STEVE INSKEEP, host:

So maybe this wasn't art to British justices but that Stormtrooper helmet may have fit the bill for this exhibition. "Modern by Design" at the High Museum in Atlanta is elevating the utilitarian. It shows museum-quality objects that have been affordable over the decades, either as originals or knock-offs. These are not Rodin sculptures or Renoir paintings. These are ordinary 20th century items, which the Museum of Modern Art bought for its permanent collection and is lending now to the High Museum.

NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg went to see them.

SUSAN STAMBERG: All day long, in the lobby of the museum, an adorable little orange robot with a long arm is assembling 40,000 small metal squares, one on top of another, into the shape of an 18th century French Rococo-style table.

You know I never interviewed a robot before.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STAMBERG: She's quiet, the robot, but has a great work ethic.

Dutch designer Joris Laarman built her for this "Modern by Design" show on commission from the High Museum. Some day, the Dutch designer believes, we will all have such small robots and make our own tables and chairs, and anything else that strikes our fancy. That is design in the future. Some past designs are at the heart of this show.

Wait a minute. Look at that. What is this axe doing

(Soundbite of laughter)

STAMBERG: in the middle of museum? Wait, and then there's a sewing machine.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STAMBERG: And the blade of the saw. And from 1941, a Chemex Coffee Maker. A big Pyrex glass beaker with a wooden belt around its tapered middle, and a narrow leather strip tied around the wood.

Dr. MICHAEL SHAPIRO (Director, High Museum of Art): It's something that I, you know, lived with and loved.

STAMBERG: Michael Shapiro, director of the High Museum, remembers a knock-off from his student days.

Dr. SHAPIRO: This kind of thing, which had sense of utilitarian purity, simplicity, made great coffee, and it was nothing more than almost like a chemistry set. It was just beautiful.

STAMBERG: But to put it in a museum? A spatula? Poultry shears? A soup ladle? Such ordinary everyday objects, Michael Shapiro says their designs make them special.

Dr. SHAPIRO: Simple, pure, honest, direct craftsmanship is sort of like what Frank Stella said about his paintings in the early '60s: What you see is what you see. This is what it is. This coffee maker is what it is. This axe is what it is. This sieve is what it is. It's nothing more than what it is, but we can make it simple and beautiful.

STAMBERG: From the first and ground-breaking 1934 Museum of Modern Art design show, a no-fuss black spring from a railroad car.

Dr. SHAPIRO: It's like a Slinky gone mad.

STAMBERG: Yeah.

Dr. SHAPIRO: It's a Slinky that went to the gym for two years.

STAMBERG: Also on loan from MOMA, that first modern design show, something Michael Shapiro calls radically simple: a gleaming silver sculpture that is, in fact, the aluminum propeller of an outboard motor.

Dr. SHAPIRO: It's a fan, really. But it's a fan for pushing water. But when you're tired of the boat you can just take the propeller off and mount it in your home, in your living room.

STAMBERG: You know, I think the word Modern and Modernism is confusing. I always thought modern meant this minute. But it doesn't.

Dr. SHAPIRO: I think contemporary means this minute. Modern really means a historical period leading up to the present day.

STAMBERG: Modern, the period, begins in the 20th century. So if you grew up in the 1950s, in today's - i.e. contemporary - parlance, that's mid-century. Just to make the ahem - more mature among us feel truly modern.

In Atlanta, visitors of all ages are coming to see this "Modern by Design" exhibit. The High Museum has an on-going partnership with the Manhattan Museum. MOMA gets new audiences for work that may be in storage in New York. The High gets great stuff. They had Monet "Water Lilies" from MOMA two summers ago, which attract visitors from all over the Southeast.

And Atlanta Design Curator Sarah Schleuning says an exhibition like this one gives museum-goers some a-ha moments, about how they live.

Ms. SARAH SCHLEUNING (Design Curator, High Museum): I think in the end, what these shows suggest is that we have a choice of what we consume, what we wear, what we surround ourselves with - furniture and objects. And that there are good design choices you can make, whether they're expensive or not.

STAMBERG: If you think about it, everything around us has been designed. Someone, somewhere, has chosen that color for the side chair; that shape for the luggage tag; that typeface for the bus ticket. The 150 hand-picked 20th century objects, on view at the High Museum in Atlanta, are examples of how to live with art in and out of museums.

I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.

INSKEEP: The Atlanta exhibit runs through August 21st. And if you can't make it there, you can see a few of the designs simply by going to NPR.org.

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, host:

And I'm Mary Louise Kelly.

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