George Nelson: Architect, Writer, Designer, Teacher, the first comprehensive retrospective devoted to George Nelson (1928–1986), one of the most influential figures in American post-war design, opens at the Yale School of Architecture Gallery on November 8, 2012. Best known today as the creator of such icons of modern design as the Marshmallow Sofa, Ball Clock, and Bubble Lamps, Nelson was a gifted and indefatigable visionary who also excelled as an architect, urban planner, exhibition designer, corporate image-maker, and author. The exhibition presents more than 120 examples of his home and office furnishings, as well as 50-plus drawings, photographs, architectural models, films, and other materials that document the full range of his extraordinary achievement.
The exhibition was organized by the Vitra Design Museum, in Weil am Rhein, Germany, under the direction of Chief Curator Jochen Eisenbrand. Following a celebrated international tour, its final – and only East Coast – venue is the School of Architecture Gallery, where it remains on view through January 26, 2013. It has been adapted for the School of Architecture Gallery by Brian Butterfield, director of exhibitions.
Trained as an architect at Yale University (B.A. 1928, B.F. Arch. 1931), George Nelson first distinguished himself as a provocative and influential writer on architecture and design issues. From 1935 to 1949, he was an editor at Architectural Forum, where he was a staunch defender of Modernist principles of design. Together with his contemporaries, he helped to evolve the Bauhaus aesthetic into a more colourful, playful, technically savvy and versatile idiom, evocative of the American lifestyle at mid-century. Through his pioneering book Tomorrow’s House (1945, coauthored with Henry Wright), he introduced the concept of the “family room” and the “storage wall,” the latter of which would become one of his most enduring design contributions. As design director for furniture manufacturer Herman Miller, from 1945 to 1972, Nelson helped forge the company’s program and corporate image for more than two decades, playing an essential role in bringing the business together with such designers as Charles and Ray Eames, Alexander Girard, and Isamu Noguchi. In 1955, he established his own highly successful design firm, George Nelson Associates, Inc. Working with numerous Fortune 500 clients, he continued to promote his conviction that design should be an integral part of the philosophy of any company, thus becoming a pioneer in the areas of business communication and corporate design.
Drawn primarily from the holdings of the Vitra Design Museum, the exhibition is organized thematically, according to five of Nelson’s principal areas of endeavour: home design and furnishings, graphic and corporate design, office furniture, exhibition design, and his activities as a writer, filmmaker, and lecturer.
“Nelson and the House” focuses on his pioneering activities as a planner and designer of the modern single-family home during the 1940s and 50s. Key items in this section include architectural photographs of the Sherman Fairchild House (New York, 1941), one of the first Modernist townhouse designs to be built in America; his bestselling book on modern housing, Tomorrow’s House; and a model of his modular prefabricated Experimental House (1952–1957). Also on view are images of his famous Storage Wall (1944) and original furniture pieces such as the Herman Miller Case Goods (1946), Comprehensive Storage System (1959), Coconut Chair (1956), and Marshmallow Sofa (1956).
“Corporate Design” presents brochures, advertisements, and vintage audiotapes that explore Nelson’s groundbreaking work in the field of corporate design and image management. Working with many major corporate clients, such as General Electric, IBM, and Ford, he designed everything from showrooms and company logos to rugs and birdhouses.
“The Office” features several of Nelson’s innovative, functional designs for the modern office environment, including the L-shaped desk (1947), a forerunner of the workstation; Action Office (1964), better known today as the “office cubicle”; and Nelson Workspaces (1977).
“Exhibition Design” focuses on Nelson’s role as head designer for the historic American National Exhibition in Moscow (1959), a multi-media extravaganza that featured hundreds of American industrial products and a number of model American homes – one of which served as the backdrop for the famous Khrushchev-Nixon “Kitchen Debates.” Also included are materials relating to Nelson’s exhibit for the Chrysler Pavilion at the 1964 New York World’s Fair, which featured a 64-foot-long “giant car” and walk-in engine.
The exhibition closes with “Nelson as Author, Editor, and Visionary,” an overview of his contributions as writer, lecturer, and one of the most important and creative thinkers in the realm of 20th-century design. In addition to showcasing his books and numerous articles – for Architectural Forum, Fortune, Harper’s and Life, among others – this section features a selection of Nelson’s films and slide presentations, in which he addressed such far-reaching topics as urban planning, consumerism, and aesthetic perception in Western society.
In conjunction with the exhibition, the Yale School of Architecture will present a free symposium on November 9–10, 2012, entitled George Nelson: Designs for Living, American Mid-Century Design and Its Legacy Today. The symposium will place particular emphasis on the nature and lasting influence of Nelson’s highly collaborative approach in many of his design projects. Indeed, the challenges and opportunities that framed and inspired his own work are in many ways matched by the multidisciplinary paradigm shifts that designers face today.
The American tour of George Nelson: Architect, Writer, Designer, Teacher has been generously sponsored by Herman Miller, which is also the presenting sponsor of the exhibition at the Yale School of Architecture Gallery. The Gallery is also grateful to the George Nelson Foundation for its assistance.
The exhibition runs until February 2, 2013. For more information, please visit www.architecture.yale.edu/exhibitions.