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November 21, 2012

You have to read George.

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George Nelson posing for Herman Miller advertisement "Traveling Men," ca. 1954. Courtesy of Vitra Design Museum Archive.

At last week's Yale symposium about George Nelson, one message was clear: You have to read George. In other words, George the writer trumps George the architect, George the designer and George the teacher, combined.

For two days, scholars, design nerds, editors and Murray Moss (there is no label to define him) talked about the legacy of this American icon. Known mainly for his furniture and design work for Herman Miller, Nelson also wrote and edited for Architectural Forum, Fortune, Pencil Points, Life and McCall's, and co-authored the bestselling Tomorrow's House with Henry Wright.

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Cover of November 1959 issue of Architectural Forum, where George Nelson was associate editor (1935-1943) and consulting editor (1944-1949).

Nelson's unapologetic, unflinching style is immediately clear in Tomorrow's House, which begins: “This book has a point of view which may seem strange to you. What it is will be made pretty clear in the first few pages of this introduction. If, after reading that far, the viewpoint seems not only strange, but unpalatable as well, put this book aside and forget it, for what we have to say will not be for you.”

He continues, “Today’s house is a peculiarly lifeless affair. The picture one sees in residential neighborhoods the country over is one of drab uniformity: pathetic little white boxes with dressed-up street fronts, each striving for individuality through meaningless changes in detail or color. The reason today’s house is so uninteresting is simply that it fails to echo life as we live it. Expressed in another way, it is hideously inefficient. Less honest thought goes into the design of the average middle-class house than into the fender of a cheap automobile.”

You have to read George. 

According to professor John Harwood of Oberlin College, Nelson's fascination with design extended to other areas, and he even hosted an ABC television program called "How to Kill People." I did a quick search for archival materials and quickly discovered that "how to kill people" is not something you should google – especially at work – so you'll just have to take Harwood's word for it. Worth noting, even in this program, Nelson's concepts were said to have been expressed with brilliance, wit and verve.  

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As for the exhibition, George Nelson: Architect, Writer, Designer, Teacher is worth the trip to Yale. It's also a treat to explore the Yale School of Architecture building designed by Paul Rudolph.

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Paul Rudolph Hall was completed in 1963. The Yale campus also includes buildings by Louis Kahn and Marcel Breuer, and a hockey rink by Eero Saarinen. 

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The interior and exterior walls of this Brutalist building are made of hammered concrete aggregate, creating an interesting, and oddly soothing, textural pattern. The layout of the rooms, however is a bit choppy and, perhaps due to later renovations, there is a lack of intuitive flow from one space to the next. 

George Nelson believed that a space is successful when it's done with love. I don't know if Rudolph's heart was aflutter when designing this building for Yale, but the passion expressed inside its walls makes up for the possible indifference. 

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The curious appearance of a martini glass on the ledge. Perhaps Nelson, who was a Yale graduate and a fan of martinis, still haunts these halls...

I wish I could say we were seated in Womb Chairs, shown here in the student lounge, but our interest in George Nelson was tested by the brutal seating in Paul Rudolph's Brutalist building. Described beautifully by author Ralph Caplan, who said, "One of the pleasures of speaking at this symposium is that you get a chance to get out of these seats." (You also have to read Ralph, but I'll save that post for another day.)

A gift for you: I found an online version of Nelson's Tomorrow's House through Open Library. Enjoy!

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