Why MoMA’s R&D Director Will Speak at This Year’s James Beard Conference


The James Beard Foundation’s annual food conference is coming up on October 19 and 20, and this year the theme is “Rethinking the Future of Food.” As described on their website, this focus hones in on how science and technology “are unfolding every day with consumers feeling like recipients of their food system, instead of engaged participants.” The organizers hope the conference will “rethink this equation and ask ourselves, ‘What is the future of food we want to create?'”

Aptly, they’ve lined up an impressive group of innovators including Restaurant Opportunities Centers United’s co-founder and co-director Saru Jayaraman, Office of School Nutrition for Detroit Public Schools’ executive director Betti Wiggins, Food Tank president Danielle Nierenberg and even NASA scientist Dr. Ellen Stofan. US Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack will also be in the house, and discussions include topics like “The Future is Good Dirt” and “Health or Hype? Dealing With Information Overload.” 

The event, which is open to the public (email this address if you’re interested in attending) will also be streamed live on their website. We caught up with Paola Antonelli, senior curator of the Department of Architecture and Design as well as the Director of Research and Development at the Museum of Modern Art, to talk about her closing address, entitled “What Is The Future We Want to Create?” We also encourage you to watch her MAD address above, which touches on the possibilities, potential and pleasure of a well-designed food supply.

The following responses have been shortened and paraphrased for clarity.

Edible Manhattan: What will be your focus at the James Beard Conference?
Paola Antonelli: The talk is focused on the future we want to design. It’ll be about the role of design in developing the future, and specifically the role of a special kind of design — critical design.

EM: What is critical design?
PA: Here’s an example: The two most famous critical designers are Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby, and they’ve been working for a long time. They did a project called Foragers, and it hypothesizes that in the future, we’ll run out of food for human beings to eat, and we might have to revert to eating things that we haven’t eaten for centuries like leaves, roots and algaes. Our bodies don’t have the kind of mechanisms that digest them; we’ve atrophied. They are hypothesizing an outsourced gastrointestinal system that people will need to wear in order to predigest the leaves, roots and algae.

It’s not science fiction, but it’s like an alert. By making a design object that’s also like a future scenario, you alert the present to possible consequences. Design is about responding to a need today. This is the type of design that shows us the possible future so that we can adjust our aim if we want to.

EM: How does critical design relate to the future of food?
PA: I believe designers are very good at taking big revolutions and moments of awareness in science and technology and translating them for every day people. For example, the internet used to be lines of code — incomprehensible to the average person. That’s what designers do — they take something huge and make it translatable. If we all become aware of an issue, then we can all do our little bit, so we can all change very simple things in everyday life. I believe in the small gestures, like making sure the oil from your frying pan doesn’t get thrown into the sink. These small gestures make a difference in the balance of the world.

EM: Why is it important to think about food as a form of design?
The best food design is completely resistant to big names. One thing I find hilarious is that pasta [shapes] have been completely resistant to innovations by designers — only the pasta that has been developed over centuries by armies of women is really always resistant.

Food is a means of communication that reaches deep, literally into our stomach. Everyone is interested in it at a pre-rational level, and that’s why it’s so important to education… Food is a form of design and a means to an end. I see food as another facet of human activity, but also one of the most powerful ones.

Featured photo credit: James Beard Foundation

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