George Nelson (1908-1986) was, together with Charles & Ray Eames, one of the founding fathers of American modernism. We like to think of George Nelson as "The Creator of Beautiful and Practical Things".
George Nelson was born in Hartford Connecticut in 1908. He passed away in New York City in 1986.
George Nelson studied Architecture at Yale University, where he graduated in 1928. He also received a bachelor degree in fine arts in 1931. A year later while preparing for the Paris Prize competition he won the Rome prize. With Eliot Noyes, Charles Eames and Walter B. Ford.
George Nelson was part of a generation of architects that found too few projects and turned successfully toward product, graphic and interior design.
Based in Rome he travelled through Europe where he met a number of the modernist pioneers. A few years later he returned to the U.S.A. to devote himself to writing. Through his writing in "Pencil Points" he introduced Walter Gropius, Mies van der Rohe, Le Corbusier and Gio Ponti to North America. At "Architectural Forum" he was first associate editor (1935- 1943) an later consultant editor (1944-1949). He defended sometimes ferociously the modernist principles and irritated many of his colleagues who as "industrial designers" made, according to Nelson too many concessions to the commercial forces in industry.
By 1940 George Nelson had drawn popular attention with several innovative concepts. In his post-war book: Tomorrow's House, for instance he introduced the concept of the"family room". One of those innovative concepts, the "storagewall" attracted the attention of D.J. De Pree, Herman Miller's president. In 1945 De Pree asked him to become Herman Miller's design director, an appointment that became the start of a long series of successful collaborations with Ray and Charles Eames, Harry Bertoia, Richard Schultz, Donald Knorr and Isamu Noguchi. Although both Bertoia and Noguchi expressed later on regrets about their involvement, it became a uniquely successful period for the company and for George Nelson. He set new standards for the involvement of design in all the activities of the company, and in doing so he pioneered the practice of corporate image management, graphic programs and signage.
George Nelson's catalogue design and exhibition designs for Herman Miller close a long list of involvements designed to make design to the most important driving force in the company. From his start in the mid-forties to the mid-eighties his office worked for and with the best of his times. At one point Ettore Sottsass worked at his office. He was without any doubt the most articulate and one of the most eloquent voices on design and architecture in the U.S.A. of the 20th century. He was a teacher and he did write extensively, organized conferences like the legendary Aspen gatherings and published several books. Among the best known designs are his marshmallow sofa, the coconut chair, the Catenary group, his clocks and many other products that became milestones in the history of a profession that he helped to shape.
George Nelson Recalls
George Nelson recalls the iconic design of the Ball Clock as being a result of a night of drinking with friends and associates, Isamu Noguchi, Bucky Fuller, and Irving Harper.
“And there was one night when the ball clock got developed, which was one of the really funny evenings. Noguchi came by, and Bucky Fuller came by. I’d been seeing a lot of Bucky those days, and here was Irving and here was I, and Noguchi, who can’t keep his hands off anything, you know- it is a marvelous, 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.
At some point we left- we were suddenly all tired, and we’d had a little bit too much to drink- and 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. I know it wasn’t me. It might have been Irving, but he didn’t think so…(we) both guessed that Isamu had probably done it because (he) has a genius for doing two stupid things and making something extraordinary…out of the combination….(or) it could have been an additive thing, but, anyway, we never knew.”
George Nelson: The Design of Modern Design; p.111
P.S.: Many years later however, Irving Harper, stated that he was the actual designer of the Ball Clock. But since nothing was officially written down on paper, the mistery will always remain...
George Nelson Associates
George Nelson Associates, Inc.
George Nelson was not only a creative artistic talent, he was also a commercial genius. These two talents provided his secret for success that would reward him throughout his life.
George Nelson founded George Nelson & Associates on October 26, 1955. This after Herman Miller offered him an undisclosed (read very high) amount to become the creative director. George Nelson established a corporation under the name George Nelson Associates, Inc. in New York City on October 26, 1955. With money coming in from various projects (Howard Milller and Herman Miller, George Nelson had enough money to rent a comfortable office space at 251 Park Avenue South in New York.
George Nelson realized early on that successful people always get help from the best in their field. George Nelson Associates, Inc. had a lot of design talent during it's glory days. Designers who worked for the office included Irving Harper (more about this genius below), George Mulhauser (very much believed to be the designer of the Coconut Chair), Robert Brownjohn (worked to create movie sets including James Bond's Goldfinger), Gordon Chadwick, Bill Renwick, Suzanne Sekey, Ernest Farmer, Tobias O'Mara, George Tscherney (responsible for Herman Miller advertisements), Lance Wyman, John Pile.
