half-nelson

“What is the crowning glory of your civilization…The symbol as clear a statement as the pyramids, the Parthenon, the cathedrals? What is this symbol? What is its name? It’s name is Junk. Junk is the rusty, lovely, brilliant symbol of the dying years of your time. Junk is your ultimate landscape” George Nelson, at the International Design Conference in Aspen, 1965.

“One man’s junk is another man’s treasure.” Anonymous
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The call came early on a Sunday morning. It was my neighbor and friend Tom. Tom is one of those guys who rides around Chicago visiting his favorite thrift stores and dumpsters in search of the next great modern relic worthy of a second life. Tom had spotted the remnants of a George Nelson shelving system. Tom wanted to know if I wanted the Nelson system since he had been forbidden by his wife from bringing any more Nelson shelving system components into their modern, relic filled, space challenged, condominium.

I hopped in my car and took a ride to the Arc, a local thrift store, and looked at Tom’s find. Cabinets, a few shelves, broken light fixture, aluminum uprights & miscellaneous hardware. Forty dollars later, I had a Honda Civic hatchback full of Nelson system components. Now all I needed was a design concept. How I might actually breathe new life back into this dismantled and dismembered discovery?

The poles were too short for my purposes and the shelves were of no real use. My non-structural partition walls would not allow for any wall mounting and anything of value needed to be kept away from the budding artist in residence who was constantly looking for a new surface to paint on, vintage art & architecture books being her preferred canvas.
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Firing up the then new graphite Imac G3 (still without a desk beneath it), I searched the internet for an alternative to the Nelson poles as a way of supporting what were the three Nelson cabinets I felt I could work with.

I don’t remember how I found Rakks. I don’t remember my search criteria. What I do remember is being initially attracted to the bracket's simplicity. I liked its rectangular profile in contrast to the more common tapered triangle. The brackets were my first discovery, my second discovery was the PL spring-loaded pole.

We live in one of Mies Van Der Rohe’s two buildings that form the Commonwealth Promenade on the North end of Chicago’s Lincoln Park. My condominium is a South facing 22’nd floor 2 bedroom unit. Mies was kind enough to design each unit with windows that extend 8’-0” from floor to ceiling and wall to wall. Our apartment includes a 22 foot wide panoramic view of Lake Michigan sunrises, downtown Chicago’s ever changing skyline and the sun setting daily over Chicago’s sprawling West side.

As an architect who spends a lot of time designing and fabricating custom furniture, I have one core fascination; The influence of site on anything and everything. Site for me is all things local to a project: climate, natural light, topography, geography, views, scale, proportion, materials, fabricators, function...the list is often long.

When you enter my apartment, your view goes literally right out the window. My new shelving unit had the potential of interrupting this view. I solved the potential problem by “floating” the boxes above the floor and below the ceiling, allowing air & light to flow in and around the shelving system’s components and content.

Symbolically, the vertical posts reference the fixed structure of Mies’ apartment towers, the adjustable shelves, cabinets & desks reference the flexibility and adaptability of Mies’ interior walls.
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Shelves needed to span the distance of a desk width which for ¾” plywood is about 6” too much unless of course you enjoy the gentle curve of an overloaded shelf. I included a 1 ¼” x 1 ¼” x ⅛” anodized aluminum angle at the front of my shelves to both help with the span and visually tie the shelves back into the Rakks aluminum uprights.
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Commonwealth Plaza’s structure is concrete encased steel supporting concrete slabs that act as both floor and ceiling. Mies created the ultimate love-hate resident relationship by including 2” thick partition walls throughout his apartments. The 2” thick partition walls which span between columns are loved for their ability to be moved or removed, creating a nearly unlimited number of room and unit combinations. The 2” thick partition walls are hated because they are nearly 100% non-structural. Anything heavier than a picture frame will bend or tear the walls away from the floor and ceiling. All shelving must be supported by the floor below (or as I would soon discover a combination of floor below and ceiling above).

Rakks PL spring-loaded support poles solved my support problem. But what about those Nelson boxes? It took me awhile to figure out that the non bracket supporting sides of the Rakks poles included a continuous extrusion capable of taking a ¼” x 20 machine screw anywhere along its length. My Nelson boxes used a different system which left four oddly drilled holes on the inside of each box. Not wanting to add additional holes to what are essentially “antiques”, I finally came up with a system that added an additional panel to the side of my Nelson boxes.

