The set of 176 original emoji have a new home: New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). They are a gift to the museum from Nippon Telegraph and Telephone, the Japanese phone company where creator Shigetaka Kurita worked 1999.
A non-designer, Kurita made the 12 pixel by 12 pixel images for i-mode, a mobile internet platform NTT Docomo (NTT’s mobile-service arm) was then launching. The symbols became widely used in Japan and then ballooned in popularity around the world after 2010 when the Unicode Consortium, an international standards setting organization, assumed control of them. Unicode translated them according to their standard, so that they read as roughly the same across different languages and platforms.
Kurita’s original 176 emoji look very different than the 1851 emoji variations available today. They’re simpler pixel drawings, but have a certain elegance of their own:
The museum will receive the software and original digital image files for the emoji, which MoMa calls “humble masterpieces” in its press release announcing the acquisition. They aren’t the first digital artifact the museum has: in 2010 it acquired programmer Ray Tomlinson’s @ symbol design. But what’s interesting about emoji is that they can be combined with text to heighten its meaning or function on their own as a visual language. So perhaps it’s best to think about this as MoMA receiving the modern equivalent of an early written tablet.