George Nelson

by Branka Bozic

George Nelson

After more than 50 years of work and experience in the field of design and architecture, George Nelson was justifiably called “the designer of modern design“. He claimed that the career of every successful artist consisted of deadlocks, when a creative blockage and inspiration shortage occurred. Undoubtedly, that was the sign to start researching, reading and studying things that were unrevealed within us and around us. Great men’s feature is to stop and think when they don’t know what the next move is. It was also the case here. Alternating periods of creating and pausing have created one of the American Modernism pioneers.

Road to Rome

George Nelson was born in 1908, in Hartford, where he spent his childhood and finished high school. When he was sixteen, one unexpected situation made him think about his future profession. He was walking down the New Haven streets when a storm and downpour seized the city. As Yale University was nearby, he found a shelter in its lobby. It was filled with Architecture students’ works that the young guy felt enthusiastic about.

This coincidence and Nelson’s acquaintance with the basics of this profession made him enter the Architecture Department within Yale University the same year. After seven years of studies he gained two degrees in 1931. One in the field of Architecture and in the field of Art. Although he was engaged as a drawer in the architectural bureau Adams and Prentice before graduation, he decided to continue his studies. He joined the Catholic University in Washington where he won an award that enabled him a two years long scholarship to study at the American Academy in Rome. 

During his life in Italy he met, as he called it, the happy deadlock in his career. By that time he was writing articles for Pencil Points magazine, so he grabbed the opportunity to interview the first class European architects. The idea was to convey their thoughts to American continent through his texts. Among architects who were interviewed sitting opposite him were Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe, Walter Gropius, Gio Ponti Both Nelson and the magazine had benefits from that. He experienced something unexpected and learned directly from those giants, and the magazine became famous by meeting American design with European 20th century avant-garde.

From Writing to Designing

Several years later he returned to the USA, deciding that he would work for Boston magazine Architectural Forum. Throughout his whole career he showed his affection towards writing, commenting on current design scene and giving unique solutions to designers’ problems. He criticized architecture that was subordinate to capitalism, emphasizing how important it was to preserve nature’s beauty and explained why we should weave it in each work of ours.

His post-war book Tomorrow’s House was described as an assemblage of revolutionary novelties. It didn’t offer stylized solutions but ones that gave answers to every day space problems. The idea was to promote life by creating practical furniture. One of the book’s ideas appeared by accident when Nelson and his assistant and co-author Henry Wright  found themselves short of space to store sketches. By realizing that there was “nothing” in the walls, they wrote how to utilize that emptiness. The suggestion was to turn walls into shelves. We still use furniture that divides space visually and at the same time represents something like a dividing wall. 

Designing residential buildings and their elements drew the attention of the head of Herman Miller’s Company. The Company’s leading man Dirk Jan De Pree was so amazed by Nelson’s ideas and suggestions that he decided to pay him a visit in New York. Then he invited him to accept the design director’s position, which he did gladly. Under this Company’s name George Nelson invented canonical pieces until 1972. Collaboration with designers like Ray and Charles Eames, Harry Bertoia, Richard Schultz brought a whole new aesthetics of home and office furniture in the USA.

The first catalog for Herman Miller was issued in 1945. It was followed by a popular Bubble Lamp series, inspired by Swedish lighting. Soft, spherical form and material whiteness enabled diffuse lighting fulfill the space equally in all directions. Lamp gives the impression of lightness, reminds of silk and ennobles space. Several types are still produced today and can be bought in over than ten ball-shaped variations.

From the USA to Europe

The relationship between Dirk Jan De Pree and George Nelson was professional but honest and friendly. Pree supported him in founding his own Company for furniture design and so in 1947 George Nelson Associates was founded. With money gathered in Herman Miller Company and thanks to acquaintance with Irving Harper, George Mulhauser, Robert Brownjohn and many others, he created pieces of furniture that became timeless classics. It fulfilled the needs of generations to come and modern life as well. Marshmallow Sofa best fits this description. It was designed by associate Irving Harper together with Long Island Company that deals with the production of plastic elements. Sofa consisted of numerous sponge discs attached to metal frame. Together they created a semicircle, filled with colorful pads that were made for office and home environment.

One of the crucial moments in Nelson’s career was the contract signing between two giant companies: Vitra and Herman Miller in 1957. Swiss couple Willi and Erika Fehlbaum, Vitra’s founders, transferred skills from the USA to European market. Besides Charles and Ray Eames, George Nelson was the third one whose ideas crossed the Ocean.

This was when the Ball Clock was made, the first among over than 50 clocks created in Nelson’s bureau. Wooden balls and metal foundation were covered with different acrylic colors, which gave the sense of exclusivity and simplicity at the same time. Many people are still guessing why there are balls instead of numbers on the clock. Was it because the motif of stars and Big Bang were popular in the middle of last century? Or were they associations to the atom model? Whatever the answer to this question may be, the fact that Vitra is still producing this clock says how timeless it is. 

Nature and Humanity as as Inspiration

Over the following few decades, George Nelson became famous not only as a writer and furniture designer but also as an architect, lecturer, graphic designer and passionate photographer. He especially enjoyed watching and documenting nature with his camera. He believed that native environment was perfect, and that humans only ruined it by doing things that were not in accordance with nature. Iconic chair Coconut, inspired by a coconut cut into eight pieces, shows that the nature was his inspiration. As most of his furniture, we can also classify this chair as round, sophisticated piece, sold in various colors. 

He claimed that the crucial designers’ task was to create a better world. He was among the first ones to pay attention to the reduction of pollution in the streets, he strived to reduce the amount of harmful gases produced by cars. His vision was to create a public space where any kind of motor vehicle usage would be banned. During that period, ideas like this one were rare and poorly accepted in everyday life. “Designers must be aware of the consequences that their acts have on people and society” Nelson repeated.

He was always interested in the fact how his furniture affected everyday lives of customers. Among numerous private residences that he projected, there was also the Experimental House, built of cubic modules and transformable items. The roof was made of transparent materials which owners could move according to their own requests. This is also an example of how noble was Nelson when it came to the architectural influence on its users, no matter if it concerned bigger elements or materials. 

Although he started his career as a writer, George Nelson ended it as an excellent master of various disciplines. Through his unique elements we observe the unification of talent, quality, authenticity, elegance, and benevolence above all that. His opinion that industrial designers give way to commercial forces too much shows how his honest thoughts move both function and form to a higher level. “A person who deals with human needs must make a radical, rational breakup with all values that we identify as anti-human.” This sentence is a clear proof that such an approach can be held only by a renaissance genius of modern design.

Featured image: George Nelson @ the Powerhouse Museum by Robyn Jay, used under CC BY-SA 2.0 / extracted from original

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