• Inducted in 2010
  • Design

George Nelson

George Nelson has been called; the “Designer of Modern Design”. Born in 1908 in Hartford Connecticut, he studied architecture at Yale University and earned a fellowship to study at the American Academy in Rome from 1932-34. A prolific writer, designer and creative thinker, Nelson’s work includes architecture, furniture, lamps, clocks, exhibits, identity programs, graphics, urban development, numerous books, articles and visual documentaries. He was the lead designer for the 1959 American National Exhibition in Moscow for the 1959 U.S.S.R. –U.S.A. exchange, and introduced America to the Russian people.

When writing on his own remarkable 50-year career, George described a series of creative “zaps”–moments of out-of-the-blue inspiration “when the solitary individual finds he is connected with a reality he never dreamed of.”

An early zap came when he was at the American Academy in Rome. Before returning home, an idea struck him: He would travel Europe and interview leading modern architects, hoping to get the articles published in the U.S. He succeeded, and in the process introduced the U.S. design community to the European avant-garde. This set in motion a sequence of what he called “lucky” career breaks that were really the inevitable outcomes of his brilliance as an observer, designer, teacher, and author.

The first break was being named an editor of Architectural Forum magazine. Working on a story  in 1942, he was looking at aerial photos of blighted cities when–zap!–he developed the concept of the downtown pedestrian mall, which was unveiled in the Saturday Evening Post. Dubbed ‘The Greening of Main Street”, this led the way to much urban revitalization.

Soon after, another zap led to the Storagewall, the first modular storage system and a forerunner of systems furniture. The Storagewall showcased in a 1945 Life magazine article, caused a sensation in the furniture industry. Herman Miller founder D.J. DePree saw the article and was so impressed that he paid a visit to Nelson in New York and convinced him to be his director of design, which spurred Nelson to found his design firm, George Nelson & Associates. The warm personal and professional relationship between Nelson and DePree yielded a stunning range of products, some 70 in his first year as design director, from the playful Marshmallow Sofa to the first L-shaped desk, a precursor of today’s workstation.

Nelson once wrote that Herman Miller “is not playing follow-the-leader.” That’s one reason why George Nelson & Associates worked with Herman Miller for over 25 years as they shepherded design into the modern era.

During this same period, George Nelson & Associates also created many landmark designs of products, showrooms, and exhibitions for a variety of companies and organizations.

Nelson said that for a designer to deal creatively with human needs, “he must first make a radical, conscious break with all values he identifies as antihuman.” Designers also must constantly be aware of the consequences of their actions on people and society. In fact, he declared that “total design is nothing more or less than a process of relating everything to everything.” So he said that rather than specializing, designers must cultivate a broad base of knowledge and understanding.

George died in 1968. At his memorial service, Tom Pratt, former Senior VP of Herman Miller,  long-time associate and friend of George said this;

  • He was incredulous at the thought that design would have any other purpose than to improve the quality of life in the built environment
  • He believed that designers didn’t so much create as discover and that to address a problem by starting out to innovate was a sure-fire way to miss the solution altogether
  • He cautioned about being too serious in the pursuit of design excellence lest one miss the joy of the activity
  • He fretted about the inaccurate use of words that confused the real content of one’s meaning.
  • He fought narrow views and closed-mindedness and struggled to keep the minds of those he cared about, open
  • He disagreed loudly with the notion of growth equaling progress and worked hard to point out that, in fact, though counter-intuitive in our society, it might be just the opposite.
  • He believed that revolutionary research started many times with throwing out what was known and starting over with the unknown
  • He loathed the notion that any man would truly believe that he held the truth, exclusive of any other man.

Past Awards/Recognition
Selected Permanent collections; the Museum of Modern Art, Brooklyn Museum of Art, Philadelphia Museum of Art, The Henry Ford Museum
Lifetime Achievement Award, American Institute of Graphic Arts, 1991
Scholar in Residence, Smithsonian Institution National Museum of Design, 1984
Chairman, International Design Conference in Aspen, 1965, 1982
Good Design Award, Museum of Modern Art, 1954
Trailblazer Award, National Home Furnishings League, 1954
Best Office of the Year, New York Times, 1953
Gold Medal, Art Directors Club of New York, 1953
Prix de Rome for architecture, 1932

 

Please note: Content of biography is presented here as it was published in 2010.