Call it a hunch, but I'm guessing George Nelson is not someone new to you. Even if you have just the basic interest in modern design, you probably recognize the bubble lamp, maybe even his platform bench. And then there's the marshmallow sofa, the coconut chair, the clock- all created by other designers but stamped with Nelson’s name. So you get it, he’s an icon, a pivotal player in American modernism. You've heard it all before, and you love his work.
But for all of the great furniture designs bearing Nelson's name, I’ve always been a little more interested in his architectural work. A bit more "under the radar" but no less compelling, Nelson's architecture, like his furniture, helped redefine modern domestic living, and our houses would never be the same. So in honor of George Nelson's birthday (May 29, a little belated), here are three of his influential architectural projects.
the Kirkpatrick House (with Gordon Chadwick)- Completed in 1958 for James and Sarah Kirkpatrick (Sarah was Mrs. Nelson's college roommate) the Kirkpatrick residence is a stunning example of Nelson's design ethos executed during the apex of his career. Located on a 2-acre wooded lot in Kalamazoo, Michigan, the two-story, rectangular house features a wood and steel-frame structure, a flat roof, bright and open living spaces, and furniture designed by Nelson’s Associates. A highly personalized design (that in true Nelson fashion could also be described as commercially appealing), the Kirkpatrick House was perfectly tailored for the family's needs and lifestyle. The result is a stunning “total work of design” and an exercise in the art of livability in the modern age.
Interestingly enough, the house was recently restored by a Herman Miller collector/ Nelson enthusiast, put on the market for $450,000, and purchased by Jack White of White Stripes fame. You can check out enviable photographs of the house here.
Experimental Houses- During the 1960s, Nelson’s design group experimented with modern prefab, again focusing on the idea of livability. In an attempt to produce a prefabricated, modular, and expandable residence, Nelson and his team created the “Industrialized House” featuring hollow aluminum cubes that could be pieced together like dominoes. Covered by plexiglass domed roofs, the cubic volumes could be arranged and organized according to an owner's specific needs and circumstances. Easily produced, shipped, and assembled on site, the design offered great flexibility and freedom from the constraints of traditional housing design. While the experimental houses were never built, you can see the extraordinary models here.
Chrysler Exhibit for the 1964 World’s Fair- Beating out more than thirty other firms, Nelson and Company won the commission to design the Chrysler Pavilion at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York (the fair was a "who's who" of midcentury starchitects). Despite having a much smaller budget than Ford and General Motors, the Nelson-designed exhibit with a merry-go-round, a 64-foot Chrysler with an accessible motor, a zoo filled with animals made of car parts, and a large building with four cinemas was one of the fair’s most popular attractions. Reviewing the exhibition for LIFE, architectural critic Vincent Scully called the pavilion “the surprise of the World’s Fair” and “pop art at its best.”
Also, doesn't it look a little post modern?
Like his furniture designs, his graphic work, and his theoretical musings on modern living, George Nelson's architecture solved problems and created a more livable future. Over the course of his career, Nelson helped shape the American design scene, communicating the importance of modernism to the general public through an extensive and diverse body of work. His pioneering efforts as an architect and planner, along with his significant collaborations with some of the era’s most talented design minds, changed the way we live, work, and interact with the world around us.
*George Nelson would have celebrated his 109th birthday on May 29.
This architectural historian cannot stop thinking about buildings, food, and that vintage rug she found online.