Describe your path to what you’re doing now. I was always interested in the large-scale. I went from wanting to be an astronaut to wanting to be a journalist and then an economist. I did two years at Bocconi University in Milan and then switched to architecture as a reaction to that. I was feeling so compressed and wanted to get away from economics because I wasn’t happy; I just did not have the brains for it. I chose architecture because it was a diametrically opposed experience. At that time, architecture in Milan was taught at public university and there were 15,000 students studying architecture in that university. It was like a jungle, but a fun jungle. I studied it without ever thinking I would become a curator or be interested in design. In Italy, design and architecture were mixed together: one could study architecture and then become a fashion designer, interior designer, or, sometimes, an architect. It was a universal-donor faculty.
Before I graduated from school, I started working for Domus magazine, where I continued to work for four more years. In the meantime, I was freelance curating because there were many opportunities. In Italy, there are more institutions and galleries and exhibitions that are sponsored by companies, so it wasn’t an unusual thing to do.
How did you start to get work as a curator? It was a very organic process. For my very first job, I wasn’t a curator; I was just a gofer. It was for the Triennale of Milan, which is a great building that was made for architecture and design exhibitions. I was still in school and one of my professors came into the classroom and asked for people to help with an exhibition called The Imagined Cities. I asked if it paid, and I think he told me it paid $15 a week, so of course I went.
The main curator of that show was the deputy editor of Domus, who later asked me to work for the magazine. My first job at Domus was to curate a traveling show about the history of the magazine, which was founded in 1928. The exhibition was supposed to travel to the Italian cultural institutions in Montreal, Chicago, Vancouver, and Toronto with a budget of only $3,000—which I thought was an enormous amount of money. While I was at Domus working as an assistant curator, I met some of the main curators. I worked with Italo Lupi and Pierluigi Cerri, designers and curators, and the great Achille Castiglioni, who among other wonderful projects also designed installations for exhibitions.
Milan is a much more close-knit and active design community of manufacturers, institutions, and foundations devoted to it. Things happen quite organically. And the public has a true interest in design. If you organize a design show, people come. It’s a uniquely vibrant and popular culture there when it comes to design.
From then until now, there were some stops along the way, right? I got involved in the International Design Conference at Aspen (IDCA), which was quite an amazing institution that was founded in 1949 by Walter Paepcke. Paepcke owned the Chicago-based company, the Container Corporation, and he had a real flair for architecture and design. There are enlightened industrialists in history that have had a real belief in architecture and design as forces for good, and he was one of them. Moreover, he was the one that made Aspen into the city it is today.
IDCA was started by Paepcke with the collaboration of designers like George Nelson, Herbert Bayer, Charles Eames, and many others. The aim of the conference was to cause designers and industrialists to meet so that Paepke could provoke a chain reaction of better products, better standards, better lives. In its history, this conference had the most amazing board members, individuals like Saul Bass, Wendy Keys, Milton Glaser, Michael Crichton, and Jane Thompson.
In 1989, the conference was about Italy. The director of cultural activities at Olivetti, Paolo Viti, hired me to be the Italy coordinator—Lita Talarico, now at the School of Visual Arts (SVA), was the US one. Working on that brought me to New York in a professional manner for the first time. Then I went to Aspen and from there I went to Los Angeles because of a crush on a surfer from Malibu. (laughing) Nothing ever happened with him, but evidently Los Angeles was the place for me to be because I landed a teaching position at UCLA (University of California, Los Angeles) and started my American life.
For three and a half years, I taught in Los Angeles, continued to work at Domus first, and then Abitare, and had a boyfriend in San Francisco. There were no direct flights so I often stopped in New York. While there, I looked for stories, met with architects, and visited museums. After three years of traveling with thousands of slides in my carry-on—because we used slides back then—I was a little tired. Maybe I’m making this a little too narratively perfect, but I remember opening I.D. Magazine and there was an ad for my position at MoMA. I already knew the curators there, but they knew me as a journalist. I answered the ad, and I got the job—my first museum job—and I’ve been there ever since 1994.
