George Nelson (1908-1986) remains one of the United States’ most influential and venerated designers.
He loathed the pressure put on makers to produce commercialised things, while simultaneously putting his name to pieces that, 70 years on, bright young homemakers and Fortune 500 firms still venerate.
What’s branded George Nelson in furnishings and accessories is not generally his sole or even joint creation, but named for curated collections produced by individuals under the George Nelson & Associates name, or that of Herman Miller.
Many authors and academics claim Nelson as America’s first true industrial design modernist — and, (among other brilliances) the inventor or modern interior storage and the office workstation, (Action Office I in co-operation with Robert Propst, c 1964).
Whatever the truth, much of his original avant garde architecture from the 1950s, the product of his self-described ‘zap’ moments, were to become urban classics. His guiding hand led to fame for a family of creatives responsible for the mid-century American look in interiors.
Qualifying in architecture at Yale in 1928, he stayed on, working part-time outside the hallowed walls, and took the time to gain a second bachelors degree in fine arts in 1931.
His guiding principle of creative cross-fertilisation changed little as his mind matured. He later wrote that designers should strive to ‘cultivate a broad base of knowledge of understanding’ informing the specifics of their work with a wide intellectual and experiential span.
The precociously-talented young architect was a superb commentator and interviewed many of the leading rebels of the design world for Pencil Point magazine, going on to be a contributing editor of Architectural Forum magazine.
Travelling across Europe while still a student on the back of the prestigious Prix de Rome Fellowship in the 1930s, he garnered time with the enigmatic Van der Rohe, busy reshaping the world in ‘skin and bones’ architecture, before taking a permanent creative flit to the United States.
The pieces gifted by Nelson to us lesser mortals who at least can see a good line, had their beginnings in his association with the great American house of Herman Miller (HM).
n 1945, Time magazine featured Nelson’s inventive Storagewall. It caught the eye of DJ De Pree, the company’s founder, on the hunt for native genius. Nelson, like many design intellectuals of the time, was obsessed with paring every room back to its essentials, and recessing the irritating wasted space between walls with a flush bookcase just made sense.
De Pree persuaded Nelson to become HMs director of design in 1947, and in concert, the firms of HM and George Nelson & Associates would deliver joyful, ergonomic pieces for the next 25 years, destined largely for progressive post-war corporate offices. Nelson was both a friend and regular collaborator of Charles and Ray Eames.
The best of the best from George Nelson & Associates? Well, toast and put aside the over-stated Marshmallow Sofa (c 1956), with its witty, circular multi-coloured cushions, the work of New Yorker, Irving Harper.
Period, free-standing shelving (including the landmark Omni c 1952), executive Thin Line desks, credenzas and office specific furnishings attributed to Nelson and HM (dual labels) start in the low thousands. Rosewood and walnut examples of Mad Man-esque Thin Line with beautiful figuring and polished aluminium legs are especially desirable and increasingly rare finds. Nelson’s Pretzel chair for Herman Miller from 1950 is widely copied and interpreted today.
Herman Miller still makes many George Nelson favourites, including the Swag Leg range, c 1958 ( www.hermanmiller.com ).
CA Design in Dublin offer a respectful reproduction of the elegant Nelson-designed Swag Leg console desk for €950. Having laid hands and eyes on it, I can confirm it’s really rather gorgeous. ( www.cadesign.ie ).
Instantly recognisable and best bought new, make a more reasonable investment in a George Nelson clock, something that really speaks of its time — it is full of bouncy, shiny, mid-century invention.
Some of the Nelson clock canon is actually the result of Irving and Nelson working together, but the Ball Clock (for the wall) is generally settled on George alone. Original Sputnik-styled examples from the 1960s come in around €600-€800 with age-related wear, but Vitra still make a generous collection of Nelson clocks, interpreted for today’s buyer starting at €275. Or, for example, the Eye wall clock at €349.
My choice would be the rather James Bond Desk Clock from the 1970s with its cabochon face and brass housing interpreted as a Night Clock. €335, from www.ambientedirect.com