George Nelson was an architect by education but clearly a developer by nature.
His design is open minded, simplistic, functional and at times playful but always innovative. And he nurtures the same mood as influential design critic and creative director at Hermann Miller Inc.
His inspiring career is not a coincidence or the result of being at the right place at the right time. He had the right ideas for the times ahead and picked the right people for the present to work with.
He began his architecture studies at Yale at the young age of 16 and added a second degree in arts before he ventures to Rome on a scholarship of the American Academy. During these two years George Nelson pursued an idea of his own. He travelled through Europe to interview the crème de la crème of modern architects and had the results published in the magazine Pencil Points. With no delay the Architectural Forum hires him in 1935 and he is soon managing publisher and an influential architecture critic while entertaining his own projects with partner William Hanby and their firm in New York for the next nine years.
He worked only sporadically as an architect, mainly from the mid 30s to the mid 40s, but the Fairchild Residence, a lavish townhouse on the Upper East Side for aircraft manufacturer Sherman Fairchild, proves that he had no reason to take a back seat in this field either. It is a masterpiece and even featured on the cover of Fortune magazine in April ‘43.
“Preconceived ideas are poison. It is a pretty safe rule that if a planning solution is thoroughly workable it is not going to be difficult to design an exterior, which will be agreeable in appearance. It may be unconventional. Maybe the bathrooms will have big windows instead of little ones. Maybe the kitchen will be next to the front door instead of the back door. Maybe it won’t even look like a house at all to those who are accustomed to symmetrical fronts with two shutters on every window. Nevertheless, in it’s personal, modern way, it will be a good-looking house.” (George Nelson & Henry Wright)
Nelson radically broke with traditions. He introduced ramps instead of staircases and an atrium that divided the building in two. Entirely in glass with a landscaped courtyard this allowed much more natural daylight to fall on each level of the house. The interior was high tech for the time, electrically operated Venetian blinds, air conditioning and soundproofing; it truly deserves the label ‘machine for living’.
His beginning with Herman Miller marks the beginning of an extraordinary time for modern American design and furniture production. Within a year of joining Herman Miller 1945 he is creative director and induces a creative and productive environment inviting several leading and upcoming designers to express their ideas and draw from innovative production and material research. He launches several designs by Eero Saarinen, Isamo Noguchi and Charles Eames who worked closely with Hermann Miller for many years.
There is some dispute about George Nelson taking credit for designs by others, employed at Hermann Miller. For example related to the Marshmellow sofa and the well-known Ball clock, both designs likely by Irving Harper, both playful and much less restrained than the Platform bench or the serene Bubble lamps, which are undoubtedly by George Nelson and a beautiful, versatile example of his talent.
Most consider his structured, functional storage systems his biggest achievement for furniture design. Beginning with the Storage Wall that had prompted Hermann Millers interest in him 1945, Nelson introduces the idea of using storage units as room dividers. Various storage solutions and a lot of research later he and Robert Probst brought Action Office I into the market, had the initial idea incorporated and it was soon to be seen in every modern American office.
Action Office II, continued by Probst without Nelson, should introduce cubicles to the office landscape and in continuation Action Office revolutionized workspaces.
Beyond his designs and buildings his legacy is the way he spread the words and works of designers and architects internationally and helped paving the way for modern design a great deal.
One of George Nelson’s theories was that not much design theory is required for good design, which he defined as “the capacity of the human mind to overcome its own limitations”.