Herman Miller introduced George Nelson’s Comprehensive Storage System (CSS) in 1959 and produced it until 1973. Available in a variety of wood finishes, the CSS could also be customized to fit the needs of customers, thanks to its modular units that included shelves, drawers, and desk units, such as the CSS in the museum’s collection.

Modular furniture was not new in 1959: Le Corbusier had introduced a version of the concept at the Paris Exposition Universelle of 1925, in his Pavilion de l’Esprit Nouveau. Nevertheless, Nelson’s design solution was very timely in responding to post-war living circumstances in the United States. It allowed customers to make as much use of vertical space for storage as possible, thereby limiting the encroachment of the furniture into the living space – a concern in post-war housing, which tended to be considerably smaller than pre-war abodes. In addition, the CSS could be used as a room divider, a flexibility that would have been welcome as open-space floor plans and the resulting large rooms became increasingly multi-purpose.

Importantly, Nelson’s design also provided a necessary solution to the rampant consumerism of the post-war years. Fuelled by a strong economy, manufacturers, with the assistance of designers, were producing an increasing variety of objects in increasing quantities – in part owing to the wider variety of materials available after the war, which included nylon and aluminum. These new, shiny, and modern objects were acquired with fervor by households, who delighted in the wave of optimism that swept America, long overdue after World War II and the Great Depression.  Nelson’s Comprehensive Storage System aesthetically furnished a living space, provided the space for a family to stow away and display its possessions, do some work, and even mix a drink.

Designs by George Nelson will be on display in Energizing the Everyday: Gifts from the George R. Kravis II Collection, on view April 27, 2016 through March 12, 2017.  From radios to furniture, the exhibition will display some of the most influential objects in the history of modernism, alongside contextual works drawn from the museum’s collection.

Catherine Powell is an MA candidate in the History of Design and Curatorial Studies program offered jointly by Parsons School of Design and Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum. Catherine is a fellow in the Product Design and Decorative Arts curatorial department of Cooper Hewitt, and an intern in the Museum’s research library. She is the editor in chief of “Objective: Journal of History of Design and Curatorial Studies”.

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