George Nelson: Architect, Writer, Designer, Teacher

October 29, 2011 - February 12, 2012

"… the most ambitious design exhibition hosted at a local institution since… 2005." -- Gayle Clemans, The Seattle Times

"… pure furniture porn for mid-century modernists." -- Brian Miller, Seattle Weekly

See the George Nelson exhibit featured on King 5's Evening Magazine >

Watch Curator Nora Atkinson discuss the prolific work of George Nelson on Seattle Channel's Art Zone >

"Most people think that George Nelson, Charles Eames and Eliot Noyes invented industrial design. That is, of course, an exaggeration. George did it without any assistance from the other two." -- Bill N. Lacy, FAIA

One of the founding fathers of American Modernism, George Nelson (1908 - 1986) was the creator of such ubiquitous product designs as the Marshmallow Sofa, the Slat Bench, the Coconut Chair, the Bubble Lamps and his clocks – designs that have become milestones of a profession he helped to shape. Yet Nelson's career was much more far reaching than his product design, as he was one of the preeminent minds of his time – as a writer and a teacher, as well as a celebrated architect and designer.

Having studied architecture at Yale University, Nelson graduated in 1928, continuing on to receive a bachelor's degree in fine arts in 1931. A year later, he won the renowned Rome prize, for which he was granted a two-year stipend to study at the American Academy in Rome, and he used this time overseas to travel throughout Europe, meeting with the modernist pioneers of that age, such as Mies van der Rohe, Le Corbusier and Gio Ponti.

Over the next several years, Nelson devoted himself to writing, and his meetings became the basis for a series of articles he produced for Pencil Points, introducing North America to these influential European modernists. He contributed to publications such as Fortune and Architectural Forum, where he acted as editor in varying capacities from 1935 - 1949, espousing and defending the modernist principles in which he believed. By the 1940s, Nelson had become a major voice in American design, garnering notice and praise for his articulate, eloquent critiques and innovative thought.

Many of Nelson's subjects for publication dealt with the design of the house, and in 1945, with the publishing of Tomorrow's House co-authored with Henry Wright that introduced such concepts as the "family room" and the "storagewall," his work came to the attention of the president of Herman Miller, D.J. De Pree. De Pree invited Nelson to take on the role of director of design for the company – an appointment which proved the beginning of a golden age for Herman Miller, and produced a long series of successful collaborations with such names as Ray and Charles Eames and Isamu Noguchi. As design director, Nelson helped forge the program and corporate image of the company for more than two decades: a pioneering achievement in corporate design and an enduring relationship that yielded numerous classics of modern furniture and interior design.

The skills Nelson honed during his early years as a writer continued to serve him throughout his career, and in addition to his work for Herman Miller and his own firm, Nelson & Company, Nelson taught, organized conferences and authored a dozen books and more than 100 articles and essays on design. His deliberations on questions of domestic living and the planning and furnishing of the home set benchmarks in the field. Equally important was his role as a forward thinker in the development of the modern office landscape, for which he championed the ideals of functionality and economical modular design. Additionally, he set new standards for the involvement of design in all the activities of the company, and in doing so pioneered the practice of corporate image management, graphic programs, and signage in a uniquely holistic approach.

In 2008, George Nelson would have been 100 years old. In recognition of this centennial anniversary, the Vitra Design Museum put together the first comprehensive retrospective of his work. We are pleased to be the first venue in the Northwest to host this groundbreaking exhibition spotlighting one of the great designers of the 20th century.

Student Resource >

 

George Nelson
American National Exhibition, Moscow, 1959

Photo: Vitra Design Museum Archive

 

 

 

George Nelson

George Nelson, c. 1965
Photo: Vitra Design Museum Archive

Organized by the Vitra Design Museum, Weil am Rhein, Germany. Generously sponsored by Herman Miller with additional support from The Boeing Company, The Bellevue Collection, Olson Kundig Architects, ArtsFund and the Guendolen Carkeek Plestcheef Fund for the Decorative and Design Arts. Local presentation curated by Nora Atkinson.