What is art? Masterful paintings, lofty sculptures? Yes. But can a rubber band or a pair of flip flops be designed so creatively that they rise to the level of museum-worthy pieces? Today, NolaVie editor Renee Peck talks to Mel Buchanan, RosaMary curator of decorative arts and design at the New Orleans Museum of Art about The Essence of Things — Design and the Art of Reduction: An Exhibition of the Vitra Design Museum, an exhibition opening June 24 that brings together around 150 items that span 100 years of history. All of them are displayed for onlookers to gander and wonder about what elements make the object artistic.
Tell me about The Essence of Things.
Well, we’re thrilled to have this exhibition at NOMA.. This is an exhibition that comes to New Orleans from the Vitra Design Museum in Germany and they’re an astounding collection of worldwide design. So, this particular exhibition is more than 150 objects.
You’ll see chairs. You’ll see rubber bands. You’ll see golf balls, but also lamps and more traditional artworks like architectural models that all address the idea of simplicity and design.
And these things are put into context too. Do you have video? Do you have essays about what design is and what simplicity is?
Along with each theme in the show, there’s a touch screen where you can dive deeper into one of thirteen categories. These address aesthetic ideas like abstraction or geometry but also conceptual ideas like how something was produced. …. Each section also has a series of screens that show related ideas in fashion, food, theater, landscape design, architecture that corresponds to the artworks that are there in the gallery to see.
What are some of your favorite items in the show?
Well, since I had a role in laying out the show, you can see my favorite object front and center. You walk right in and there’s a chandelier by an Amsterdam-based group called Droog Design and it’s a chandelier that’s made of bare light bulbs hanging from their cords, but 85 of them grouped together. In one way, it’s very simple. It’s just light bulbs hanging from cords. But it also is a very complicated design object.
You’ve said the designers operate under the idea that a good design is when nothing can be added but also nothing can be taken away. So, it is about simplicity, but isn’t that kind of an oxymoron in today’s very complex, complicated world?
Yeah, that is such an interesting way of looking at the show and I think, through the objects in the show, you get to that irony almost. Because there is a MacBook Air, an Apple laptop there on view. Is that a simple object or not? It’s very small. It’s very thin and it’s maybe aesthetically simple, but think about how complicated that it and all of the networks that it allows. It’s an incredibly complicated object and you have that next to a chair, for instance.
And I guess that begs the question as well, has technology and the sheer number of new materials that we have, has that changed the way that we design things? The way we not only live but the materials we have to work with?
Oh, that’s absolutely, I think, more interesting, because we’re part of a continuum. Having new materials is not something new to us in 2016. Through this exhibition, you’ll look at a 19th century innovation of machine-bent wood through the famous Tonette chair. Then you come into the early 20th century, where you’re seeing new materials. Being able to bend stainless steel, for instance. Then you come through and have aluminum in the middle of the century and now you get to the late 20th century and today. We’re talking about carbon fiber chairs or injection-molded plastic chairs. So, we always have new materials to work with that are always allowing designers to express something new and to push their ideas forward.
Many of the chairs in the show are mass produced and were designed to be so, and I find that beautiful because it’s someone who’s put as much love and thought into this mass-produced item as say, a fine artwork, like the Mona Lisa or a Jackson Pollock painting. But they’re taking that same amount of creativity and forethought and design thinking and putting it into something like a toothbrush, for instance, that’s mass produced …
Is there a functionality aspect to everything in the show? Is there a useful component to it?
I’d say about 90% of the objects you’ll see, you’ll recognize. It’s a chair. It’s a spatula. It’s an architectural model for a building. But there is an element of design that’s like fine art. It’s about an idea more so than a useful object. So, you might see a chair and you would say, that’s not going to be comfortable. That’s going to be expensive to produce but maybe it’s about an idea. For instance, Garret Wrightfeld’s zig zag chair in the 1920’s. It’s really more of an art project because it’s this perfect zig zag in space. It’s elegant. It’s beautiful, but it’s more about his alignment with avant garde art movements going on in Europe at the time. It’s about geometry and an expression in space.
In this exhibition, you’re going to see so many familiar items but also things that you might have never thought about as art before, such as a golf ball or a spatula but I find that fascinating because for me, it opens my eyes. This is not just limited to the 150 objects you see in this gallery. Suddenly, when I see these objects, I’m looking around me at a grocery store, in my own home and thinking in a new way about the objects all around me.
Why do humans try to make utilitarian things beautiful? What’s the history of that? Is that decorative arts?
A very traditional way of thinking about decorative arts does concentrate on the aesthetic beauty and how something looks and that can be fussy or beautiful, with gilding and flowers. But I find beauty in the very simplicity, beautiful proportions, elegant material and I think that’s kind of in the past. I think that’s a new way of thinking about decorative arts and we kind of use the word design to indicate this. It’s not just about the aesthetics any more. It’s how something was crafted in addition to how something looks or how it was maybe mass produced. So, if you’re looking at something like say, an Ikea bookshelf, it’s very simple but it’s important to art history because of how it was designed to be packaged and to be spread around the world and because it was so efficiently designed to fit in these boxes and you get it at home and you put it together yourself. Think of the impact of how much that Scandinavian modern aesthetic has then spread throughout the world because of how this object was efficiently designed to spread around the world.
I guess back in the Stone Age, we tried to make our bowls and spoons pretty. Is that something that’s very human?
Well, we know we were drawing on cave walls of some of the earliest human expressions we have. Yes.
So what we can look forward to in way of exhibitions coming up this year.
Well, we have an exciting fall, as always. …. This October, we’re opening a landscape exhibition called Seeing Nature. It’s landscape from a variety of artists but I’m excited to see a Klimt painting coming to NOMA, in addition to crowd favorites like Monet.
In November, we’re opening an exhibition on George Dunbar, a Louisiana favorite. We’re very excited about that as well.
For more information on The Essence of Things, visit noma.org.