George Nelson: Architect | Writer | Designer | Teacher

Last Sunday we caught the last day of the travelling George Nelson exhibit that had taken up temporary roots over at the Bellevue Arts Museum.  It’s somewhat rare for Seattle to celebrate mid-century design and architecture,  so we were excited to visit especially since this exhibit was originally curated by the Vitra Design Museum.

As we  made our way to the third floor of the museum, we were both giddy with anticipation — this is George Nelson after all — just think of the amazing designs we were going to see!  When we step off the elevator, we were greeted by the typical wall-sized exhibit title and a tired-looking security person staring at his watch.  We looked everywhere for programs, but they must have been out because we weren’t able to find any.  There was also no clue as to which direction patrons were to proceed.  Right?  Left?  It was anybody’s guess.  We chose left, since we could see a biography of Nelson on the wall and a glimpse of the Marshmallow Sofa.

The exhibition itself, as its title suggests, was set up to highlight different aspects of Nelson’s life.  We’re of two minds as to how effective this was.  The exhibition did a great job of highlighting just how vast Nelson’s reach was in the field of mid-century design, but we had trouble finding an overall arc to the exhibit, which made it fall a little flat for us.  There was little sense of his design process growing and changing.  It was as if Nelson’s designs sprung up ex nihilo, which is obviously not the case.

The first part of the exhibit (it seems that we chose wisely in our decision to turn left) was dedicated to Nelson the furniture designer.  Chairs and sofas were displayed on two levels, with brief titles near each object.  We particularly enjoyed this part of the exhibit because it  placed utilitarian objects as works of art, without apology.  It’s obvious to us that Nelson’s Pretzel Chair deserves a place in most contemporary design collections, but we think it’s a point that needs to be made, especially since so many pieces of mid-century decorative arts are being thrown out without a second thought.

The only downside to this portion of the exhibit was that the exhibition cards were off to one side and impossible to access without walking past the entire exhibit.  We can’t imagine that this would have happened with a line of eight nineteenth century paintings, so it seemed especially odd that the patron was expected to look at eight chairs and then read about these chairs all at once.  Although this seems like a small curatorial quibble, it very much changed the way we interacted with the exhibit because it was impossible for us to understand the progression of Nelson’s designs (and the ideas behind them) as we were viewing the objects themselves.

The case of the missing exhibition card was also an issue when we viewed the CSS unit (Comprehensive Storage System) that was on display.  As you can see, the curators artfully displayed smaller objects on the CSS unit, which we thought was a great testament to the function and style of the piece.  Sadly, the exhibition cards for the smaller items were located on a nearby wall, which meant that the patron had to cross the entire unit to get more information about a certain design object.  There were also some pieces that weren’t designed by Nelson himself — specifically Irving Harper’s flatware set for Carvel Hall.  It was almost impossible to ascertain who designed some of these smaller pieces from the exhibition card, which was quite frustrating.  (In another part of the exhibition there was a rainbow stack of Eames shell chairs.  Obviously this was a nod to Nelson’s tenure at Herman Miller, but it was a lost moment to integrate Nelson’s work with other designers at the company.)

We’re of two minds about the exhibit.  It would be a great place for a person to get a good introduction to Nelson’s oeuvre, and for those who want to gawk at mid-century design.  For those of us expecting an exhibit with a larger narrative about Nelson’s life and the ways in which his designs interact with 20th century design in general, the exhibition is sorely lacking.

One Comment

  1. Reply
    SixBalloons February 20, 2012

    Wow, that is one amazing chair. Thanks for sharing – good points about the exhibit! I wonder if you can give them some feedback in time for them to adjust what they are doing.

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