by Stephen Sharpe, Hon. TSA
I attended a media preview on June 8, led by staff curator Rene Barilleaux, who did not assemble the show but nonetheless is well versed in Nelson’s oeuvre and his place in the pantheon of American designers. Almost all of the pieces on display are on loan from the Vitra Design Museum in Weil am Rhein, Germany. Vitra – perhaps best known for its tiny replicas of famous chairs by twentieth-century designers – owns the European copyrights for Nelson’s work.
The exhibit, sponsored by Herman Miller, has been traveling for a couple of years, having come from the Oklahoma City Museum of Art to the McNay’s Jane & Arthur Stieren Center for Exhibitions. The companion book, published in 2008 by the Vitra Design Museum and available at the McNay’s gift shop, neatly organizes Nelson’s multiple and overlapping careers. Also on sale are several reproductions of his classic designs, including the Ball Clock and a miniature Marshmallow Sofa.
Following the media preview, invited guests were treated to an informal “conversation” between Vitra CEO Rolf Fehlbaum and Bill Lacy, FAIA, whose personal recollections included an observation of Nelson’s “wicked sense of humor.” To demonstrate Nelson’s satiric wit, Fehlbaum quoted some of the headlines of Nelson’s articles—“Design Technology and the Pursuit of Ugliness,” “A Problem of Design: How to Kill People,” and “Does It Really Matter What Color You Paint a Nuclear Bomb?”
In his brief remarks, Fehlbaum said he wouldn’t be in business if not for George Nelson. He credited Nelson for showing him how to organize operations in a manner very different from the way most European companies did. That business model has proved successful for Vitra, which maintains a compact corporate campus just across the border from Basel, Switzerland. As Fehlbaum illustrated in a short slide show, he has collected a menagerie of buildings by internationally known architects. They include a fire station by Zaha Hadid, a petrol station by Jean Prouvé (relocated to the campus), a geodesic dome by Buckminster Fuller, a conference pavilion by Tadao Ando, and the Vitra Design Museum by Frank Gehry.
An erudite connoisseur of design, Fehlbaum suggested that Nelson’s body of work is less appreciated by the general public because he was an inventor of typologies rather than single pieces (with a few exceptions). The exhibit supports his conclusion, with displays that focus on Nelson’s concepts for the domestic storage wall (depicted in a humorously staged photo shoot for Life magazine) and modular "office systems" that were ahead of their time and sometimes failed in the marketplace. On that latter subject, Lacy recounted how he worked within the federal government to help bureaucrats accept the trend away from requisitioning individual desks and chairs for each employee in favor of ordering a workstation.
In closing, Lacy thanked Fehlbaum for raising the public’s awareness of Nelson’s work by loaning the pieces for the traveling exhibit. The show, he said, “is like Rolf brought the museum.” Fehlbaum responded with a compliment to the McNay, saying, “It looks better here than at our museum."