Symposium sheds light on Nelson

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Photo by Kamaria Greenfield.

George Nelson ’29 ARC ’31 is not as famous as some of his modernist contemporaries, such as Frank Lloyd Wright or Charles and Ray Eames. But as the focus of an exhibition and a recent symposium at the School of Architecture, he may be worth rediscovering.

On Friday and Saturday, the School of Architecture hosted a symposium on Nelson’s life, work and legacy. The conference, organized by Dietrich Neumann, a professor of the history of art and architecture at Brown University, was planned in conjunction with the retrospective of Nelson’s work, “George Nelson: Architect, Writer, Designer, Teacher,” currently on view at the second-floor gallery in the School of Architecture’s Rudolph Hall.

Together, the 17 lectures of the symposium painted a profile that is unexpected for a modernist architect, School of Art professor Christopher Pullman ART ’66 said. Speakers repeatedly described Nelson as a Renaissance man and independent thinker who, while less good with technical details, believed that art has a social impetus and was willing to hire women at a time when it was uncommon to do so.

In the lecture series “Context and Collaboration” given by Paul Makovsky of Metropolis Magazine, Pullman and architect Jane Thompson of the Thompson Design Group, Nelson was described as rejecting the Howard Roark paradigm of the “hero architect” due to his socially conscious approach and his choice to work on interiors during the mid-20th century when furniture design was considered “feminine.”

As head of the Herman Miller furniture company, Nelson and his team designed icons of modernist furniture, such as the “Ball Clock” and the “Bubble Chair.” Nelson also served as the head designer of the American National Exhibition in Moscow in 1959, for which he designed the kitchen that served as the backdrop for Nixon and Khrushchev’s famous “Kitchen Debates.” School of Architecture Dean Robert A.M. Stern said Nelson had an important impact on furniture design.

“For the last 10 to 15 years, architects as well as the general public have rediscovered the mid-century modern design … not only [Nelson’s] individual pieces, but a virtual revolution in the way interior offices were furnished. He was focused on breaking down walls in favor of open offices, which are more collegial and promote interactivity,” Stern said.

Symposium speakers also focused on Nelson’s prolific writing. Ralph Caplan, a writer for Industrial Design Magazine who knew Nelson personally, said in his lecture “The Georgian Perspective” that Nelson came to design through writing, and that he was a designer because he had been a writer. Nelson had in fact landed the job at Herman Miller while he was a journalist, after Miller was impressed by a piece Nelson wrote about design.

Nelson’s interdisciplinary approach to design was echoed by the breadth of professionals invited to speak, which included historians, professors, designers, architects, writers and gallery owners. Renowned Australian designer Mark Newson, whose projects include furniture design for Cappellini, aeronautic design for Qantas and Airbus and clothing for G-Star, delivered the keynote lecture. Neumann said he selected Newson because he is one of the top designers in the world.

“I was looking for someone who could relate to Nelson [in terms of] breadth,” Neumann said, adding that the two designers are different, but he “senses that [Newson] knows [Nelson’s] work. Some of it is an ironic play with aesthetic standards established by Nelson [and other modernists].”

Brian Butterfield, the director of exhibitions at the school that mounted the Nelson exhibit in Rudolph Hall, said he sees Newson and Nelson as very different designers who nevertheless have commonalities in their visions of design.

“[Newson] is someone of today who is doing something differently,” Butterfield said, adding that Newson is a respected critical voice and bridges the world of retail, industrial design and art like Nelson.

Butterfield worked with the show’s curator, Jochen Eisenbrand from the Vitra Design Museum in Weil am Rhein, Germany, where Nelson’s works are entrusted, to bring the exhibition to Yale, its last stop after a four-year international tour. Butterfield said Yale is a fitting last venue, given the time Nelson spent here as an architecture student. The first major retrospective of Nelson’s work, the exhibition includes drawings, posters, models and furniture that Nelson designed or collaborated on. Eisenbrand said in an email that he hoped the show broadened public appreciation for Nelson.

“We wanted to show that he is much more than just the designer of the handful of design classics everyone knows,” Eisenbrand said. “[His] interest was in broader questions about how we live in our houses and apartments, how we work in our offices, how [we] treat the whole man-made landscape and how that could be changed to the better, for instance by teaching people how to see.”

The Yale show differs from other stops on the exhibit’s tour in its inclusion of an architecture section, with photographs by well-known architectural photographers Robert Damora and Ezra Stoller, Neumann said.

Two School of Architecture students interviewed said they were aware of Nelson’s work but did not fully understand his philosophy of design until the symposium and exhibition came to Yale.

In his lecture “Ways of Seeing George Nelson,” Rob Forbes, who runs Studio Forbes, a San Francisco studio aimed at discussing design, and the more recent venture PUBLIC, which is focused on improving public spaces, echoed the students’ praise and said he thinks Nelson would have broad appeal to young American designers.

The exhibition of George Nelson’s work is on view at Rudolph Hall until February 2013.

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