Meet George Nelson

Coconut chairs and ottoman (1956). Photos courtesy Vitra Design Museum Archive

An international exhibition celebrating the career of one of the most influential and prolific design figures of the 1950s and 60s is the highlight of this year’s Sydney Design festival.

George Nelson at the America National exhibition in Moscow, 1959. Photos courtesy Vitra Design Museum Archive

George Nelson at the America National exhibition in Moscow, 1959. Photo courtesy Vitra Design Museum Archive.

“The biggest single problem in the design field today revolves around the question of values. In relation to this question all other problems, while intersting are superficial.” George Nelson 1961.

George Nelson (1908–1986) was one of the most influential figures in American design during the second half of the 20th century. With an architectural degree from Yale, he was not only active in the fields of architecture and design, but was also a widely respected writer, publicist, lecturer, and curator, as well as a passionate photographer. His office produced numerous furnishings and interior designs that became modern classics, including the Coconut Chair (1956), the Marshmallow Sofa (1956), the Ball Clock (1947) and the Bubble Lamps (1952 onwards). As design director at Herman Miller, a leading US manufacturer of modern furniture design, Nelson had a major influence on the product line and public image of the company for over two decades. He played an essential role in bringing the company together with designers such as Charles Eames, Alexander Girard and Isamu Noguchi. Early on, Nelson was convinced that design should be an integral part of a company’s philosophy, and by promoting this viewpoint, he also became a pioneer in the areas of corporate communication and design.

Bubble Lamps (about 1952). Photos courtesy Vitra Design Museum Archive

Bubble Lamps (about 1952). Photo courtesy Vitra Design Museum Archive.

As an architect, designer and writer, Nelson was deeply interested in the topics of domestic living and interior furnishings. In the bestselling book Tomorrow’s House (1945, co-authored with Henry Wright), he articulated the concept of the ‘storagewall’. The walls of a house, Nelson explained, could be used to store things by transforming them into floor-to-ceiling, two-sided cabinets. A revolutionary idea at the time, it anticipated the flood of consumer goods that the economic boom in the western world would soon produce, turning the single-family home into a small warehouse.

A committed proponent of industrial building methods, Nelson published numerous texts on the topic of prefabricated architecture. In the 1950s he also developed the Experimental House, a modular system of cubic volumes with Plexiglas roof domes which owners could assemble into personal habitations according to their own spatial requirements.

Two of Nelson's staff with a model for the American National Exhibition. Photos courtesy Vitra Design Museum Archive

Two of Nelson’s staff with a model for the American National Exhibition. Photo courtesy Vitra Design Museum Archive.

In addition to his preoccupation with architecture and the domestic interior, Nelson intently pursued the topic of office furnishings. Besides designing the first L-shaped desk, he played a major role in the development of Herman Miller’s Action Office, and in the 1970s he created his own office system, Nelson Workspaces. Similar to Nelson’s home furnishings and experimental architecture, this system was based on a variety of modular elements that could be freely combined.

The extraordinary diversity of design tasks taken on by the Nelson office extends far beyond the field of furniture design, although the latter forms the basis of his reputation today. Numbering among his clients were many large corporations including Abbott, Alcoa, BP, Ford, Gulf, IBM, General Electric, Monsanto and Olivetti, as well as the United States government. In his New York office, which he established in 1947 and ran for more than three decades, Nelson employed over 50 people at times. Along with exhibitions, restaurant interiors and showrooms, George Nelson & Company designed kitchens, flatware and dishes, record players and speakers, computers and typewriters, company logos and packaging, rugs and tiles.

Nelson’s wide-ranging abilities culminated in the organisation and design of the American National Exhibition held in Moscow in 1959. Nelson and his associates selected several hundred industrial products manufactured by American companies and displayed them on a vast three-dimensional multi-level platform designed especially for the exhibition. He also furnished a ‘model apartment’ and designed a large fibreglass umbrella for two other modular exhibition pavilions. The Moscow exhibition made history as the backdrop for the famous debate between Nixon and Khrushchev.

Swaged leg chair (1954) and desk (1958). Photos courtesy Vitra Design Museum Archive

Swaged leg chair (1954) and desk (1958). Photo courtesy Vitra Design Museum Archive.

Nelson began his career as a writer and journalist. He was not only co-editor of the eminent journal Architectural Forum, but also worked for many other well-known magazines including Fortune, Life, Industrial Design, Interiors and Harper’s. He published more than half a dozen books on designtopics. Nelson’s engaging sense of humour and penchant for radical theories surely contributed to his popularity as a speaker at a wide range of conferences and symposiums. In 1961, at the height of the Cold War, he created a television program entitled How to Kill People: A Problem of Design — both an apt and bitingly ironic commentary on warfare from the designer’s viewpoint.

Nelson once described himself as being more interested in systems and their usefulness for humanity, than in things. Nelson’s analytical eye, his admonition to go beyond mere questions of form and think in the larger context of practical applications, and his achievements in the area of design education make his work — today more than ever — significant and highly relevant.

The exhibition, George Nelson: architect, writer, designer, teacher, features numerous furnishings by Nelson — not only many classics, but also lesser known pieces — from the collection of Germany’s Vitra Design Museum. Originally developed to commemorate the centenary of Nelson’s birth, the exhibition has since toured Europe and the United States. The Powerhouse Museum is its only Australian venue.

George Nelson: architect, writer, designer, teacher opens on 3 August.

An exhibition of the Vitra Design Museum, Germany. This exhibition has been generously sponsored by Herman Miller International, Asia Pacific. Article courtesy Vitra Design Museum

First published in Powerline, the magazine of the Powerhouse Museum (Winter 2013).