Actually, the hon­or was all mine to be intro­duced by Massimo who’s a god, a leg­end already, and to be here with you. There’s noth­ing bet­ter than being at a con­fer­ence where I don’t know hard­ly any­body. It’s real­ly a big plea­sure. And I’m here today to talk to you about food and design. About what’s cook­ing in design, and what’s design­ing in food. But most of all I’m here to rec­om­mend to you nev­er to let design­ers decide what you will eat, because this is what you’re going to get:

Michael Burton & Michiko Nitta, Algaculture

Designers late­ly are obsessed with how we will eat in the future. They’re so con­cerned about the short­age of food in the world that they’re envi­sion­ing so much of what will hap­pen, and so much of it is cat­a­stroph­ic in their minds. You all think, or maybe not all of you, but many many think that design is cute chairs and graph­ics and maybe fonts. But so many design­ers, instead are think­ing of sce­nar­ios for the future, think­ing of the con­se­quences of the choic­es that we make today. And in this case Michael Burton and Michiko Nitta have decid­ed in the future we will have to rely on algae. And of course we already are, but sea­weed will be the way to go. And they’re think­ing of these kind of sci­ence fic­tion sce­nar­ios that will help us under­stand and sur­vive the future.

Or even worse. Arne Hendriks, a Dutch design­er, is sug­gest­ing we shrink to 23 of our cur­rent size in order to real­ly cope with how much we’re con­sum­ing of the world’s resources. So, it real­ly is a set of par­ty poop­ers is that we’re deal­ing with, in terms of design. And so much so that they’re think­ing of how we can change our phys­i­ol­o­gy, and even start just ges­tat­ing endan­gered species. 

This is Ai Hasegawa, who thinks of how we could actu­al­ly ges­tate a dol­phin as opposed to babies. As opposed to human babies, we should start think­ing of species that are endan­gered right now.

Wonderwater Café menu designs

Even worse, some­times design­ers get so far as to remind­ing us before we even start eat­ing of how much we have con­sumed already by choos­ing those pieces of the menu.

So, I think design­ers real­ly need you, because if, as Julian [Baggini] remind­ed us before, there are so many dif­fer­ent schol­ars and chefs in the past that have talked about the dif­fer­ence between feed­ing and actu­al­ly enjoy­ing, and about eat­ing and instead just get­ting nour­ish­ment, design­ers need to have a lit­tle bit of lev­i­ty and delight inject­ed in what they do, and to stop think­ing of sce­nar­ios like this.

Dunne & Raby, Foragers

These are Dunne & Raby, the great design­ers from London that are the father and moth­er of crit­i­cal design. They’re actu­al­ly think­ing of out­sourced gas­troin­testi­nal sys­tems that in the future will enable us to go back to digest­ing things we stopped digest­ing mil­len­nia ago, such as, once again, algae, or roots, or leaves from trees. A pret­ty sad sce­nario for the future were think­ing of. But I don’t know how many of you are involved in the under­stand­ing of new the­o­ries such as the the­o­ry of the sixth extinc­tion, as Elizabeth Kolbert calls it in her recent book [The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History], or the the­o­ry of the Anthropocene, that thinks of the fact that humans are real­ly con­sum­ing too many resources and there­fore are on the way to extinction.

But before we get to the [?] of extinc­tion, we’re going to enjoy it as much as we can. And we’re going to try to replen­ish as many of the resources as we can. But when design­ers think of food, even though they are so sad, they also try to get a lot of under­stand­ing and lessons from the way food is cooked. And more and more, design­ers are try­ing to cook their objects. They’re try­ing to do alche­my and chem­i­cal reac­tions in what they do. You see it in the way so many objects are designed today. I’m sure that all of you have heard of 3D print­ing, which means chang­ing a slur­ry of plas­tics, and hard­en­ing it through heat or light, which is not that dif­fer­ent from what we do when we cook, for instance pas­ta or many oth­er ingredients.

