Nov 19, 201208:00 AMPoint of View

Serious Fun

Serious Fun

Image courtesy Vitra Design Museum Archive.

“Design cannot transform a little brown, dark life into a large brightly colored one. Only the person living can do that.” This sentiment was often quoted during the symposium, “George Nelson: Design for Living, American Mid-Century Design and Its Legacy Today,” held recently at Yale School of Architecture. The event revisited the vast and influential career of designer George Nelson who was trained at Yale College (1928) and the Yale School of Fine Arts (1931). In collaboration with the opening of the exhibition, “George Nelson: Architect, Writer, Designer, Teacher,” the symposium brought Nelson’s work to a new generation of students. Today, as we may take for granted America’s legacy of “mid-century modern” design, this exhibition reinforces the innovation and energy that embodied Nelson’s era. 08

Image courtesy Vitra Design Museum Archive.

From marshmallow couches to his colorful and radiant clocks, this comprehensive exhibition celebrates a man whose work is known to many and has unknowingly influenced many more. Walking into the George Nelson exhibition is like stepping into someone else’s life—a life not necessarily more glamorous or exciting than yours, but maybe a bit more entertaining. While much of his work is imbued with a certain sense of whimsy, the seriousness of Nelson’s design aesthetic is not to be doubted. The work glides effortlessly between restraint and freedom. It moves from the scale of dishware and furniture to single-family houses with equal ease. In fact, although Nelson’s name is synonymous with small-scale industrial design objects, highlights of the exhibition include models and photographs from his immersive American National Exhibition in Moscow in 1959, sight of the infamous cold war “Kitchen Debates” between Nixon and Khrushchev. It is clear that each detail, material, and form Nelson’s work was considered in depth; yet it also embodies that uniquely American concept, fun.

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Image courtesy Vitra Design Museum Archive.

What will my generation take away from the design philosophy of George Nelson? In a culture of media cycles, disasters both natural and manmade, and political gridlock it is easy for young designers to become overwhelmed with the task at hand. We are taught to perceive scale, to zoom from body to city in seconds, and to simultaneously consider the physical conditions of our buildings as well as their social, political, and economic factors. While all of these tasks are important, and as an architect it is an honor to be entrusted with the lives of our fellow creatures, George Nelson is a breath of fresh air finding joy in limits. For my generation, it is critical to remember that while design is important, we should forgo the charge to “save” anything. In the spirit of George Nelson, design should not be bore out of fear, but out of love. The brilliance of this exhibition is that it expands Nelson’s legacy beyond the familiar icons of sofas and storage walls to an architect who is interested in something more than the designed object: the people who inhabit and use his designs. The humanism that brought such vitality and life to Nelson’s designs extended to his interactions with fellow designers, as he brought Charles and Ray Eames, and Isamu Noguchi into collaboration with Herman Miller. Nelson recognized the talent of these young designers and nurtured their creativity through mentorship. Those who knew him saw him not only as a great designer, but also an influential and compassionate teacher. As Nelson said, “Design cannot transform a little brown, dark life into a large brightly colored one.” It can, however, point you in the right direction.

Ashley Bigham is a graduate student the Yale School of Architecture.

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