There was also a young student from Italy who became so impressed with the work of the office. This young student from Italy applied- and received a Student Visa from the American Embassy in Milan. That young student's name: Ettore Sottsass. Ettore Sottsass later became a icon in his own right when he co-established the radical design movement "Memphis" in the early 1980's.
From the time George Nelson Associates, Inc. opened until it closed in the mid 1980's, it had developed a close relationship with many of the Fortune 500 companies.
Irving Harper: Artistic Wunderkind
Irving Harper deserves credit for being the designer for many of the wonderful creations that George Nelson Associates, Inc. released. Irving Harper worked as a draftsman for the Gilbert Rohde's office during the 1930's. He and the Gilbert Rohde's office was responsible for the creation of the Home Furnishings Focal exhibit (among others) at the New York World's Fair in 1939. After that he worked for Raymond Loewy at the Raymond Loewy Associates office and designed interiors. Irving Harper met George Nelson during the 1940's and was offered a job by George Nelson in 1947. At George Nelson Associates, Inc., Irving Harper was mostly responsible for designing trade advertising for the Herman Miller account but many of his ideas rubbed off on many creations as well.
In an interview with Paul Makovsky for Metropolis in 2001, Irving Harper described the idea about the authorship of each creation as follows: ...there always had to be one name associated with the work. We couldn't just spread it around." He pauses for a moment. "Well, that's fine. I'm grateful to George for what he did for me. While he was alive I made no demands whatsoever. But now that he's gone, whenever the Marshmallow Sofa is referred to as a 'George Nelson design,' it sort of gets to me. I don't go out of my way to set things right, but if anybody asks me who designed it, I'm perfectly happy to tell them."
Pile, who worked in the office during the 1950s, offers an explanation on the murky issue of authorship: "George's attitude was that it was okay for individual designers to be given credit in trade publications, but for the consumer world, the credit should always be to the firm, not the individual. He didn't always follow through on that policy though."
Interesting to know: Irving Harper created the logo for Herman Miller in 1947. Irving Harper designed the Marshmallow Sofa. Irving Harper designed numerous Howard Miller clocks.
Howard Miller & Herman Miller
A question everyone asks:
Howard Miller and Herman Miller, are they related? Yes they are, Howard and Herman Miller were brothers. Howard Miller found the famous clock company. Herman founded Herman Miller. It was Howard Miller who introduced George Nelson to Herman Miller. Being brothers, they exchanged ideas about projects which helped both of them do "very" well. The rest is history. Herman Miller became so big that it is now listed on the stock market.
Another question everyone asks:
Why did Howard Miller & Herman Miller cease the production of all these beautiful pieces: Believe it or not, it is not patent related. Simply, the design went out of fashion. When the war ended in 1945, people wanted to rebuild and create grand beautiful things. Destruction actually led to beauty for many years to come. This post-war creative vibe lasted until 1972 (the Oil Crisis). The early 1980's heralded a new time for America. The new philosophy "Greed is Good" resulted in a design landscape that was deficient in richness and feeling with few exceptions. Imagine seeing a George Nelson Clock in Gordon Gekko's wall in "Wall Street"? Exactly, it didn't exactly match the time. But good design never really faded away completely and regained force during the 1990's. Nowadays, these great icons from the late 1940's through early 1970's are once again being discovered by an entire new generation. The regained interested has led many manufacturers including Herman Miller, Howard Miller, Vitra, etc. to reproduce the original creations.
Howard Miller, 1905-1995
Howard Miller 1905-1995
Incomparable workmanship. Unsurpassed quality. A quest for perfection. It’s what Howard C. Miller insisted on when he founded the company back in 1926, at the age of 21.
Howard Miller was schooled in the fine art of clockmaking by his father, Herman, in the Black Forest region of Germany. Howard developed into a visionary whose keen sense of innovation spawned a tradition of excellence that has been uncompromised through three generations.
While the early years focused on the manufacture of chiming wall and mantel clocks, Howard Miller also produced trend-setting avant garde clocks that stand today in collectors' galleries. During World War II, Howard Miller joined forces with the Ford Motor Co. to produce anti-aircraft covers. In the 1960s, the company turned its attention to grandfather clocks, eventually earning the company the title of "World's Largest Grandfather Clock Manufacturer."
Other Facts of Interest
Marshmallow Sofa (1954/1955): Herman Miller only made 200 of the original Marshmallow Sofa's. Each of the 18 Marshmallow circles had to be made by hand...a very time consuming and therefore expensive process.
Herman Miller Logo: Irving Harper created the Herman Miller logo which used to be in wood grain since Herman Miller was mostly involved in wooden furniture before George Nelson arrived.