Markus Kayser, SolarSinter; Tomáš Libertíny, The Honeycomb Vase, 2007;
Dirk Vander Kooij, Endless Chair, 2010

And you can tell how it’s usu­al­ly done with resins, but some oth­er design­ers like Markus Kayser tried to do it instead of using resin using sand, and the sil­i­ca that is in sand that can become glass. So he uses sand in the Sahara Desert and he con­cen­trates sun­beams using the—you know, we used it as chil­dren, the Fresnel lens to burn the leaves. And by doing so he makes beau­ti­ful ves­sels that look at the same time cen­turies old and done yes­ter­day, because they report the scan­ning of 3D print­ing, but they are made of sand and glass.

Or Tomáš Libertíny, that takes forty-five thou­sand bees and sets them on a scaf­fold made of card­board so that they can make beau­ti­ful vas­es such as this.

This idea of grow­ing, this idea of mak­ing using nature, of try­ing to under­stand new ways in which things can be gen­er­at­ed by the rules that are intrin­sic to them (which is what we do when we take nat­ur­al ingre­di­ents and we cook) is hap­pen­ing more and more also because design­ers and sci­en­tists are com­ing together. 

Skylar Tibbits & Arthur Olson, Fluid Crystallization, 2013;
Aranda\Lasch, Rules of Six, 2008

You see here a set of exper­i­ments that are from nanophysi­cists work­ing with archi­tects. Or chemists and biol­o­gists work­ing with design­ers. More and more it’s about crys­tal­liz­ing new forms. More and more it’s about learn­ing from nat­ur­al struc­tures, crys­talline struc­tures, how build­ings, objects, our envi­ron­ment, even infra­struc­ture, can gen­er­ate itself in a way that is at the same time nat­ur­al and also new.

Nature does it best. We all know it. You know, when we look for the ingre­di­ents to make our best dish­es, we look for some­thing that already is the best in nature. And then we try to under­stand how to opti­mize those process­es so they can gen­er­ate some­thing that is even more delightful.

Neri Oxman & Mediated Matter Lab, MIT Media Lab, Silk Pavilion, 2013

And nature has done it best for mil­len­nia. The work of Neri Oxman, who is a great engi­neer and archi­tect from MIT, is par­tic­u­lar­ly impor­tant because she’s try­ing to incor­po­rate the way nature makes things into archi­tec­ture. In this case, you see this pavil­ion that she built at the MIT Media Lab in Cambridge Massachusetts. The con­struc­tion work­ers are actu­al­ly silk­worms. Silkworms that are applied to a struc­ture that is set to light and tem­per­a­ture con­di­tions that are opti­mal for the silk­worms to build exact­ly that pavil­ion. It’s woven, it’s made by nature, it’s biodegrad­able, it’s a per­fect struc­ture that is also per­fect for human beings. 

Jonas Edvard, Biodegradable MYX; Philip Ross, Mycelium Furniture, Mycotecture;
Maurizio Montalti, Continuous Bodies — Bodies of Change, 2013

And so on and so forth, design­ers try to real­ly real­ly cook. Mushrooms seem to be one of the biggest obses­sions togeth­er with silk­worms for so many design­ers. And in par­tic­u­lar mush­room myceli­um, which is what mush­rooms secrete that helps them attach them­selves to trunks of trees. 

The myceli­um of mush­rooms is used by so many archi­tects and design­ers to look for a new way to bind bio­bricks to make struc­tures, to actu­al­ly make it so that a biodegrad­able bind­ing ele­ment can be added to build­ings. And to chairs, and to lamps, and in this case this design­er is actu­al­ly think­ing of a shroud in which dead corpses can be insert­ed so that they decom­pose more nat­u­ral­ly. Fun, huh? I’m talk­ing about real­ly cheer­ful stuff today. 

The Living/David Benjamin, Hy-Fi, 2014

But there is cheer­ful stuff to be done. Because you see here one of the first exam­ples of a struc­ture that is built with bricks made of corn stalks that are kept togeth­er with mush­room myceli­um. And actu­al­ly we have some­body in the audi­ence, Audrey, that has worked on this. She has worked on this beau­ti­ful project that is cur­rent­ly at MoMA PS1 in Long Island City.

