Today, New York’s Museum of Modern Art announced that it has acquired the @ symbol for its collection. Brought to prominence by American electrical engineer Ray Tomlinson, MoMa explains why they chose to acquire the @ symbol, and the historical context from which it evolved to its current place in the digital world:
Is @ Design?
The appropriation and reuse of a pre-existing, even ancient symbol—a symbol already available on the keyboard yet vastly underutilized, a ligature meant to resolve a functional issue (excessively long and convoluted programming language) brought on by a revolutionary technological innovation (the Internet)—is by all means an act of design of extraordinary elegance and economy.
Why @ Is in the Collection of The Museum of Modern Art
Tomlinson performed a powerful act of design that not only forever changed the @ sign’s significance and function, but which also has become an important part of our identity in relationship and communication with others. His (unintended) role as a designer must be acknowledged and celebrated by the one collection—MoMA’s—that has always celebrated elegance, economy, intellectual transparency, and a sense of the possible future directions that are embedded in the arts of our time, the essence of modern.
Dating as far back to the sixth or seventh century, @ was meant to fuse the Latin preposition ad—meaning “at”, “to,” or “toward”—into a unique pen stroke. Tomlinson gave the @ symbol a completely new function, in step with its origins of building relationships between entities and establishing links based on objective and measurable rules, a key trait now embodied in computer programming language.
What exactly did MoMa acquire, and how will it be displayed? Paola Antonelli, Senior Curator, Department of Architecture and Design explains:
We have acquired the design act in itself and as we will feature it in different typefaces, we will note each time the specific typeface as if we were indicating the materials that a physical object is made of.