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Designer Focus: George Nelson (1908 – 1986)

George Nelson (1908 - 1986):
"The Designer of Modern Design"

Oftentimes when we sit at our office spaces, especially in the workplace, the designer of our pieces doesn’t normally cross our minds. We sit in our chairs, at our desks, and when we’re done, get up and head out for the day. For some people, the design details of their office is probably one of the last things to cross their minds when their workday is done. 

If there was
a furniture textbook,
George Nelson would
probably be on
the cover.

Whether you’re sitting in the home office or the office-office, chances are you’ve probably encountered some of George Nelson’s designs. I mean, seriously, they’re everywhere. Most well known for creating designs for Herman Miller, Nelson’s designs range all the way from desks, to shelving, to wall clocks and light fixtures. Pretty neat variety there, huh?

I’ll use myself as an example, though in a different setting: As a student, transferring between the virtual “Zoom University” to the physical, real-life University has been quite a heavy adjustment on its own. It’s not too often that I find myself sitting at my table, socially distanced from my peers, and wonder who designed this piece of furniture that I so frequently occupy. In high school, the only designers of desks I would have assumed to exist would have been whoever wrote “so-and-so was here” on the desk. It’s been a while since high school, and my current University isn’t decked out with Steelcase height-adjustables and Aeron chairs, but I have gained a pretty solid familiarity with some notorious names in the furniture design game. 

It’s worth noting that George Nelson played quite a pivotal role in setting the scene for America’s design route after the second world war. Most recognizable for the Marshmallow Sofa and Ball Clock, Nelson worked with many other influential designers and masterminds to create a considerably solid foundation in what American furniture design was to look like in the years following. It’s safe to say that if there was a furniture textbook, George Nelson would probably be on the cover. 

Marshmallow Sofa (1956)

Nelson was born in Hartford, Connecticut, and proceeded to graduate from Yale in 1931, which, interestingly enough, was only accomplished years after seeking shelter in Yale’s architectural department from a rainstorm. Upon seeking this shelter, he became infatuated with design and the work that was on display. He quickly became committed to pursuing this as not only his field of study, but life’s work. Only a year after graduating, he was awarded the Rome Prize in architecture after competing for it. His successes unfolded very quickly upon each other in the years to come, where he became an assistant editor, and later, co-managing editor for Architectural Forum, and soon a writer for Fortune Magazine. 

As previously noted, Nelson graduated from Yale in 1931, and was an editor for several magazines by the mid-1930s. Given the historical context of the 30s, we can infer that Nelson went full steam ahead into his profession amongst one of America’s toughest hardships: The Great Depression. However, this catastrophic downfall didn’t seem to slow Nelson down in any regard. 

Nelson continued on to owning his own architectural firm alongside William Hamby, though it was soon closed down as the United States entered World War II. Upon its closing, he filled in the gaps by instructing architecture classes at Columbia University (George Nelson Foundation). While filling in these gaps during one of the most pivotal time periods for the United States, Nelson was picked up by one of the largest furniture manufacturers in the world: Herman Miller. The Michigan-based company’s president, D.J. De Pree initially fancied Nelson’s writing, and brought him on board to soon release his first collection in 1945. It wasn’t too long until he was appointed design director just two years later. 

Nelson’s designs soon began to transform the company in its entirety. He began to collaborate with other designers notorious for their innovative creations, participating in the evolution of office space design as we know it today.