Christina Agapakis and Sissel Tolaas, Selfmade

So, real­ly it’s hap­pen­ing. Designers are cook­ing. They’re also cook­ing their own body ele­ments. You see here the work of Christina Agapakis and Sissel Tolaas. Sissel in par­tic­u­lar is a won­der­ful scent artist and design­er, and I am sure that so many of you would love to work with her. She’s based in Berlin. She uses sci­ence and she uses design to dis­till new types of scent. And in this case, Christina and Sissel worked togeth­er to make—sorry to tell you—human cheese. Which is cheese that is har­vest­ed using in part human milk, and bac­te­ria from armpits. So you know, it’s about self-sufficiency for the future. In fact it’s called Selfmade.” So this kind of alche­my, it’s hap­pen­ing a lot, and design­ers are actu­al­ly talk­ing about it.

Formafantasma: Autarky, 2010; Botanica, 2011, De Natura Fossilium, 2013

This is the work of two fab­u­lous Italian design­ers that work in the Netherlands. One is from Sicily, one is from Venetto. They’re called Formafantasma togeth­er. And they have been doing so much of what you have also been doing. Looking to the roots of our cul­ture, look­ing to the way argilla and clay come togeth­er. Or look­ing for these nat­ur­al resins that make up straws and hon­ey and beeswax, and try­ing to teach oth­er design­ers how to cook them, lit­er­al­ly. There’s a depart­ment store in Milan called la Rinascente where they did this per­for­mance in which they had big pots, and they were cook­ing pret­ty much like here we saw noo­dles be made. They were mak­ing resin there and stir­ring it, some­thing that could nev­er hap­pen in United States. There were fumes all over the place and peo­ple throw­ing boil­ing hot resin [at each oth­er]. It was was pret­ty fun.

So, design­ers are cook­ing, too. But what I would like to real­ly talk about is what Massimo was actu­al­ly hint­ing at. Every day, every­day foods, basic foods the come from mate­r­i­al cul­ture, from dif­fer­ent parts of the world, foods that no design­er and no new archi­tect could ever impro­vise. And I would like to link them to an idea of design.

You see here the at” sign. This is some­thing that we acquired in the col­lec­tion of MoMA two years ago, as an exam­ple of design. Why? Because it real­ly answers all the ques­tions that you ask of a great design. It is old. It is ancient. The first time it was encoun­tered was actu­al­ly in medieval man­u­scripts. The monks used it to abbre­vi­ate the Latin prepo­si­tion ad,” which is in rela­tion­ship with in direc­tion. And it’s remained through­out the cen­turies, used by mer­chants, to think of at the rate of,” quan­ti­ty ver­sus price, used by accoun­tants. It was even in the type­writ­ers in the United States at the end of the 19th century.

And it remained through­out his­to­ry. Until in 1971, an elec­tron­ic engi­neer, Ray Tomlinson, was work­ing for a con­trac­tor for the gov­ern­ment of the United States. They were design­ing the Internet. And in par­tic­u­lar he was in charge of the email pro­gram. And he need­ed some­thing to shrink the line of pro­gram­ming code that con­nect­ed the name of the per­son to the name of the com­put­er. It was the name, and then always the same command.

He looked at the key­board of this tele­type that he was using. He saw this beau­ti­ful lit­tle thing, did some research, under­stood that it meant exact­ly what he needed—connection—adopted it, and the first email that he sent was about this sign.

So, tra­di­tion and moder­ni­ty, old and new, sim­plic­i­ty, econ­o­my, and also beau­ty. Because if you think about it, beau­ty is in this piece, is in this object. And beau­ty is not some­thing that costs more than ugli­ness. Beauty is a human right that is avail­able to every­body, and that’s what we seek in design objects.

Objects like this need to be iso­lat­ed from their con­text for peo­ple to notice their beau­ty. And since my job is to explain to as many peo­ple as pos­si­ble the pow­er of design, and I try to do it with every­thing. With the at sign, with the Post-it note, with any sim­ple things, the paper clip. Why not food?

