Exhibit, symposium focus on alumnus who helped define 20th-century American design

Photos: Exhibition: 'George Nelson: Architect, Writer, Designer, and Teacher'

George Nelson's "Marshmallow Sofa," 1956. (Photo by Vitra Design Museum)
George Nelson, late 1940s. (Courtesy Vitra Design Museum Archive)
George Nelson's "Bubble Lamps," ca. 1952. (Photo by Vitra Design Museum Archive)
George Nelson's "Coconut Chairs and Ottoman," 1956. (Photo by Vitra Design Museum Archive)
George Nelson's "Swag-Leg Chair," 1954, and "Swag-Leg Desk," 1958. (Photo by Vitra Design Museum Archive)
George Nelson's "Ball Clock," 1948. (Photo by Vitra Design Museum"
George Nelson's "Pretzel Armchair," 1957 collection, Vitra Design Museum. (Photo by Vitra Design Museum Archive)
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Yale School of Architecture will celebrate the life and work of iconic designer and Yale alumnus George Nelson (1928–1986), in the first retrospective exhibition and symposium devoted to the innovator of such defining landmarks of American style as the “marshmallow sofa,” the office cubicle, and the concept of the “family room.”

The exhibition, titled “George Nelson: Architect, Writer, Designer, Teacher,” will be on display at the gallery of Yale School of Architecture (YSoA), 180 York St., from Thursday, Nov. 8, to Saturday, Jan. 26.

In a related symposium at YSoA Nov. 9-10, titled “George Nelson: Designs for Living, American Mid-Century Design and Its Legacy Today,” scholars, designers, and curators will explore the nature and lasting influence of Nelson’s design projects from a variety of perspectives. For more information and to register for this free event, visit the website.

Best known today as the creator of such iconic mid 20th-century designs as the “ball clock” and “bubble lamps,” Nelson also made his mark as architect, urban planner, exhibition designer, corporate image-maker, and author. The exhibition “George Nelson: Architect, Writer, Designer, Teacher” presents more than 120 examples of his home and office furnishings, and more than 50 drawings, photographs, architectural models, films, and other materials documenting his wide-ranging and diverse achievements in all his fields of endeavor.

Trained as an architect at Yale (B.A., 1928, B.F. Arch., 1931), Nelson first distinguished himself as a provocative writer on architecture and design issues. From 1935 to 1949, he was an editor at Architectural Forum, where he was a staunch defender of modernist principles of design. He helped to evolve the Bauhaus aesthetic into a more colorful, playful, technically savvy, and versatile idiom, evocative of the American lifestyle at mid-century, say exhibition organizers.

In his trend-setting book “Tomorrow’s House” (1945), co- authored with Henry Wright, he introduced the concept of the “family room” and the “storage wall,” which would become one of his most enduring signature designs. As design director for furniture manufacturer Herman Miller from 1945 to 1972, Nelson brought the business together with such designers as Charles and Ray Eames, Alexander Girard, and Isamu Noguchi. In 1955, he established his own firm, George Nelson Associates, Inc. Working with numerous Fortune 500 clients, he became an early advocate for design as an essential component of a company’s identity.

The exhibition is organized according to the five principal sectors of Nelson’s multifaceted career: home design and furnishings; graphic and corporate design; office furniture; exhibition design; and his activities as a writer, filmmaker, and lecturer.

“Nelson and the House” focuses on his groundbreaking work as a planner and designer of the modern single-family home during the 1940s and 1950s. “Corporate Design” presents brochures, advertisements, and vintage audiotapes exploring Nelson’s original work in corporate design and image management. “The Office” features such iconic Nelson innovations as the L-shaped desk (1947), a forerunner of the workstation, and Action Office (1964), known today as the “office cubicle.” “Exhibition Design” focuses on Nelson’s role as head designer for the American National Exhibition in Moscow (1959), which showcased hundreds of American industrial products and a number of model American homes — one of which served as the backdrop for the historic Khrushchev-Nixon “Kitchen Debates.” “Nelson as Author, Editor, and Visionary” is an overview of his contributions as writer, lecturer, and creative thinker.

Organized by the Vitra Design Museum in Weil am Rhein, Germany, the exhibition comes to Yale following an international tour. The Yale School of Architecture gallery is its final destination and only East Coast venue.

Exhibitions at the YSoA gallery in the historic Paul Rudolf Hall are free and open to the public Monday–Friday, 9 a.m.–5 p.m.; and Saturday, 10 a.m.–5 p.m. The gallery is closed on Sunday.