George Nelson (1908-1986)
Over the course of his four decade career, industrial designer George Nelson shaped the American mid-century aesthetic through his writing, teaching and important collaborations.
George Nelson was one of many architects of his generation who turned their attention to product and interior design. Born in Hartford, CT in 1908, he began studying architecture at Yale in 1924 and, in 1929, became a teacher’s assistant while pursuing a second B.A. in Fine Arts. During his final year of college Nelson was hired by the Adams and Prentice architectural firm as a drafter.
In 1932, George Nelson won the prestigious Rome Prize which allowed him to live and work at the American Academy in Rome from 1932-1934 with all expenses paid. The award also allowed him to escape three years of the Great Depression and the lack of work that many architects were facing in the United States at the time. While Nelson was in Rome, he traveled around Europe – an experience that exposed him to the Modernist movement that would become his strongest influence. He interviewed important figures in the design and architecture field such as Walter Gropius, Mies van der Rohe, Le Corbusier and Gio Ponti. These interviews later became a series of twelve “portraits” of significant architects in the publication Pencil Points. In 1935, Nelson returned to the U.S. By 1936 Nelson was running his own architectural practice in New York with William Harnby, but was forced to close its doors once the U.S. entered into WWII.
George Nelson’s 1945 book, Tomorrow’s House, significantly changed the course of his career. In the book Nelson argued for a contemporary architectural language that integrated interior and exterior decorating ideals. He advocated for new rooms in homes, such as the “family room,” to be created based on the needs of the inhabitants. He also crafted the “Storagewall,” a modular, hybrid architectural and furniture fixture whose design could be manipulated based on individual need. Tomorrow’s House, and Nelson’s designs, which merged functionality with a Modernist aesthetic, drew the attention of D.J. De Pree, president of manufacturing firm Herman Miller. In 1947, De Pree invited Nelson to become Herman Miller’s design director; a position Nelson accepted and retained until 1972.
During his tenure at Herman Miller, Nelson redesigned the company’s product line, graphics and marketing materials. He also began a series of collaborations with a number of important designers including Charles and Ray Eames, Harry Bertoia, Richard Schultz, Donald Knorr and Isamu Noguchi. Nelson continued to hone his design skills and introduced many innovations such as the aesthetically simple yet utilitarian 1946 Platform Bench, the 1947 Ball Clock with hours marked by brightly colored wooden balls, and the 1955 Coconut Chair whose triangular seat was reminiscent of a coconut shell. While still working with Herman Miller he opened his own office, George Nelson & Associates, which allowed him the freedom to produce designs independently.
Examples of George Nelson’s work can be seen at the Brooklyn Museum, the Vitra Design Museum, the Cooper Hewitt and in the Herman Miller Archives. The market for his work continues to thrive, particularly in regards of his most iconic works, such as the Coconut Chair and Marshmallow Sofa.