|BAM presents first retrospective of design icon George Nelson|
|Written by Deborah Stone|
Many equate American modernism with George Nelson, one of the founding fathers of the movement. Nelson (1908-1986), a celebrated architect and designer, was the creator of numerous objects and products that became the milestones of the profession he helped shape.
The first comprehensive retrospective of his work is currently on display at Bellevue Arts Museum. “George Nelson: Architect, Writer, Designer, Teacher” features more than 220 objects, as well as graphic works, architectural models, films, prints and a full-scale partial reconstruction of the 1959 American National Exhibition in Moscow.
With an architectural degree from Yale, Nelson was not only active in the fields of architecture and design, but was also a widely respected writer, publicist, lecturer, curator and avid photographer. His conception of design as a system and his approach, which went beyond mere styling, give his work current relevance and appeal. He was one of the first to relate design to its environment and place it in the larger socio-cultural and economic context.
The exhibit examines Nelson’s influence on the home and the office, as well as presents his work in the areas of graphic and corporate design and public exhibtions.
From the mid-1930s through the late 1950s, Nelson’s chief interests focused on the home. He was fascinated with the industrial fabrication of housing, the layout of floor plans and home furnishings.
His bestselling book, Tomorrow’s House, which was published in 1945, promoted modern, contemporary home planning that was oriented to the spatial needs of the occupants instead of simply copying architectural styles from bygone eras. On display is his “Experimental House,” a model that employs multiple cube modules to enable homeowners to expand or reduce the size of their houses according to their resources and space needs. A collection of various pieces of furniture are also on view, including the iconic and colorful “Marshmallow Sofa,” “Coconut Chair and Ottoman” and Kangaroo Chair.”
There are also “Bubble Lamps,” “Pretzel Armchairs,” “Swaged-Leg” chairs and L-shaped desks, along with modular-style sofas and coffee tables with extensions. Much of Nelson’s work was done with an eye towards functionality. To this purpose, he utilized simple, clean lines and geometric shapes. In the area of storage options, he pioneered portable storage wall units with various compartments to enhance organization. Within the office setting, Nelson embraced an open office landscape structured according to workflows and communication needs instead of hierarchical principles.
He designed modular working units that combined all the necessary functions, from a writing surface, space for a typewriter and storage elements to an integrated lighting system that worked to give structure to the area. To implement his ideas of modern furnishings for the home and the office, Nelson found two ideal partners, furniture manufacturer Herman Miller and the Howard Miller Clock Company. His relationship with both companies lasted more than 35 years. The exhibit contains 22 of the 130 clocks developed by Nelson for Howard Miller. Each one promotes the sense of simplicity inherent in the designer’s style and is based on his observation that people tell time by viewing the position of a clock’s hands, not by looking at the numbers. Additionally, Nelson noted that in the age of the wristwatch, it was clear that wall clocks were not first and foremost about indicating the time, but rather “decorative elements in the furnishings of a room.” There are clocks in the shapes of steering wheels, spindles, sunbursts, fans, eyes, kites, diamonds and even a flock of butterflies. Another part of the exhibit focuses on Nelson’s work in the area of graphic and corporate design with examples of logos, catalogs and advertisements he created for a host of different companies.Exhibitions were also Nelson’s forte, as they presented him with an interesting opportunity to test out new structural techniques and materials on temporary constructions. Additionally, the organizational aspects of the events gave him a chance to utilize his skills as a design manager. Independently and together with his office, he planned and designed over 30 exhibitions. On display is a reconstructed model of the “Jungle Gym for the American National Exhibition in Moscow,” a large-scale framework for an extensive show of American products. The exhibitioncommissioned by the United States Information Agency was the largest the U.S. ever held in the U.S.S.R. It was the result of an agreement of mutual cultural exchange between the two countries. BAM is the only Northwest venue to present the work of this prolific visionary. In conjunction with the exhibit, the museum is offering related programs, including tours, curator talks, lectures and a “Mad Men & Martini Party.”
“George Nelson: Architect, Writer, Designer, Teacher” runs through Feb. 12. For information: (425) 519-0770 or www.bellevuearts.org.