Don’t accuse the Museum of Modern Art of being too big for its…brushes. The famous gatekeepers of masterworks by Van Gogh, Picasso, and Warhol, announced last week that it had acquired for its permanent collection the original set of emoji, the 176 digital pictograms developed in 1999 by Japanese phone company NTT DoCoMo. This latest digital acquisition comes 6 years after the @ symbol was welcomed into the collection of MOMA’s Department of Architecture & Design—and where these original emoji will also reside.
While emoji are abundant and ubiquitous today, it’s useful to remember that in 1999, a decade before Apple’s App Store opened, they were revolutionary. The ‘Father of Emoji’ is Shigetaka Kurita, whose work for NTT DoCoMo included creating heiroglyphics for the first major mobile Internet system, and who found inspiration in China’s pictographic written lanugage and Japan’s manga tradition, among other sources. Kurita’s resulting suite of 176 charmingly rudimentary symbols would lay the groundwork for the evolution of emoji from 1999’s primitive pixel arrangements to today’s sophisticated animations.
In announcing the acquistion, Paul Galloway, the department’s Collection Specialist, waxed poetic. “These humble masterpieces of design planted the seeds for the explosive growth of a new visual language,” he wrote, adding, “Emoji tap into a long tradition of expressive visual language…augmenting both the expressive content of the text and the overall aesthetic quality of the printed page .” And you thought those smiley faces were a waste of space.