“The stakes are high, the budget low, the deadline impossible.” Doesn’t that sound like every project you’ve ever been involved in? For George Nelson, who said this about the American National Exhibition in Moscow in 1959, the need to succeed was set against the backdrop of nuclear threats and deep distrust.
It was the height of the Cold War, and the United States Information Agency (USIA) chose to burden and bless Nelson with the mission of exhibition design director. The pressure on Nelson came from all sides; even President Eisenhower asked the exhibit to “open the door of the Iron Curtain a crack.”
If being design director wasn’t harrowing enough, Nelson later took on curator duties. With time running short, he designated tasks to outside designers, including Buckminster Fuller, who built a geodesic dome where Charles and Ray Eames’ short film, “Glimpses of the U.S.A,” was shown.
Nelson, who was also juggling the role of Herman Miller design director during this time, built an intricate jungle gym structure featuring a number of Herman Miller furnishings—the Nelson Coconut Chair and the Eames Lounge were among thousands of products. Another of his exhibition designs featured 90 fiberglass umbrellas that canopied over photography, architectural, and fashion collections.
In the end, Nelson was blessed with success. The first major American exhibition in the USSR over six weeks enticed three million Soviets to come and catch a glimpse of mid-century American life.