The panel was attached to the Rakks poles using countersunk ¼” x 20 machine screws, and the Nelson boxes were screwed into the panel using their original hardware. Since the Nelson boxes were fabricated using walnut veneered plywood, I chose the same material for the additional end panel. I set the panel in ¾” on it’s four sides to differentiate Nelson from Pettigrew.
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I designed and had fabricated three additional walnut veneered plywood boxes; one a hanging file cabinet and two desks with drawers. I did not want my boxes to be exactly like Nelson’s. I did not want to “copy” Nelson, but I did want to test my audience’s knowledge of arcane George Nelson design detail trivia. I changed the detailing and hardware on my boxes, hoping to leave a few clues as evidence of their originality. I also wanted to reveal, with a sense of humor, the not so secret of the boxes being walnut veneered plywood rather than solid walnut.
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I’m a big Nelson fan, but my favorite architect is Carlo Scarpa. Scarpa possessed a unique ability to work with the past in such a way as to simultaneously celebrate history and anticipate/participate in the making of the future. Scarpa was a man of few words, but there are two quotes that I find particularly relevant to a project such as my Half-Nelson:

“...In this way I renewed the staircase without destroying it, preserving its identity and its history, increasing the tension between the new and the old. I was very concerned to articulate the points of junction so as to explain the visual logic of the union of the different parts...” Carlo Scarpa, Interview with Martin Dominguez, May 1978, Vicenza

“...It is unhistorical to draw on a past which we know is inadequate and unusable. History is followed and created by struggling with the present toward the future, not with nostalgic memories…” Carlo Scarpa, 9 May 1931, Letters from the Venetian Rationalists
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The Rakks PL bridges laterally between the past of Nelson’s boxes and the present/future of my shelves and boxes. The Rakks Pl spanning between floor & ceiling floats Nelson’s past and Half-Nelson’s future between Mies Van Der Rohe's structure above below and all around.
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“You remember that bull's head I exhibited recently? Out of the handle bars and bicycle seat I made a bull's head which everybody recognized as a bull's head. Thus a metamorphosis was completed; and now I would like to see another metamorphosis take place in the opposite direction. Suppose my bull's head is thrown on the scrap heap. Perhaps some day a fellow will come along and say: "Why there's something that would come in very handy for the hand bars of my bicycle...." And so a double metamorphosis would have been achieved”. Pablo Picasso from an interview with Simone Téry, 1945

As someone who’s watched many of my architectural projects alter and/or disappear over the years, I know how kind or cruel the market can be on a design or designer’s legacy. Mies, in 1957, designed the condominium I now live in. It was originally intended as 4 apartment towers. Only two towers were built, the building was converted to condominiums, a playground and swimming pool have been added and just about every 2” thick wall has been moved, removed, replaced or relocated.

I am writing the majority of this article on the desk that I designed and made, spanning between two Rakk’s PL poles supporting bookshelves above and Nelson boxes along their length. The whole system floats in front of a Mies Van Der Rohe 2” thick plaster non-structural partition and when I don’t know what word to write next, or the line I’d like to draw alludes me, I look to my left and gaze out at Chicago’s skyline crowding up close to Lake Michigan’s shore, construction cranes erecting new structures on top of old, I remember Nelson’s junk pile, Scarpa’s stair and Picasso’s bulls head.

Years from now, I picture my “half nelson” system in a thrift store, and there’s a guy just like my friend Tom and he’s sifting through a pile of components that once were my system. He’s identified the Nelson boxes as valuable, and the Rakks poles and brackets are of course collector’s items, antiques even, but what about those Pettigrew boxes, those Pettigrew shelves?

My friend Tom’s wife is a graphic designer. A couple years ago I asked her to design my corporate identity including a logo that could be turned into a branding iron. I now brand all of my custom furniture pieces. I’ve asked my clients whether they view this as vanity on my part or a potentially valuable detail for their custom furniture’s auction house or thrift store future. My clients universally like the brand.
A couple year’s ago a photographer was passing through Chicago looking for modern interiors to photograph for a book that he was working on. My half-nelson system made the editor’s cut. Getting work published is always nice at least until you start to see and even buy copies of the publication extra cheap at ½.com or Amazon.
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Peter Parker is famous for the code by which he lives his life both as Peter and as his super hero alter ego Spiderman; “With great power comes great responsibility”. I’m a huge Spiderman fan and I’m always looking for ways to incorporate Peter’s life lessons and philosophies into my design life. History, or at least the remnants and relics of our design history are Nelson’s landscape of junk, and that landscape of junk, possesses a power that if harnessed in the right way, has a way of contributing to the present and future in a way that makes past, present & future together greater than the sum of their parts.
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