So I start­ed think­ing years ago of a book called Design Bites that would not be a recipe book but a design book that would talk about food from all over the world. And the food would be divid­ed in chap­ters that were designed chap­ters. So you would have a chap­ter with struc­tur­al breads from all over the world. Chapters about focac­cia and mat­zo and naan and bam­my and tor­tilla. Everything that is flat and made from a mix­ture of a cere­al of sorts with some water, maybe some leav­en­ing, and then flat-cooked, or no leav­en­ing at all. 

And that would then become struc­tur­al and sup­port for some­thing else. So you see piz­za and Nutella, Vegemite; what­ev­er goes on the struc­tur­al bread. 

So this idea of real­ly think­ing of the world as a set of designed mate­r­i­al cul­tures that gen­er­ate foods that nobody else could gen­er­ate, that real­ly are picked up gen­er­a­tion after gen­er­a­tion and trans­formed and metab­o­lized into some­thing new.

A chap­ter would be on rolls. So you would have of course tor­tilla rolls, and all of these dif­fer­ent maki rolls, and rugelach. And even though the ingre­di­ents mat­ter so much and the qual­i­ty mat­ters much, it’s more the way things are made that would actu­al­ly be mean­ing­ful to these chapters.

We would get to this kind of con­coc­tion. New mate­ri­als such as a crème brûlée or such as pud­ding. Putting togeth­er cer­tain very sim­ple ingre­di­ents that cre­ate a new con­sis­ten­cy that cre­ates a new way of eat­ing the ingre­di­ents that by them­selves would be so much less than the sum of their parts.

Of course that would be a chap­ter on sushi, and on all these lay­ered ingre­di­ents. And a chap­ter on icon­ic shapes. From the crois­sant to the bagel, and all their background. 

If you think about it, it’s real­ly about how things are made. It’s about…not real­ly you. You would be giv­ing wis­dom to a wider audi­ence for them to under­stand what design is about.

Giorgetto Giugiario, Marille; Philippe Starck for Panzani

Pasta, indeed, would deserve its own chap­ter. And it would deserve its own chap­ter also because of the dif­fer­ent rela­tion­ships between dif­fer­ent parts of the world. Also, it’s impor­tant to note that pas­ta can­not real­ly be touched by design­ers. I’m show­ing to you here two exam­ples of colos­sal fail­ures from the 1980s. And under­stand that the 1980s were extreme­ly prob­lem­at­ic for design. I’m sure they were also for food, if I remem­ber cor­rect­ly, as an ama­teur eater.

But for design it was a real weird moment of celebri­ty design­ers that thought they could design any­thing, like Giorgetto Giugiaro, who always designed cars. All of a sud­den he starts design­ing pas­ta for Barilla, Marille. It was actu­al­ly put in pro­duc­tion. It was in the stores. And nobody bought it. Why? Hello. Ask any Italian woman (or man) and she would have told you that some parts would over­cook and some oth­ers would undercook. The over­cooked part would be flop­py like that [flaps hand at the wrist] while the doubled-up part would be com­plete­ly undercooked.

The same with [Philippe Starck]. This is even more absurd, this kind of strange peace sign, yin and yang sign with two side can­ules. That also did not work at all. It was a com­plete flop. So in some cas­es, these basic units of food can­not be touched by any­body but gen­er­a­tions after generations.

And then pas­ta in itself, because of how diverse it is to accept dif­fer­ent kinds of sauces and to accept dif­fer­ent kinds of prepa­ra­tion, would be for a wide audi­ence a won­der­ful exam­ple of how design is universal. 

We’re used to divid­ing design, art, food, movies, and keep­ing every­thing sep­a­rate. But if you think about it, the act of tak­ing mate­ri­als that are avail­able and elab­o­rat­ing them togeth­er in order to achieve some­thing that—as we said before—is more than the sum of its parts, is some­thing that we all do. So, what is the dif­fer­ence between art and design? We were dis­cussing it before with Massimo. Art is com­plete­ly free from any bounds. Artists can choose whether to be respon­si­ble towards oth­er human beings or not.

