Good old modernism. For much of the 20th century people debated whether stark, geometric modernist designs were sleek or severe, but now styles from the Mad Men era can seem nostalgic, even timeless, as classical modernism attains eternal life in contemporary furnishings by Ikea or Herman Miller. Arising from origins as varied as the mystical geometry of Piet Mondrian's paintings and the industrial utopianism of the German Bauhaus designers, 20th century modernism was based on the idea that form should follow function and everything should be reduced to its essence. At its best, that philosophy gave us the elegant simplicity that characterizes most of the work in this The Essence of Things exhibition at the New Orleans Museum of Art.
Organized by Basel, Germany's Vitra Design Museum, the exhibition is a mixture of the familiar and the exotic. Some designs like an art deco aluminum espresso maker designed by Alfonso Bialetti in 1933, or steel and fiberglass stackable chairs designed by Charles and Ray Eames in 1954, are so familiar we don't even notice them anymore. But a 1926 table lamp by Seybold van Ravestein, above left, is so minimally retro that it looks almost steam punk, and a scale model of one of a rare 1940s Eames brothers modular house suggests a vintage abstract Mondrian composition expanded into 3-D. Among the more exotic items is a clear acrylic chair by Noato Fukasawa, top left, amid some more conventional designs including a clear polycarbonate chair by Philippe Starck, all of which elaborate on the see-through furniture motifs of the 1970s. Behind them is an assortment of posters ranging from an elegant composition by Henri Toulouse-Lautrec to a playful pictograph of the IBM logo, and even a stark red clenched fist, all reflecting the efficient minimalism of modernist poster design. But the most curious item in the show would have to be Andrea Zittel's Escape Vehicle, an inhabitable metal packing case for people who need a sleek human cocoon where they can curl up and escape the manic madness of modern times. ~Bookhardt / The Essence of Things: 100 years of Modern Design, Through Sept. 11, New Orleans Museum of Art, City Park, 658-4100.
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