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Articulating the Eye
by Judith Nasatir
George Nelson, a man whom some associate with the post-war glory years at Herman Miller and others with the founding of Industrial Design magazine. Still others may curse him for the development of the office system. But there are those who've read his lucid, if frequently caustic, prose or are familiar with this practical sense of whimsy and miss the resonance of a voice that was continually aimed with laser-like precision at the problems of design and the problems with designers.
Those who knew him, and worked with or for him, recall his ability to make the unexpected connections that resulted in new solutions, or to ask more interesting questions, or to dismiss the rote answer in design or anything else. Most especially, they remember his ability to develop an airtight argument with the tools offered by the discipline of design, and by the necessity of language, thus effectively forcing them to see and to think differently, and always clearly. As for the entire generation of designers who remain uninitiated, Stanley Abercrombie has written a forthcoming book on Nelson, George Nelson: The Design of Modern Design, which should fill the lacuna.
George Nelson was not a graphic designer. He called himself, simply, a designer. He practiced a variety of the so-called design disciplines during his fifty-odd calendar years of ceaseless professional activity. His formal training was in architecture. He became extremely well known as a furniture designer, an industrial designer, an interior designer and exhibition designer. He was in the vanguard of a quiverful of design "disciplines" which were only becoming bona fide professions, or at least ways to make a living, at the same time he began to turn his hand to them. Or when he began to write about them. Or when he began to do the work that proliferated and sneaked in many, often unexpected, directions.
George Nelson in the course of this rather remarkable career managed to excel in several professions requiring skills of articulation seemingly removed from those of design. He was a marvelous writer. He was a reporter, an editor and an essayist. It may be that the designs he wrought from the English language were his greatest designs of all. Unfortunately, those essays, as well as the several books and countless magazine articles, have long been out of print.
He also taught, on and off, on and on, through those fifty years. And he traveled and took pictures, examining the world with a typewriter, a sketchbook and a camera. Then he wrote some more and designed some more, traveled some more and taught some more. And learned some more.
That pattern of integrated interests and abilities and diverse energies began establishing itself relatively early. George Harold Nelson was born in 1908 in Hartford, Connecticut, and graduated from Hartford Public High School in 1924. He graduated in 1928 from Yale University, where he had discovered architecture, with a Bachelor or Arts degree. Afterwards, he pursued a Bachelor of Fine arts at the Yale School of Fine Arts—the predecessor to the architecture school, where he was an instructor—which he received, with honors, in 1931. While in school and teaching, he also worked as a renderer in the New York architecture firm of Adams and Prentice. He headed south to do graduate work at Catholic University in Washington, D.C. and to prepare for the Paris Prize competition. Ironically enough, while he only made the finals of the Paris Prize, he won the Rome Prize in 1932.
He spent the next two years based in Rome, but it seems that he traveled throughout Europe quite a bit at a time when both Modernism and Fascism were on the rise. In a remarkable series of interviews with, among others, Gropius, Mies van der Rohe, Le Corbusier, Gio Ponti, the Luckner brothers (some of whom would die, some of whom would emigrate to the U.S., others of whom remained to rebuild Europe after the war or to populate the obscurity into which many contemporary luminaries often fall) he captured the political tenor of the age and its effect or absence of effect on the life and work of designers. These interviews were the first ever published in the United States with these men, whose very existence would change the way we live and work. There were twelve, published over a year or so in Pencil Points, the architecture journal that eventually evolved into Progressive Architecture. They appeared in print with the editors' frequently repeated and increasingly strong caveat about using that modern work as a paradigm for American architecture. The caveat was ignored by Nelson, some of his contemporaries and an entire subsequent generation of architects who saw the world differently.
After Nelson had sold the series to Pencil Points, but prior to its complete publication, he landed a position in 1935 as an editorial staff writer at Architectural Forum, the leading professional journal of the time, published by Time Inc. His first written work for any journal in the Luce empire was for Fortune magazine, and unsigned: it was an article in the February 1934 issue titled "Both Fish and Fowl? is the Depression-weaned Vocation of Industrial Design."
