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Paperclips and Samosas: a Q&A with Paola Antonelli on the Design of Food

GOOD asks the Senior Curator of Architecture and Design at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City what design can do for food.

Throughout this week, I'm hosting an online debate about the future of food. In a world where we can change what people eat by manipulating DNA but also by re-arranging school lunch lines, how should we make sure that our food is designed for the greater good?

To give this conversation some context, I've been asking design and food experts from a variety of different backgrounds what they think about the possibilities and pitfalls of food redesign, as well as what role the public should have in setting priorities for food research and development. Come back to GOOD each day this week to read what they have to say, and then share your own opinions here.

Paola Antonelli is Senior Curator of Architecture and Design at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. Her mission, as she explained in this TED video, is to show how design affects every aspect of life. For her, a Post-It note is as important an example of good design as an Eames chair.

Paola is also originally from Italy, so she is—unsurprisingly—passionate about good food. I stole fifteen minutes from her packed schedule to ask her about what design can do for food, and she responded with her trademark energy and enthusiasm, explaining the similarities she sees between a samosa and a paperclip, as well as the impossibility of creating a new pasta shape.

GOOD: What are the potential benefits that could come from thinking about food from a design point of view? In other words, what can design do for food?

Paola Antonelli: I think it can do a lot. There are many different levels of design that apply to food. To start with, at the molecular level, there are all of the genetically modified foods. Right now, they are really demonized, but in my opinion, there are some structural changes that can be applied to food that could actually be very beneficial to the world. Let's not forget that we've been modifying and mutating food for centuries by hybridizing animals and vegetables—not at the molecular level, of course, but still.

There is also design at the scale of the object itself. I've been working—for way too many years at this point—on a book that treats units of food as design objects. Units of food are usually objects that are designed by a whole material culture. A whole civilization designed the samosa, for instance. A whole population has designed the churro.

There is something exquisitely economical about all these objects that then become food. They're really design exemplars, in the sense that you have made the best out of the means at your disposal—and sometimes in poor countries, the means are very meager. When I say "the best," I mean not only something that gives you nourishment, but also something that gives you variety and delight.

So there are incredible examples of food design at the molecular level and at the unit level. Then, of course, there's a whole discussion about designing the system for the production and distribution of food. These are the three major scales. Of course, there are other scales at which design operates, like the places where food is sold, served, or prepared, but I consider those to be interior design, not food design. My interest in food design is at the level of the molecular, the unit, and the systems of delivery and production.

GOOD: What kind of strengths and weaknesses do you see in food design at each scale?

Antonelli: They are really three universes that each have their own laws. The world of genetic and molecular modification is rife with a lot of controversy about motivations, profits, and patents—it's a very complicated space because it's a world of intense innovation and uncertainty at the moment. It's a world of revolutions that have not yet been tested. It's both dangerous and exciting, and I see it as having great potential.

There is also a lot of interesting design going on at the level of the food unit. So many chefs and designers are re-inventing food at the unit level these days—Ferran Adrià, Marti Guixé, and many others. I love everything that they do. It's so interesting to see how they experiment.

But I really love the foods that don't have names attached—the ones that have been perfected over the centuries by housewives or Neapolitan pizza makers. Those are the ones that really make me wonder. For instance, did you know that pasta is totally resistant to new design? Every great designer that tries his hand—and usually it is a guy, which makes it even more pathetic—at making pasta fails completely. Giorgetto Giugiaro, Philippe Starck—all total failures. There's just no way—pasta has to be developed over the centuries, by common sense, as a part of an entire material culture.

Still, design at the unit level is still super lively. Everyone is trying their hand at designing a new way to make bread or a new way to cook an egg. There's a lot of minimalism and invention going on there.

As far as the design of systems of production and delivery goes—oh my! It's another volcano of possibilities and of fights. On the one hand, there was the global food crisis of 2007-8, when prices shot up, and then, on the other hand, every summer on my TV in Italy I see somebody trying to destroy tons and tons of tomatoes as a trade protest. It's all about the absurd difficulty of bringing things where they are needed.

There's this huge disparity and imbalance in the world, and yet we're paralyzed by difficulties in communication and failures of system planning. Yet, even in this area, there's a lot of exciting redesign work going on, although to me, the problems of this scale are only marginally to do with design. Design is useful for thinking about systems, but it's not central.

GOOD: Your point about pasta's resistance to new design brings up an interesting question about the pace of innovation. Do you think that change is able to happen more quickly at the molecular level than the unit level?

Antonelli: There are some foods that are almost immutable. A few years ago at MoMA, we did an exhibition of anonymous design called Humble Masterpieces. Well, pasta is like that. You should think of the samosa as if it was a paperclip, and then you can think of Ferran Adrià's egg yolk made of coffee as like a stunning one-off ceramic. They will both be timeless, but the paperclip is such an expression of civilization that it can't be done by one person, and the ceramic is the creative expression of one person, one artist, or one designer. They are just two different types of design.

GOOD: Who do you think should be setting the priorities for designing food moving forward? Do you think public funding would help expand the field in a positive way?

Antonelli: You know, I don't know. Some people think that complete democracy is the way to go with everything. I don't. I think people should respond to innovations made by groups or individuals. The public can vote on the outcome of experimentation, but experimentation doesn't happen by committee.

If I think in terms of the different scales, then at the systemic level I believe there should definitely be much more public investment, policy, and regulation. Here, somebody like Michael Pollan is the expert—I'm really an ignoramus compared to him.

When it comes to the molecular level—scientific experiments with DNA or different molecules—I think that the traditional route is often the good one. That means that individual researchers should have to sweat their way to get the funds for the most radical experiments, or they should innovate in school, when they have the freedom to do it.

But, of course, it all goes back to the question of whether I think there should be more public funding for design—and there, my answer is "Oh my God, yes!" And not just for food design—I think we should value design much more highly than we currently do, and invest in it accordingly.

GOOD: If there was more money available for design in general, and food design as part of that, there would still be the question of distribution. How would we make sure funding went to the right people and projects? Are there any models for this that you think work particularly well?

Antonelli: The exemplary state is The Netherlands. Designers are really supported there. It's a much smaller country, though. When you look at the United States, it's so huge. And in Europe, it is understood to be the government's role to support culture, which is not the case in America. The Netherlands has this belief in design, art, and architecture, and it really supports them, and that's fantastic. In places like Delft, you have the Technical University working with the art school seamlessly. That's my obsession—getting design and science to work together. Government support helps build the bridges to make that happen.

Images: (1) Paola Antonelli; (2) chocolate printer parts and a seed safe by Marti Guixé; (3) "Marille" pasta shape designed by Giorgetto Giugiaro and "Mandala" pasta shape designed by Philippe Starck; (4) riots in Pakistan during the global food crisis of 2007-8; (5) a paperclip and two samosas.

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