Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Return of Curiosity

Curiosity as a concept has a long history. In 17th-18th century, the Kunstkammer (the Cabinets of Wonders) proliferated in Europe. One of the categories of artifacts on display was called curiosa: objects, materials, and natural specimens from faraway lands.  Those exotic items were kept to arouse curiosity – a notion that since the age of geographic discoveries was synonymous with quest for knowledge.

In the orthodox Modernist thinking curiosity was not a key concept, and it fell out of fashion. Gradually, it got relegated into the realm of low-brow idle preoccupations, akin to gawking and rubbernecking.  By the 1990s, designers were more concerned with questions of style and taste.

When our book Curuous Boym was published in 2002, in a short introduction, I wrote about the monkey Curious George as a role model for our profession:

He is driven by curiosity to play and experiment with elements of his daily environment. He finds new uses for familiar objects, invents different ways of doing things, tests the limits of materials and objects. Many of his experiments don’t work, and he routinely gets in trouble, but occasionally he reaps praise or a medal. This sounds a lot like designer’s life.

In the second decade of the new century, this is no longer a revelation. “There are myriad forms of design, many of which don’t require movement of materials and artifacts; only curiosity, an internet connection, and the ability to seek, learn, and synthesize from other fields and cultures. These mutants are the future of design,” writes Paola Antonelli. The notion of curiosity has made a spectacular comeback.  I do not know who named the NASA Rover on Mars, yet it is very fitting that this incredible machine carries the name of one of the most endearing human characteristics.

In the last week of August 2012, “curiosity” had a distinction of being the most searched word on Google. Curious George would have been proud.


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