Design Profession: Architect, Furniture Designer, Industrial Designer
Building Types: Commercial, Residential
As director of design for the Herman Miller Furniture Company from 1945 to 1972, George Nelson was one of the most influential modern designers of the twentieth century. His decision to become an architect happened by chance on a stormy day during his sophomore year at Yale University when he entered the art building to escape the rain. There Nelson found a display of architectural drawings inspirational and, despite having no training in art or drawing, decided he would become an architect and immediately changed his major.
Upon graduating in 1928 with a bachelor of architecture degree, George Nelson worked briefly at Yale University while pursuing a bachelor of fine arts degree. He lost his position soon after the stock market crash in 1929 and enrolled at Catholic University near Washington, D.C. While there he entered the 1932 Rome Prize architectural competition, which he won. The prize was to spend two years at the American Academy in Rome.
While in Rome, Nelson began interviewing and writing about lesser known European architects in order to introduce them to an American audience. His interviews and articles were published in American magazines and journals such as Pencil Points, the precursor to Progressive Architecture. Upon his return to the United States in 1935, Nelson was approached by Howard Myer at Architectural Forum, who offered him a job as a junior editor with the magazine. Nelson soon worked his way up to managing editor.
In 1940, while working for Architectural Forum, he partnered with co-managing editor Henry Wright, to produce a book entitled Tomorrow's House. A chapter of the book that focused on storage posed a particular problem for the two. Under pressure to meet a deadline, Nelson came up with the innovative idea of placing recessed shelving units within the wall space. Known as the Storage Wall, it was showcased in Life magazine where it was seen by D. J. De Pree, the head of the Herman Miller Furniture Company of Zeeland, Michigan. De Pree pursued Nelson and convinced him to become director of design for the company.
Together, George Nelson and D. J. De Pree took the Herman Miller Furniture Company to the pinnacle of modern design. While working for Herman Miller, Nelson created a number of successful pieces for the company including the Coconut Chair, Marshmallow Sofa, the Ball Clock, and the Nelson Platform Bench. Nelson had an eye for talent and brought the most innovative, dynamic designers of the time to partner with the Herman Miller Company who marketed their designs globally. Charles and Ray Eames, Alexander Girard, Isamu Noguchi, and Robert Probst produced many iconic furniture pieces that define American Modernism. These include the Eames Lounge Chair and Eames' plywood and fiberglass chairs, Girard's folk art based fabrics, Noguchi's biomorphic glass and wood coffee table, and the Action Office by Probst. Nelson's vision for the future of Herman Miller not only made the company one of the most successful furniture companies in the country, it changed the focus of the furniture industry and how it was presented to the world.
According to George Nelson in his book How to See:
"Modern populations, the involuntary beneficiaries and victims of science and technology, are rarely able to see anything beyond simple identification. Design, for the average individual is decoration applied to cake or car, a marzipan flower or an 'opera' window. In consequence the stores are crammed with kitsch.
To break out of such patterns it is necessary to accept the proposition that design is not decoration, but an integral expression of what a thing is and does."
Over the course of his career Nelson received a number of awards including the Gold Medal from the Art Directors Club of New York (1953), the Good Design Award from the Museum of Modern Art (1954), and the Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Institute of Graphic Arts (1991).
George Nelson continued his architectural practice throughout his career and later partnered with the architect Gordon Chadwick to produce a number of architectural designs in Michigan. In 1958 Nelson & Chadwick designed the Kirkpatrick house in Kalamazoo for the college roommate of Nelson's wife where his Storage Wall is an important design feature of the home. Nelson & Chadwick also designed Leibermann's gift shop in downtown Lansing in 1966 for owner Betty Price, who opened one of the state's first modern furnishings shops. Both examples are elegantly subtle in their modernity with simple lines, glass walls, unique textures, and beautiful finishes.
Nelson's influence on design in Michigan, America, and the world has been substantial. His own work and the work of those he supported changed everything about the way people lived, worked, and played. He wasn't just the "designer of modern design," but the designer of modern life.