgrading the building in queens’’ because if you have art storage, it has to have a specific humidity, climate control, perfect security.  ‘‘Why don’t we make it into the museum?’’ The decision came from this change in events, but in my opinion it is a really bold and strong decision because it will remain in history. This area will change because of this, you will see, it is going to change and it’s going to be such an important public image move too, coming to the boroughs, more than the periphery this is the boroughs, the other boroughs.  New York has a tendency to be so focused on Manhattan. Personally, I prefer Queens to midtown with all my heart.  It’s very interesting to open up to the rest of the world, then we will go back when the museum will double in size in 2004-2005.  This will stay as a study center, storage and also there might be some exhibitions so it will stay.

 We polluted the world in the twentieth century; and unconsciously design also contributed to this pollution.  What do you think about design’s responsibility?

I think design always has to be responsible and ethical.  There is not one moment in history where design has been immoral or unethical.  They are just learning curves I guess, especially with new materials; many designers did not really know what would happen.  With Polyurethane foam for instance, that is not recyclable, doesn’t last long, there was an innocent mistake to use it so much.  Now that people know, we are trying to find alternatives. I think design has a lot of responsibility, like to make objects that last longer and definitely made with sustainable materials.  Global Architectural Development has been a leader in research and concept design in Europe since 1990. The firm is headed by design principal Gokhan Avcioglu who works with a dedicated international staff of architects and collaborators. GAD believes that current architecture and urbanism are influenced by media, culture, technological innovations, consumer habits and how these factors affect the built environment at different scales.GAD’s success lies in its methodical research of our client’s programmatic requirements, an iterative process of digital and physical modeling and meticulous process innovation. GAD believes that architecture as a practice relies on understanding historical architectural  movements as well as research and experimentation. GAD is continuously finding new ways to combine these issues in compelling and thought-provoking ways.The firm’s main office is in Istanbul and additional offices in New York, Bodrum, Kazan and Kiev. GAD & Gokhan Avcioglu have designed a wide range of projects from the small scale of a private home to the large scale of an urban masterplan. While many of their realized projects are highly recognized public facilities, such as cultural centers, they have also completed several distinguished private projects including apartment buildings, offices and hotels.The practice has been awarded with numerous prizes.

GAD is a member of the Turkish Society of Builders and Architects (TMMOB), American Institute of Architects (AIA) and Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA)