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Review: 100 years of design on display in The Essence of Things

Modernist ideas inspire simple elegance at NOMA

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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 a kind of eternal life in contemporary furnishings by companies like Ikea and 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 that everything should be reduced to its essence. At its best, that approach engendered 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 Germany's Vitra Design Museum, the exhibition is a mixture of the familiar and the exotic. Some designs — such as the art deco aluminum espresso maker designed by Alfonso Bialetti in 1933, or the steel and fiberglass stackable chairs designed by Charles and Ray Eames in 1954 — are so commonplace that we don't even notice them any more. But a scale model of one of the Eames brothers' rare modular houses suggests a striking Mondrian composition expanded into three dimensions. Among the more exotic items is a clear acrylic chair by Noato Fukasawa (pictured) amid more conventional designs including a clear polycarbonate chair by Philippe Starck, all of which elaborate on the see-through furniture motifs of the 1970s. On the walls behind them is an assortment of posters ranging from an elegant composition by Henri de 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, a kind of 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.

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