Systems as a matter of principle
von Daniel von Bernstorff | Oct 8, 2008

A sight for the gods indeed: In the middle of the cold war, in the summer of 1959, two men argue, not without a certain amount of humour, about which of their respective countries can boast the better standard of living. The two men are the Soviet Head of State, Nikita Khrushchev and the American Vice-President Richard Nixon. The debate, which has gone down in history as the "kitchen debate" - it happened in a show kitchen - took place at the opening of the "American National Exhibition" in Moscow, the largest exhibition that the USA ever held in the Soviet Union. The chief designer for this gigantic presentation of themselves by the United States was George Nelson, one of the seminal figures in American design in the second half of the 20th century. Together with Charles Eames, Nelson had designed an exhibition which, in retrospect, one can confidently refer to as 'revolutionary'. In the central pavilion, Nelson built a gigantic three-dimensional exhibition platform, on which several hundred American industrial products were displayed. In the adjacent Buckminster Fuller Dome, film clips were projected onto enormous screens, 'Glimpses of America' created by Eames where the products in the exhibition were shown in everyday contexts in American life, as a kind of proof that they really were available for the average American too.

The American National Exhibition, a fascinating example of George Nelson's skill in orchestrating a theme, is a central feature of the huge Nelson retrospective which can be seen in the Vitra Design Museum in Weil am Rhein until 1 March 2009. And it does not only show the American's ability as a designer of American post-war design classics such as Coconut Chairs, Marshmallow Sofas or the Ball Clock for which he has justifiably become famous. The show, curated by Jochen Eisenbrand, has been able to draw on the massive Nelson legacy which his widow, Jacqueline, has made available to the Vitra Design Museum and presents him much more as a universal talent, who was both a sophisticated architect and designer and an outstanding critic, author, publicist, teacher and exhibition curator. These areas are given equal weight alongside each other - so that a multi-layered and detailed portrait emerges, bringing the man and his work humanly close to the visitors.

Nelson said of himself that he was more interested in systems and their uses in human life than in individual objects themselves. This credo runs through all five areas of the exhibition, which portray him as an architect, designer and corporate designer, a pioneer of the modern office landscape, as well as an exhibition curator, author and publicist.

Nelson designed several private houses and, as a confirmed defender of industrialised construction, was intensely concerned with the issue of prefabricated construction. Starting with the notion that individual house owners should put together their own home according to their particular needs, he developed a modular construction for the 'Experimental House', a utopian concept for living spaces which, alas, never came to fruition. Other themes in this area of the exhibition are storage - particularly impressive in this respect is his Storage Wall of 1944 - and seating, such as the Coconut Chair and the Marshmallow Sofa mentioned above.

A plethora of brochures, posters, advertisements and historic sound recordings document the development of corporate design by Herman Miller, where George Nelson was Design Director from 1946 onwards. Nelson interpreted the work of the Director of Design in a completely novel way, co-opted Charles Eames as a partner on an equal footing, and drew up corporate design programmes for other companies such as, for instance, the pharmaceutical manufacturers Abbott, some of which are presented in the exhibition. During his time as Director of Design at Herman Miller, George Nelson developed a completely novel, modern office landscape. Thus it was that he created the first L-shaped desk as an individual 'work-station' and conceived his own office system, the "Nelson Workspaces" in the 1970s. Here, as with his experimental architecture, his exhibition designs and his furniture for the home too, it was always the idea of a system, based on a notion of modules that could be freely combined together, that played a crucially important role.

The American National Exhibition is representative, in this show, of Nelson's work as an exhibition designer, and a small section of the original exhibition platform has been reproduced. Numerous photos and film clips document the enormity of a task, which only a universal talent such as Nelson was capable of pulling off.

One of the most interesting areas of the exhibition shows Nelson to be a sharp-witted, humorous author, publicist and teacher. In films and slide-shows Nelson is seen to concern himself with the design of our cities, with the aesthetics of everyday life - as he did in his book "How to see" - and with consumer behaviours. In 1961, at the pinnacle of the Cold War, Nelson created a great furore with his television lecture "How to kill people. A problem of design."

The exhibition affords an exciting insight into the world of design and architecture in America just after the 2nd World War and pays homage to George Nelson as a seminal figure and one of the last great universal talents of the past century.

George Nelson - Architect, Author, Designer, Teacher
Until 1 March 2009
Vitra Design Museum, Weil am Rhein

Model of Experimental House, 1957, © Vitra Design Museum Archiv
Sideboard, 1946, © Vitra Design Museum Archiv
Marshmallow Sofa, 1956, © Vitra and Herman Miller, Inc
George Nelson, © Herman Miller, Inc.
Exhibition with a comment of Jochen Eisenbrand,
Swag desk chair für Herman Miller, Inc
Rosewood Miniature Cases, 1952, © Vitra Design Museum Archiv
Storage Wall, published in Life Magazine, 1945, © Vitra Design Museum Archiv
Pretzel Armchair, © Vitra Design Museum Archiv
Coconut chair, © Herman Miller, Inc.