selects three landmark George Nelson pieces.
THE American architect, designer, writer and teacher George Nelson (1908-1986) is credited with among other things with the introduction of the shopping centre (mall) the L-shaped office desk, and the creation of modular storage furniture.
His book How to See (1977) is a vibrant manifesto on interpreting and understanding the visual world for design students and the layman, and was recently republished (Phaidon, €25).
Following a scholarship in 1932 that took the 24-year-old Yale graduate to Rome, Nelson became completely immersed in the modernist movement sweeping the European design community.
On his return to the States, he brought attention to the highly influential ideas in architecture and industrial design of luminaries including Le Corbusier, Gio Ponti and Mies van der Rohe. He never travelled without a camera dangling around his neck — ceaselessly cataloguing his surroundings.
Nelson’s inspiring features as an editor for Architectural Forum (US) and Fortune, and his concept work for the book Home of Tomorrow (George Write/ George Nelson) included the fascinating conceptualised domestic Storage Wall, which was covered heavily by Time magazine (1944).
These popular publications, in particular the Nelson/ Wright idea for a structurally-recessed storage element of just 12-inch depth, alerted DJ De Pree, founder of Herman Miller Inc, to Nelson’s superb eye, aesthetic vision and keen leadership qualities.
He invited Nelson to join the company as design director in 1944, where he would go on to gift many of what he called his creative ‘zap’ moment of a spontaneous ideas in functional art.
Nelson set up George Nelson & Associates (NY) and his tenure at HM would last 25 years. He had a feel for talent, and indentified bright and brilliant creatives including Charles and Ray Eames and Isamu Noguchi.
The use of floor-to-ceiling storage, developed into the parallel and highly versatile interpretation of sleek, free-standing pieces of matching, modern furniture in the International style Nelson had first identified in Europe.
The Thin Line series by Nelson for Herman Miller is a building block in the story of mid-century design that came out of holistic discussions centred on improving the living and working experience within American homes, factories and offices. These spaces were often impeded by elements Nelson saw as not just archaic but as completely “anti-human”.
Thin Edge (the range was renamed in 1958 from the Rosewood Cabinet Series) — stands out for its attention to detail — the sort of luxuriant quality usually reserved for jaded, high-end, neo-classical American cabinetwork. Porcelain handles, aluminium legs and exotic veneers were included in a searing contemporary collection.
They were not only useful, work-horses but in a corporate environment their new contemporary flair was married back to the whole building — “total design is nothing more or less than a process of relating everything to everything” (George Nelson).
The form is in-frame, but with a distinct slender line of timber surrounding the drawers and doors. Thin Edge credenzas and cabinets from the 1960s start at €6,000-€8,000 from a dedicated dealer (try 1stdibs.com).
Alternatively search for the long, lean look with metal legs and sumptuous, sustainably-sourced veneers such as walnut — much beloved of bespoke cabinetmakers and shopping outlets.
Nelson’s clocks are a staple of mid-century madness. An excerpt from the interview given in 1982 and published by Vitra in 2017, reveals the hilarious late-night conception of his much-loved Ball Clock in 1948 — which though bearing George Nelson’s name, was clearly a communal, drunken accident.
“Noguchi (Isamu Noguchi artist and landscape designer), came by, and Bucky Fuller (architect) came by. I’d been seeing a lot of Bucky in those days, and here was Irving (industrial designer Irving Harper) and here was I, and Noguchi who can’t keep his hands off anything, you know — it is a marvellous, itchy thing he’s got — he saw we were working on clocks and he started making doodles.
“Then Bucky sort of brushed Isamu aside. He said, ‘this is a good way to do a clock,’ and he made some utterly absurd thing. Everybody was taking a crack at this, pushing each other aside and making scribbles — the next morning I came back, and here was this roll (of drafting paper), and Irving and I looked at it, and somewhere in this roll there was a ball clock. I don’t know to this day who cooked it up.” (Ralph Caplan/1982)
Original ball clocks from the late 40s to the late 1960s by George Nelson & Associates and Howard Miller (NY) will set you back in the area of €2,000 in good condition with complete spines and an original label. I would call time, and vouch for a new one made under license for Vitra with a high- quality quartz movement — €285. For a table clock, take a look at his brass or acryl glass Night Clock on a single stem, €349, suppliers include ambientedirect.com.
Finally for its stunning architectural form and breathtaking elegance, we couldn’t leave out the Swag Leg Desk or Davenport (it’s not a Davenport!).
A relatively small bureau-like piece with split levels, sweeping chromed tubular metal legs and multi-coloured open nooks — Nelson’s 1958 Swag Leg is highly reproduced and there’s a good reason for that.
Its size and practicality as a place to pause and work on a laptop or notebook, or to scribble out a quick letter, delivers a concise Bonheur-du-jour for the 21st century (Nelson conceived it as a lady’s writing table). It includes a white-laminate top surface, solid walnut side and back panels, four medium-density fibreboard dividers, and two black-plastic pencil drawers with a cable grommet.
In continual production by HM and now Vitra, it’s absolutely beautiful in terms of line and quality with second- hand prices and new prices in the area of €3,000-€3,200, vitra.com.