“GEORGE NELSON: Architect, Writer, Designer, Teacher”
Cranbrook Art Museum, Bloomfield Hills, Michigan
June 16, 2012 – October 14, 2012
George Nelson is considered one of the most influential figures in American design during the second half of the twentieth century. Design Director at the Zeeland-based furniture manufacturer Herman Miller for more than twenty years, Nelson is historically linked to Cranbrook, an institution which was playing a defining role in the development of Modernism at the time.
“Cranbrook and George Nelson helped to define what Modernism would be,” says Gregory Wittkopp, Director of Cranbrook Art Museum. “Although Nelson never formally studied or taught at Cranbrook, he traveled in the same circles as many of our legendary architects and designers.” It was Eero Saarinen, in fact, who first introduced him to the work of Charles Eames who ultimately helped him radically reinvent the Herman Miller brand and the look — and feel — of the American interior.
Organized by the Vitra Design Museum in Germany, the exhibition “George Nelson: Architect, Writer, Designer, Teacher,” is the first comprehensive retrospective of Nelson’s work. It has been touring in Europe and most recently in the United States at the Bellevue Art Museum in Seattle. Cranbrook is the final stop in the US tour and the last opportunity to see this major exhibition before the work returns to Germany.
Herman Miller Years
Nelson had a major influence on the product line and public image of the company he worked for and by extension with much of corporate America. From the start of his tenure, Nelson was convinced that design should be an integral part of a company’s philosophy, and by promoting this viewpoint, he also became a pioneer in the areas of business communication and corporate design.
As a designer Nelson was directly responsible for the production of numerous furnishings and interior designs that became modern classics, including the Coconut Chair (1956), the Marshmallow Sofa (1956), the Ball Clock (1947) and the Bubble Lamps (1952).
Scope of Work
Nelson was deeply interested in the topics of domestic living and interior furnishings. In the bestselling book, Tomorrow’s House (1945, co-authored with Henry Wright), he articulated the groundbreaking concept of the “storagewall.” The walls of a house, Nelson explained, could be used to store things by transforming them into floor-to-ceiling, two-sided cabinets. A revolutionary idea at the time, it anticipated the flood of consumer goods that the economic boom in the west would soon produce, turning the single-family home into a de facto warehouse.
In addition to his preoccupation with architecture and the domestic interior, Nelson intently pursued the topic of office furnishings. Besides designing the first L-shaped desk, he played a major role in the development of Herman Miller’s Action Office, and in the 1970s he created his own office system, Nelson Workspaces. Similar to Nelson’s home furnishings and experimental architecture, this system was based on a variety of modular elements that could be freely combined. Not surprisingly, among his clients were many large corporations, including Abbott, Alcoa, BP, Ford, Gulf, IBM, General Electric, Monsanto and Olivetti — not to mention the US government.
Nelson’s wide-ranging abilities culminated in the organization and design of the American National Exhibition in 1959, held in Moscow. Nelson and his associates selected several hundred industrial products manufactured by American companies and displayed them on a vast three-dimensional multi-level platform designed especially for the exhibition. He also furnished a model apartment and designed a large fiberglass umbrella for two other modular exhibition pavilions. The Moscow exhibition made history as the backdrop for the famous “Kitchen Debate” between Nixon and Khrushchev.
Similarly spectacular was Nelson’s exhibit for Chrysler at the 1964 New York World’s Fair, which featured a Pop-Art-inspired, 64-foot-long “giant car” and a huge walk-in engine as part of the exhibition space. While this fair still celebrated the automobile, Nelson expressed a more critical view of automotive transportation in his essays and lectures on urban planning. As early as 1943, he outlined the mall concept as an auto-free shopping zone in the article “Grass on Main Street.”
Nelson the Writer and Editor
After earning an architectural degree, Nelson began his career as a writer and journalist. Throughout his lifetime he was regarded as a brilliant publicist. He was not only co-editor of the eminent journal Architectural Forum, but also worked for many other well-known magazines including Fortune, Life, Industrial Design, Interiors and Harper’s.
The exhibition is divided into five subject areas. Numerous furnishings by Nelson from the collection of the Vitra Design Museum — both classics and lesser-known pieces — form the core of the exhibition.
Nelson and the House
Nelson as a pioneering planner and designer of the modern single-family home during the 1940s and 1950s: Sherman Fairchild House (townhouse in New York, 1941), The House of Tomorrow (bestselling book on modern housing, 1944), The Holiday House (model vacation home for Holiday Magazine, 1950), and Experimental House (design of a modular prefabricated house, 1952-57). Additional subjects: Storage Wall (1944), Herman Miller Casegoods (from 1946), Comprehensive Storage System (1959), Seating (Coconut Chair, 1956; Marshmallow Sofa, 1956; etc.) and kitchen design.
Nelson’s work as a designer and design director for Herman Miller. Brochures, advertisements and vintage audiotapes document the development of corporate design at Herman Miller from the mid-1940s into the 1960s. Corporate design programs for other firms, such as the pharmaceutical company Abbott (1959), also are presented.
Nelson as a prominent innovator in the development of the modern office environment: L-shaped desk as the forerunner of the workstation (1947), Action Office (1964), and Nelson Workspaces (1977).
This section will focus on the American National Exhibition in Moscow (1959), for which Nelson was responsible as head designer. Other topics include the Chrysler Pavilion at the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair, and Nelson’s exhibition work for the United States Information Agency.
Nelson as an author, editor, and one of the most important thinkers and visionaries in the realm of twentieth-century design. In addition to providing an overview of the numerous articles and books published by Nelson, this section of the exhibition shows selected films and slide presentations, in which he addressed the topics of urban planning, consumerism, and aesthetic perception in western civilization.
For information about the exhibit: www.cranbrook.edu.