“…I remember opening I.D. Magazine and there was an ad for my position at MoMA. I already knew the curators there, but they knew me as a journalist. I answered the ad, and I got the job…”
Was creativity a part of your life when you were growing up? I cannot believe that anyone would ever tell you that creativity was not part of their upbringing. I think there’s creativity everywhere. In some parts of the world, there are much more urgent matters of survival, so maybe creativity takes a backseat or gets channeled towards basic needs—we have to be honest about reality. But, frankly, I believe creativity exists everywhere and manifests itself in different ways. For instance, I was always quite stunned by the ease and comfort that New York has with contemporary art, which was definitely not the case in Italy. I grew up in a place where the comfort was with design, food, and ancient art. Here, it’s contemporary art.
When it comes to my family circle, creativity was definitely present. Once again, it was shown to me in forms that might be unexpected. For instance, my dad, who is retired now, was a surgeon. He paid for his university by correcting proofs for newspapers and playing jazz piano. I have some paintings he did when he was young and they’re quite great. My mom had a different kind of creativity, maybe less explicit. She was also a doctor, a hematologist. I had two scientists as parents, and I always saw them as incredibly creative.
I grew up in a place where design and fashion were absolutely normal and design was everywhere. When I was a teenager, my sister’s best friend’s mom was the PR person for GFT, which later took over Armani. When I was 15, I was hired as a gofer at fashion shows to keep the press separate from the buyers. Then I started going to work in a PR office after school every day until I was 18. At that point, I was given the option to work full-time there, but I decided to go to university instead.
Italy is very provincial for many things, but cosmic when it comes to others, like design and food. At the hair salon, you’ll find People, but there are also many architecture and design magazines. And food is another very important element in the upbringing of any Italian person. We’re spoiled brats! (laughing) It’s very funny—you grow up with an education of high standards.
Those things were just always a part of your life. Yes, they were no big deal. What I try to tell people is that good design and good food were normal. Good Parmigiano was not something you had to go to Union Square on pilgrimage and pay thousands of dollars for. If you were cooking at 7 o’clock and needed Parmigiano, you would run downstairs and get some.
You’re lucky to have grown up with access to all of that. So, did you have a moment when you knew that curation was something you wanted to do or knew you were good at? No. Truly, no. I just started doing it. I know that I’m good at it now, but there was never a moment when I decided to do it. In a way, I’ve always believed that curation is not just doing a show in a physical space. A few years ago, people started talking about curators for everything, even the olive oil aisle of the supermarket. Some people were outraged and stated that curators are only those who come out of an art school, but I don’t believe that. I think that arranging objects of any kind in a meaningful and communicative way is curation. Also, I believe that some kinds of curation are like journalism. Interestingly, I’ve always been doing the same thing on different platforms. Besides working in fashion when I was a teenager, I was also writing for the style section of the newspaper in Milan. To me, writing essays or quick articles, doing exhibitions, and teaching are all means of organizing examples in a way that is meaningful and communicative.
Have you had any mentors who have encouraged or influenced you? I’ve had quite a few. One of the most important ones was Paolo Viti, who I mentioned before. He was the head of cultural activities at Olivetti and later became the director of Palazzo Grassi, a museum in Venice. He was the one who involved me in the Aspen Conference, and he taught me that the world is there for the taking. It was the first time I had a sense of this international scope of what I could do.
Another great mentor is Italo Lupi. When we first started working together, he was the art director of Domus and then he became the Editor in Chief of Abitare. He gave me so many opportunities and taught me a lot.
Another great mentor was Giulio Castelli. He was the founder of Kartell, the plastic furniture company. He was a chemical engineer and went to school at the Polytechnic of Milan—which is where I went to architectural school, by the way. His teacher was Giulio Natta, who won a Nobel Prize in the 1960s for his discovery of polypropylene. Giulio Castelli decided to take his teacher’s success and create a whole company based on it. He was an entrepreneur, an engineer, and the most amazing human being on earth. He taught me so much about energy, loyalty, and how to be a mensch. He treated his employees so well, he was open-minded, and, more than anything, his marriage to his wife, Anna Castelli, was a paragon. She was a great designer and quite a difficult person, and I think they were married for 60 years. When you see some of the most iconic Kartell examples, those were by his wife.
Another mentor was Sara Little Turnbull. She is a great lady who was an editor at House Beautiful here in New York in the 1950s. She married a prominent, wealthy man from Oregon and moved there. After her husband passed away, she endowed a chair at Stanford University and had her own laboratory at Stanford where she studied the process of change. She was the most eccentric and wonderful person, and we met because we saw and liked each other’s hats while at a gallery in San Francisco.