Design, much like the prepa­ra­tion of food to a cer­tain extent, has to respond to cer­tain expec­ta­tions. You expect to not be poi­soned, first of all. Maybe you expect to be delight­ed and sur­prised. You expect to have a rela­tion­ship with the food that is pre­pared for you of affin­i­ty, if any­thing else. It’s part of your system.

The same for design. Function used to be some­thing real­ly prag­mat­ic. Today, func­tion some­times is emo­tion, delight, and sur­prise. But it’s still some­thing that peo­ple expect from design. So there are dif­fer­ent degrees of design, just like there are dif­fer­ent degrees of food prepa­ra­tion, but qual­i­ty is some­thing that we expect all the time. And so is the pres­ence of some sort of mate­r­i­al cul­ture or local culture. 


You know, the eter­nal argu­ment about the birth of spaghet­ti and noo­dles is an exam­ple of such. I would rather leave it to his­to­ri­ans to real­ly dis­si­pate any kind of doubt, but as far as we’re con­cerned, they exist togeth­er and they con­tribute to each other.

Of course, in the book you would get to more and more tech­ni­cal and syn­thet­ic kinds of foods. And some­times the cat­e­go­ry of snacks and cere­als, which I’m sure is it some of you a guilty plea­sure and to oth­ers of you a blas­phe­my alto­geth­er, is extreme­ly inter­est­ing. Some of these tech­ni­cal foods we have in the col­lec­tion of MoMA. The jel­ly beans, we have the M&M’s, and we have the Chupa Chups, and what else do we have in terms of foods? 

And peo­ple ask me how do they get stored. And it’s like no, we store it there, and if they go bad we get the M&M’s again. We make sure they are the orig­i­nal col­ors, because there’s been a lot of vari­a­tions in the col­ors. But one of the beau­ties about design objects is that some­thing done today, if it’s the same man­u­fac­tur­ing, it’s the same process, is an orig­i­nal, right? So we can keep on buy­ing M&M’s and jel­ly beans so long as they’re the right flavors.

So they are in the col­lec­tion of MoMA because they are great exam­ples of design, as are—well, actu­al­ly we don’t have bars yet in the col­lec­tion of MoMA. But when we did the sto­ry about hum­ble mas­ter­pieces, we had the Mars Bar because Mr. Forrest Mars was actu­al­ly also the one that intro­duced the M&M’s into the United States, hav­ing learned how to make that kind of coat­ed choco­late in Spain dur­ing the Civil War. So, real­ly inter­est­ing sto­ries about them all.

Then foods on a stick, kind of com­po­si­tions of foods that are still quite con­nect­ed to design, all the way to just a few designed foods. 

Food and design­ers is a lit­tle bit of a dif­fi­cult top­ic, because very often design­ers don’t know how to pre­pare food. Sometimes they’re good at col­lab­o­rat­ing with chefs. And in this case Martí Guixé is a good exam­ple. He’s from Barcelona. And actu­al­ly he stopped design­ing food quite some­time ago. But he became well-known in the 90s for his techno-tapas. They were not very tech­no, they were just ways to dis­trib­ute tapas so that they could be han­dled with­out hav­ing a whole dish and a whole preparation.

But I think I would stop there with the degree of design, because I believe that tru­ly in order to explain design to a wide audi­ence it’s bet­ter to stick to what every­body knows, so that they can under­stand design because they can also eat it. And ulti­mate­ly, what we’re all look­ing for is what we said before: tra­di­tion and inno­va­tion. Something that comes from an antiq­ui­ty that is in affin­i­ty with us as human beings, but is com­plete­ly live­ly today. Something that is func­tion­al and at the same time sub­lime. Something that gives us at the same time nour­ish­ment, func­tion, but also delight and sur­prise. Thank you very much.

Further Reference

Shortly after the acqui­si­tion of the @ sym­bol, Paola also pub­lished “@ in Context: Criteria for an Acquisition” as a follow-up to reactions.

Overview page for the MAD 4 / What is Cooking? event.