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Modern Love

At the Cooper-Hewitt and Cooper Union, two exhibits highlight Modernism’s legacy—from bobby-pin necklaces to a wild cyclone of an atrium.

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Josef and Anni Albers.  

Once upon a time, art knew its place, and well-behaved paintings hung on the wall over the mantel. But at the beginning of the century, abstract art broke that old order, displacing architecture as the dominant force. Now, in a sublime irony, the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum—that old-fashioned Edwardian structure—is serving tea to two of the revolutionaries who helped dethrone the ancien régime: Anni and Josef Albers, card-carrying members of the Bauhaus.

When this handsome pair weren’t kissing—many archival photos show them in spontaneous embrace—he was painting or designing furniture, and she was weaving. And though the interdisciplinary couple never collaborated, curators Nicholas Fox Weber and Matilda McQuaid make the case that his objects and her fabrics share jazzy geometries that helped change the subject of design from nature to abstraction. In Josef and Anni Albers: Designs for Living, we find Anni’s fabrics—woven to a shimmer with cellophane and metallic threads—and Josef’s asymmetrical furniture. Geared for factory production, the designs can be hilariously pragmatic: For one necklace, Anni attaches bobby pins to key chains, and paper clips to a perforated steel drain—drop-dead baubles for Saturday-night swings at the Bauhaus.

Upstairs is Design ≠ Art: Functional Objects From Donald Judd to Rachel Whiteread, curated by Barbara Bloemink and Joseph Cunningham: Minimal- ist sofas, beds, desks, bookcases, and lamps are arrayed within private suites once lavishly occupied by the Carnegies. Also featured: Donald Judd’s big, reductive, Shaker-like furniture and Scott Burton’s ergonomically incorrect benches and tables.

Downtown, Cooper Union features Conceptual Design: Cooper Union’s New Academic Building—a small but riveting display of computer-built models for Cooper Union’s most recent addition, created by Thom Mayne. The exhibition demonstrates how the Los Angeles architect picks up and elaborates on Modernism’s vision, with the computer pushing him to freer geometries—reinventing structures down to the ventilation systems. (Faculty will be able to open their own windows in Cooper’s new structure, a near miracle in a tall building.) Within New York’s zoning envelope, Mayne imagines a vertical atrium that rips through the nine-story building like a cyclone, catalyzing an interior social life, with people mixing on landings that cascade into a social amphitheater. Scheduled for groundbreaking in early 2006, the design challenges ubiquitous high-rise buildings with their pancaked interiors and elevators. Some day, Mayne imagines, we will linger and chat on the stairways designed to behave like a lively New York street.


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