Flickr user AIGA/NY

Why not Antonelli? That has to be the question after the announcement of the appointment of the Martino Stierli as the new Philip Johnson Chief Curator of Architecture and Design at the Museum of Modern Art last week. I am sure that I am not the only one in the design field wondering why Paola Antonelli did not get the job she has long deserved.

(Disclaimer: Although there has been published speculation, I have never sought, or been considered for this position. Also, Antonelli is a friend of mine.)

It is hard to think of anyone other than Antonelli who has consistently put together better, more thought-provoking, beautiful, and intellectually rigorous exhibitions on design, who has been more daring and savvy in building a design collection, and, most importantly, who has been more articulate about the importance of architecture and design in a manner that a broad audience can understand.

© Robin Holland

Who else has been the voice of design on everything from “The Colbert Report” to “Charlie Rose?” Who else accessioned “@”, the at sign, as part of the permanent collection of our temple of modernism? Who else has shown good design in emergency equipment, websites, and canonical objects and images of the 20th century? Who else has promoted the importance of good design more tirelessly and has the awards and accolades to show for it?

Yet, for at least the second time, MoMA—which, for better or worse, defines the place of modern architecture and design in our visual culture as does no other institution—has passed her over to head the department where she has worked as a curator (after having been trained as an architect and having worked as a critic) since 1994. The perception arises that it must be because she has focused on design, as opposed to architecture.

©Alessandro Frigerio Zurich
©Alessandro Frigerio Zurich

The situation is slightly more baffling because Stierli has such an unknown quality. He has produced no exhibitions of importance, has not overseen collections, and has few major publications to his name. He is a professor in Zurich who has written about Las Vegas and Los Angeles. I contacted a few friends around Zurich and none of them knew of him or his work.

What he has written that I have read is thoughtful and perceptive, and it could very well be that he is a “sleeper” that MoMA in its wisdom and global reach has unearthed in Swiss academia. I look forward to seeing what he will do.

But the price of MoMA being so much the Temple of Modernism is that there is a large spotlight on every decision it makes exactly because what that institution shows, collects, and promotes will influence how many perceive architecture and design. Its choices for its arbiters of enshrinement matter, and thus they deserve critical attention.

It is also true that none of us can know how Antonelli, or anyone else, functions in a large and complicated bureaucracy such as MoMA.

But, the appointment of yet another white male dedicated to architecture and planning in the traditional sense reinforces the impression that MoMA considers women, as well as the disciplines of industrial, graphic, and furniture design, to be inferior.

I look forward not only to MoMA’s future program under Stierli, but also to being proven wrong about this bias. I also look forward to seeing all the important work Antonelli will surely continue to do there. I know she does not need another title to validate her activities and status, but she, and the kind of design she has championed with such vigor, deserve the respect and recognition that a culture dominated by male lovers of art first, and secondly, architecture, has so far withheld.

Aaron Betsky is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.

Top image used via a Creative Commons license with Flickr user AIGA/NY.