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New Orleans Museum of Art's ‘Essence of Things’ spotlights art, design of everyday objects

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If you happen to consider design in the context of an art museum, things like egg cartons and chopsticks probably aren’t among the objects that immediately come to mind.

But a new exhibition at the New Orleans Museum of Art might change your perception of that.

Consisting of more than 150 objects spanning more than a century of design history, “The Essence of Things — Design and the Art of Reduction” comes to New Orleans from the Vitra Design Museum in Germany, and, according to NOMA’s RosaMary Curator of Decorative Arts & Design Mel Buchanan, is the first exhibition in the museum’s history to be dedicated to 20th-century and contemporary design.

While the exhibition features objects from another institution, Buchanan says it’s an opportunity for visitors to also acquaint themselves with NOMA’s own design collection.

“NOMA has a varied collection of decorative arts, but our current strength is with 18th-, 19th- and early 20th-century material,” said Buchanan “I see this design exhibition as a signal for the direction we plan to grow.”

“Through exhibitions, programming, and thoughtfully adding objects to the permanent collection, we are increasing the presence of design arts at NOMA.”

Buchanan says that the guiding principle of the show provides a sort of template for looking at design in a museum context in general, and understanding how various otherwise unrelated objects can contribute to a greater narrative.

“This exhibition celebrates simplicity in design,” said Buchanan. “As I’ve worked with this German exhibition for the presentation at NOMA, it has been a delight to contemplate how complicated the idea of ‘simplicity’ can be. Isn’t that ironic?”

“Simplicity in design can be about the way an object looks — whether that be reduction to basic geometry, or being molded in translucent plastic! But regardless how a design looks, it can also be considered ‘simple’ because of its method of production or even its social or religious context.”

Buchanan says that certain objects in the show are key to understanding the way it was conceived and the concepts about design it intends to convey.

“For instance, the exhibition has a versatile wooden box that can serve as a stool, step, or a table,” said Buchanan. “It is by French architect Le Corbusier and elegantly constructed with dovetail joints. Is that simple? It is displayed provocatively next to a MacBook Air computer, an object that is celebrated for compactness.”

“But is that simple, either? When I think of the laptop in terms of technology and connectivity, or even my overflowing email Inbox, this is not a simple object.”

Buchanan also hopes that the objects in the show as well as the way it’s installed at NOMA will inspire viewers to learn about and consider design as a concept more closely — and will seek out examples from NOMA’s own collection in future visits to the museum. (See the sidebar accompanying this article for Buchanan’s five must-see objects from “The Essence of Things”.)

“I love how this phenomenal collection of design looks in NOMA’s Ella West Freeman Gallery,” said Buchanan. “There are lamps hanging from the ceiling, chairs mounted dramatically on the wall, and a series of projected slide shows that offer a visual dance of supplemental images. For the first time we are presenting all of the factual material about the objects on touch screens, and there is a ‘Chair Lab’ corner where you can touch and sit on four chairs that are also on view in the exhibition.”

“This is a show that will appeal to lifelong design lovers, but also be exciting for someone who is contemplating a chair as art for the first time.”