I’m sure there are many more—I’m blessed to have many people who’ve helped me.
Has there been a point when you’ve taken a big risk to move forward? Risk is very subjective. To me, moving to the States was not a risk, but it might be for others. Was it a risk when I switched from economics to architecture in school? I don’t know. I think that I was privileged and lucky. I have worked really hard, but I didn’t see things as risk-taking, even if they were seen as that from the outside. They didn’t scare me. There are other things that scare me, but those choices didn’t.
Are your family and friends supportive of what you do? Let’s put it this way: my parents were always super supportive, but they were a little perplexed. My father is an academic; he had a linear career with some detours and adventures, but mostly in academia. I was on staff at Domus, but I was a traveling editor, almost like a freelancer. It was never a steady job with a routine. Instead, MoMA was my first steady job.
Going back even further, my father had a heart attack when I moved from economics to architecture school because it was where people went when they didn’t want to do anything in life.
The first time I visited the Polytechnic University of Milan to see how it was, I walked around the building and there were no directions or signs. At one point, I found myself in the basement and there was a red door with rap music pumping behind it. I opened the door and it was dark. After my eyes adjusted to the dark, I saw many, many people. Two guys were moving really fast drawing graffiti on the wall; another guy, who was dressed in a fluorescent green sweater, was on the mic, talking really fast in Italian. That guy turned out to be Corrado Levi, one of the most revered professors of architectural school, and the guys performing were Toxic and A1, two artists from New York. Levi was teaching graffiti art as part of architectural school, so I was happy as a clam. My father was not particularly happy that I left a private economics university to switch to architecture, but, hey, it was $400 a year and I made good of it.
Now, my husband is totally supportive—too much sometimes. I wish he was a little more critical. (laughing)
“I like to say that ideas are a dollar a pound, but it’s the ones you decide to make happen that really count. It’s tough, but there’s always a way to make them happen.”
Do you feel a responsibility to contribute to something greater than yourself? That’s everything that moves me. I don’t see any other reason to live. Of course, there’s a lot of ego involved, but there’s also an existential decision. I don’t know what else we can do on earth to help other people move on. As we say in Italy, I fell into design like Parmesan falls onto spaghetti. I believe that design is one of the forces that can build a better place for humans to inhabit and to leave when the times comes. I’m happy to have my mission cut out for me.
What do you see as your contribution through your work? I hope it will expand the idea of design. I find it absolutely limiting that people think of design as cute chairs and cars and posters—it’s so crazy. To me, it’s amazing that some parts of our cultural establishment move away from design when the most established artists look to design as a way to make their ideas become a part of life. Design is a way to enter the world. It’s the interface between whatever idea you might have—scientific, technological, or even artistic—and real life.
Are you creatively satisfied? Oh, yeah. I always am. I always find a way to realize at least some of the ideas that come to mind. I like to say that ideas are a dollar a pound, but it’s the ones you decide to make happen that really count. It’s tough, but there’s always a way to make them happen.
How do you choose which ideas to work on and which to discard? Some of them make themselves urgent and others are made urgent by the outside world. For example, today during lunch I was talking with a colleague about 9/11. Before 9/11, I was working on an exhibition called Emergency, which was all about medical equipment, fire trucks, ambulances, and triage centers. When 9/11 happened, Julie Iovine from the New York Times called me and said, “Paola, I’m writing a story about the design world’s reaction to 9/11. What about your show?” I hadn’t thought about it, but it was a show about everything that was happening in the world at that time. I decided not to do the show anymore because the urgency had surpassed any kind of reason to do anything. I waited for four years and then did a show about safety, which was about prevention rather than reaction.
In 2008, I did a show called Design and the Elastic Mind. I didn’t wake up one day a few years earlier thinking it was urgent. Sometimes you don’t know why you choose something; you just trust your intuition. My intuition told me that I needed to explore the coming together of design and science, which turned out to be timely. Sometimes ideas happen by chance, and other times they’re more connected to what’s going on in the world.
Right now, the Design and Violence site is something that could have been done a few years ago and still have been topical and timely. It became urgent to me now because of where I am now in my life and career as a curator. I’m dangerously distant from an esthetically-pleasing, more formal kind of design. I say dangerously because I don’t want to burn my bridges with that kind of design, but I feel compelled to deal with real life—and real life is not about being able to afford a $10,000 chair.
