Opinion

MoMA Acquires “@” But What Did They Get?

MoMA’s Senior Curator of Architecture & Design, Paola Antonelli pointed out that, “We have acquired the design act in itself and as we will feature it in different typefaces, we will note each time the specific typeface as if we were indicating the materials that a physical object is made of.”

The Museum of Modern Art’s design department has been making some very unorthodox — though welcome — acquisitions in the last few years, including most recently the “@.”

In 2007, MoMA announced that it had acquired the Helvetica making it the first canonized typeface allowed into the hallowed halls of the Modern.

Back when that happened, I asked Helvetica exhibition curator Christian Larsen what this meant and how they planned to acquire contemporary fonts that don’t have artifacts like Helvetica’s early metal letters, he responded:

“In the case of Helvetica, it was easy because there is an artifact there, but nowadays in digital design it is a tough question, we’re still working on it. We’re talking to Emigre magazine about acquiring fonts from them and we are both unsure how to do this,” Larsen explains. “It is an interesting issue since we seem to be chipping away on the object-based reality of the museum, and taking a second look at the question of process.”

That shift away from objects continues and as I pointed out on Twitter last night, MoMA reportedly paid $70,000 for Tino Sehgal’s idea-based “The Kiss” but the “@” didn’t cost them a cent. Sounds like design collections have it easy.

After my initial tweet, the snark of the Internet shot back and two commenters had this to say about MoMA’s news:

  • Via @jonnymoon: It lowers the value of the “:)” in my personal collection, that’s for sure.
  • Via @heartasarena: re: “@” However, it TOTALLY raises the value of cuss words in comics.

MoMA’s Senior Curator of the Department of Architecture and Design, Paola Antonelli took to MoMA’s blog to discuss the “@” acquisition and she contrasted it with Sehgal’s piece (emphasis mine):

Tino Sehgal’s “Kiss” presents interesting affinities with @ in that it is mutable and open to interpretation (the different typefaces one can use) yet still remains the same in its essence: it does not declare itself a work of design, but rather reveals its design power through use; it is immaterial and synthetic, and therefore does not add unnecessary “weight” to the world.

A big difference between the two pieces is the price, which brings to an extreme the evanescent difference between art and design. Being in the public realm, @ is free. It might be the only truly free — albeit not the only priceless — object in our collection.

We have acquired the design act in itself and as we will feature it in different typefaces, we will note each time the specific typeface as if we were indicating the materials that a physical object is made of.

I wonder if “@” will receive a solo show.

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