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The art arcade: MoMA collects 40 years of innovative design

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In a small, twisting corner of the Museum of Modern Art, an exceedingly eclectic new collection hopes to represent the most innovative concepts in the last few decades of design. The new exhibition, which opened Saturday, is aptly titled "A Collection of Ideas" and it covers everything from Minecraft to drones to riot suits, framing each as a work that pushes new forms forward — despite each piece being individually quite commonplace.

"I'm always dealing with the fact that design is often discussed only in the style pages of magazines, or sometimes in the business pages," Paola Antonelli, MoMA's senior curator of architecture and design, tells The Verge. "It's so difficult to show people that it's not about decoration, it's not about superfluity — it's about real life."

And the new exhibition's most eye-catching selections are in fact those that stay closest to what we know. On one side of the collection is the "@" sign, on the other is a towering model of Google Maps' location pin. They're ubiquitous symbols — and perhaps easily overlooked because of it — but they're critical to daily interactions online.

The exhibition also includes what is effectively a small arcade: a hallway filled with classic Atari games, from Asteroids to Pong. The games are displayed on screens set just slightly into the wall — though there's no frame around them, they're given the same tasteful display, spacing, and plaque that any classic painting might. Naturally, you can play them too.

MoMA has been collecting video games for several years now, and they’ve come to look quite natural alongside more traditional works of art. In this case, the Atari works are featured for pushing forward a particular medium — Asteroids, for example, is noted for its early use of vector graphics. Elsewhere, the new collection also features Minecraft, pointing toward its algorithmically generated worlds that make no two players' experiences alike.

"Times change but human nature doesn't that much."

A large portion of the new collection has a similar focus, highlighting how interaction and design have evolved alongside one another. Largely, everything else in the collection plays off of that by utilizing digital tools in their creation and conception or by taking pragmatic objects and displaying them as traditional art.

One series of works highlights how digital tools have aided in the recreation of natural forms: a chair with joints modeled after bones, a wooden sculpture that recreates a detailed scan of a scorpion's paw. Another highlights objects involved with violence, presenting a drone and a tool used for de-arming minefields as though they were traditional pieces in an installation. "They're beautiful objects with tragic roles," Antonelli says.

Without question, these objects can feel disconnected within MoMA's new collection, as their aim is to highlight the museum's newer works — not to tell a strict narrative. "Sometimes," says Antonelli, "it's better to give more breadth and not connect the dots in ways that people can connect themselves."

But nonetheless, there's still a story buried there that highlights how design has persisted and evolved across decades and centuries. "Times change but human nature doesn't that much," Antonelli notes. "There are some immutable ideas in design, and some that change a lot."

Above: Hyper Street Fighter II: The Anniversary Edition. Yoshiki Okamoto, Akira Yasuda, Capcom, 2003 (originally released as Street Fighter II: The World Warrior in 1991).

MoMA 'A Collection of Ideas' photos


Lyle Rains, George "Ed" Logg, Atari, 1979