George Nelson didn’t design many houses, but the houses he did design are pretty great. Especially this one: The Kirkpatrick House in Kalamazoo, Mich. (1955):
In July of 1954, [Nelson] sent Kirkpatrick an enthusiastic note: “We have completed some preliminary sketches and are beginning to get rather steamed up about some of the possibilities.” The letter describes elements of the plan, including “a private 2-story apartment which can be completely closed off from the rest of the house.” This he describes in greater detail: “To get some fun into the house we have set up the living room end as a 2-story cage using a lot of glass, with your bedroom sitting on a kind of bridge above part of it. Obviously, there is no sound barrier between living room and master bedroom, but it was assumed that if the bedroom was being used, the living room would be out of action. The feeling of open space one would get this way could be kind of wonderful.”
Indeed. The good news—and this isn’t always the case—is that the Kirkpatrick House is still wonderful, nearly 60 years later:
A long-time collector of vintage Herman Miller furniture, the present-day owner, Dave Corner, found the home nine years ago, after coming to see the owner about possibly buying a set of rosewood dressers in the master bedroom. “I asked him point blank to call me first if he was ever considering selling the house,” Corner recalls. “A year later I got the call.” Now after almost a decade of dedicated research and work, Corner has fully restored the Kirkpatrick House, even down to Nelson’s original color scheme.
There’s a lovely article about the Kirkpatrick House over at the Herman Miller blog. Click through to read the whole thing.
In one of Kirkpatrick’s early letters to Nelson a comment stands out for its clarity: “We are not so much concerned about the appearance of the outside,” he writes, “as we are about the livability of the inside.” In many ways, “livability” is one of the words that best sums up Nelson’s work. To Nelson, design wasn’t some kind of theoretical, intellectual exercise—it was a way of seeing solutions to problems people faced. It was a service. Throughout his career, Nelson advocated solutions—from seating to city plans—that would improve the way people lived. He constantly searched for a better way to do things—and spared no contempt for the thoughtlessness and failures he identified in the world around him. Ultimately, Nelson may be better remembered for quirky clocks than practicing architecture, but on a wooded lot in Kalamazoo, powerful evidence of his vision lives on.