“I find it absolutely limiting that people think of design as cute chairs and cars and posters—it’s so crazy…Design is a way to enter the world. It’s the interface between whatever idea you might have—scientific, technological, or even artistic—and real life.”
I definitely appreciate that. What advice would you give to a young person starting out? If you really believe in it, go for it. The thing I like about this moment is that you don’t have to immediately define yourself as an artist or designer; you can try different avenues. I really love it because ambivalence, ambiguity, and these in-between states are so conducive and perfect for creative people. I had the luck of being able to test different waters, and I think that’s the best thing that can happen to someone creative. It’s not for everybody; some people need a more defined path. But if you have a curiosity to see where you can really shine, I think this is a wonderful moment.
How does living in New York influence you? Number one, it definitely makes my blood run faster. Two, I love being surrounded by New Yorkers. They don’t have to be bonafide creative types; they can be any New Yorkers. I’m very stimulated by the fact that people work hard, are energetic, have opinions, and value what they do. I like being surrounded by that energy. It’s also quite exhausting, but that’s okay.
I don’t utilize the creative aspects of the city as much as I used to in the past because I cannot go to Bushwick and Bed-Stuy every night. When I moved here, those types of neighborhoods were much more accessible and close. I no longer find Chelsea to be a place where I get inspired, even though I sometimes go to the galleries. Inspiration happens on the subway or in Bushwick and Bed-Stuy, and not because I like hipsters. It’s about being around people who are trying to do something new and shops that aren’t part of larger chain stores.
Window-shopping has always been a big part of my life. In Milan, I had a two-hour walk that I took at night. I looked at windows without interruption, and it was wonderful. Right now in New York it’s impossible to find a sequence of stores that belong to independent designers doing their own thing. The last time I was in Sydney, Australia, I was so happy to walk and look at all of the design and fashion stores, because it was different from what we have here; there was no Zara or H&M.
Is it important to you to be part of a creative community of people? Yes, but I cannot only be surrounded by creatives. Otherwise, it becomes a little bit too abstract. I really love scientists and engineers, and people in general.
What does a typical day look like for you? There’s not a typical day because it depends on whether I’m in New York or traveling to speak, for a show, or to do research. I try to travel as much as possible because I love it. When I’m in New York, I usually wake up at 6am and go to the gym almost every day. I do my best work in the mornings, so I sometimes work at home first. Then I go to MoMA. I try not to have meetings in the mornings, but today I had several.
Today I worked on the book for Design and Violence along with the next installation of the collection. Then I talked on the phone with speakers who will be at a panel I’m hosting about philanthropy. Later I have a meeting with David van der Leer, the director of the Van Alen Institute, which is a foundation here in New York. I’m going to see their new space, which I’m very much looking forward to. And then I’m going to go home and crash. I very often have things going on in the evening. I’m a typical New Yorker: I’m cheerfully and gleefully over scheduled with a little problem of mental obfuscation after a little while. (laughing) Otherwise, that’s my life.
What kind of legacy do you hope to leave? I hope I’ll be remembered like other curators who I really respect, like Bernard Rudofsky. His shows were so incisive. He did a show in 1964 called Architecture Without Architects. Modernism was already declining and the show was made of black and white pictures of vernacular dwellings, which was a slap in the face of the big architects at that time. In fact, people were so against him doing the show that it took 12 years to put together. Rudofsky used vernacular dwellings to show the ingenuity of people all over the world and demonstrate that there’s no need to have a name attached once a material culture develops a new way of building.
In the 1940s, Rudofsky did an exhibition called Are Clothes Modern?, which was here at MoMA. It was during the time of Dior’s New Look and the wasp waist, and the show asked what kind of a body a woman would need to wear those styles—it was hilarious. I’m hoping to be remembered like Rudofsky, as someone who changed the way people think about design. I hope to be remembered as someone who puts new ideas, or doubts, into people’s minds. I do care, but once I’m gone, I’ll be gone. I believe in an afterlife, but it’s one where I won’t care about anything. I like to say that heaven is satisfied curiosity.
“I had the luck of being able to test different waters, and I think that’s the best thing that can happen to someone creative.”