Emojis are an institution. They have their own movie, and their original designs have now been deemed contemporary art. New York’s Museum of Modern Art, which is home to Van Gogh’s Starry Night and Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans, is now adding emojis to its permanent collection.
The museum announced this week that it had acquired the first generation of emoji designs. These 176 icons are much more rudimentary than our present designs, and were designed by artist Shigetaka Kurita in 1999. These icons were created for use with Japanese pagers and phones, and each fits within 12 × 12 pixels.
The designs were originally for telecom company NTT DoCoMo, who gave the original set to the MoMA digital collection along with a license to reproduce the images. They will be displayed in the museum’s lobby this winter as both 2D graphics and animations.
MoMA collection specialist Paul Galloway described the emojis as “humble masterpieces of design” which “planted the seeds for the explosive growth of a new visual language.” Only five of Kurita’s original designs depict emotions. The rest are representative of weather, sports, horoscopes and other things.
According to The New York Times, emojis were originally used to deliver messages. Weather emojis could give you the day’s forecast on your pager, or direct users to local businesses like restaurants or bars.
Kurita moved on from his emoji designs into work at videogame companies, but other companies quickly adopted his designs, which became the basis for today’s emojis. Emojis have evolved into communicative tools all their own—one was even named word of the year last year by the Oxford English Dictionary.
“In a sense, what we’ve really acquired is a new communication platform,” said Paola Antonelli, senior curator of architecture and design in an interview with the Times. “But at the same time, the emoji themselves are ideographs, one of the most ancient ways to communicate. I love how the centuries are connected in that way.”