Fully Nelson

At the end of a leafy residential street in Kalamazoo, Michigan, a remarkable home designed by George Nelson is as liveable today as it was 55 years ago.

 

Written by: Sam Grawe

Artwork by: Paul Barbera

Fully Nelson

“Sally and I are again toying with the idea of building a house,” begins a letter from James Kirkpatrick dated 8 February 1954. “You will recall that you looked over the rather grotesque plans that were made up for us by a local architect at some substantial cost,” he continues, “and I in turn recall that upon looking at the plans you indicated they were not for us, which we both certainly agreed with.”

The recipient of the letter, and the “you” in question, was none other than George Nelson, husband of Sally Kirkpatrick’s college roommate Frances “Fritzi” Nelson. And so in this unassuming correspondence between family friends begins the story of a rather remarkable home. Over the course of the next four years, Nelson, along with his associate Gordon Chadwick, would execute a highly personalised design, a home tailored to the members and lifestyle of the Kirkpatrick family. This in itself is not remarkable; it could be said of any architectural commission. What makes the Kirkpatrick House so special, then and now, are the universal qualities that transcend the specifics.

The main entrance to the Kirkpatrick house leads into a common living/dining area. The arc of recessed, dimmable lighting in the ceiling once traced the outline of a custom sofa Nelson designed for the space. It was sold by a previous owner of the home.

The main entrance to the Kirkpatrick House leads into a common living room/dining area. The arc of recessed, dimmable lighting in the ceiling once traced the outline of a custom sofa that Nelson designed for the space. It was sold by a previous owner of the home.

 

The dining area on the opposite side of the living room features upholstered Eames Wire Chairs and a Nelson Table—both  customized to a lower height. Corner recreated the pendant light based on original drawings and photographs.

The dining area on the opposite side of the living room features upholstered Eames Wire Chairs and a Nelson Table, both customised to a lower height. Corner recreated the pendant light based on original drawings and photographs.

The best Nelson designs, be it a clock, chair or in this case a home, share that same elusive trait. His view of design allowed for both a modular system and a Mannerist quirk. As an “architect in industry” (as he defined himself in the introduction to the 1948 Herman Miller Collection catalogue), Nelson was responsible for creating consumer goods that would sell. In the Kirkpatrick House, it becomes clear that this mentality affected his practice of architecture in equal measure. A product had to be unique to stand out on the market, but it also had to appeal to a wide array of people to be successful. Even in the execution of this private home for personal friends, Nelson’s brand of modernism fully embraces this duality.

The Kirkpatrick House is also remarkable in that it was designed and built during what was arguably the pinnacle of Nelson’s career. To paint a picture of his expansive interests and engagements at the time, in 1954 he had recently co-authored four books (Chairs, Living Spaces, Storage and Display); was leading the operations of his eponymous industrial design and architecture offices and was also the Design Director of Herman Miller, design consultant to General Electric and Howard Miller, Chair of the Aspen design conference, Advisor to the School of Fine Arts at the University of Georgia and consultant and exhibition designer for the United States government. If Nelson alluded to the “architect in industry”, this flurry of activity is more like the “architect as industry”.

The galley-style kitchen cabinets are all original and were repainted to match Nelson's specifications using the Container Corporation's Color Harmony Manual.

The galley-style kitchen cabinets are all original and were repainted to match Nelson’s specifications using the Container Corporation’s Colour Harmony Manual.

 
 
Corner was able to acquire most of the original living room furniture selected by the Nelson Office, including these Herman Miller sofas. The fireplace and hanging plants are lit by skylights above.

Corner was able to acquire most of the original living room furniture selected by the Nelson Office, including these Herman Miller sofas. The fireplace and hanging plants are lit by skylights above.

 
 
The Nelson Office designed fireplace accessories for Howard Miller.

The Nelson Office designed fireplace accessories for Howard Miller.

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