During the following decade at Time Inc. he went on to become the co-managing editor of Architectural Forum, a special contributor to Fortune, the head of the Fortune-Forum Experimental Department, and a peripatetic who had, in the course of roughly a decade that overarched the period of our delayed entry into and successful exit from World War II, plotted the future of housing, of city planning, the state of industry and of travel, among many other varied topics. He published his first book in 1938 and, until America entered the war, he was also a partner, with William Hamby, in an architecture firm that did rather well, designing, among other things, a widely-published "machine for living" house for Sherman Fairchild, the aircraft mogul, in Manhattan. He also found time to teach evening courses at Columbia, in the early Forties.
After the war Nelson met D.J. DePree, a mid-westerner with a mission to find a new designer for the modern furniture that his company, Herman Miller, had been making. This meeting happened as a consequence of some work Nelson had done for Time Inc. The project was the Storagewall, an insight about interior space, organization and efficiency that was eventually published in Architectural Forum, made the cover of Life magazine, and filled a chapter in Nelson's book, Tomorrow's House, co-authored with Henry Wright, a colleague at Architectural Forum. The Storagewall, an architect's answer to getting rid of the unnecessary clutter that accumulated with post-war prosperity, signaled an unusual, and fortunate, convergence of purpose, training and insight. It also indicated a preference for the sooner-rather-than-later extinction of free-standing furniture that Nelson would ceaselessly propose for the rest of his furniture-designing existence. All of which, with a few martinis on Nelson's part, several trips to the wilds of Zeeland, Michigan, and a handshake, led to a very long (nearly forty years) association between Nelson and Herman Miller.
The association segued naturally into the opening of Nelson's own design office and the exploration of other design interests. It led, naturally, to the winding down of the relationship with Time Inc., and, not surprisingly, to a contributing editorship with Interiors magazine and later to the evolution of Industrial Design magazine. But what it led to most importantly was the opportunity for Nelson to let his instincts flourish, to tease his thoughts free from the morass of extraneous information, and enable him to oversee the process required to translate an idea or insight into a physical, often useful and occasionally beautiful thing. This bore a certain resemblance to the considerably reductive and always hasty cycle of magazine life.
The chance to put a keen critical sense to the practical test of developing designs for products, for what came to be called corporate image and graphic programs, for signage, for interiors, of really seizing an opportunity for design to play a significant role in commerce and, by extension, in culture didn't exactly come with Nelson's role as design director for Herman Miller. He just made it happen that way, by applying design to every designable aspect of the company: from his first furniture collection and the development of the Herman Miller mark to the design of the company's first, and subsequent catalogues; to letterhead and truck signage, advertising, secondary and tertiary literature, invitations and hangtags—even to collecting other designers to develop products for the company. It was all an act of faith. And it also yielded a great deal of growth for the company and for Nelson's design office. Perhaps most important, it endowed the general practice of design with a certain specificity and legitimacy it may well have lacked prior to the overwhelmingly convincing example Nelson provided.
That, in turn, gave Nelson a mission of his own: to make people see clearly what design was and was not, what it might be capable of achieving and what it would require, as a discipline, to reach its potential. He also tried his damndest to make people see that there was a thought process driving design, one which had a certain universality, with clearly beneficial effects for all those who disciplined themselves to look beyond visual style, to see more clearly the world they were making for themselves so that they would, at worst, synthesize and, at best, design a better one.
The effort to do this occupied Nelson for years. He fought the prejudice of a population he termed "visual illiterates," people who confused design with style, who hadn't developed any critical visual faculty, who didn't understand that the immediately apparent "look" of something was not design at all; that design was, to the contrary, an internal, necessary, and ineradicable logic inherent in the fabricated, synthetic world. Design, for Nelson, made the mind's eye visible, tangible, comprehensible in the language of materials of the physical world.
His argument has faded more rapidly and more completely than seems possible given his pre-eminence as an ardent, provocative and persuasive articulator of a substantial underlying reason for design. He believed that the natural world and the natural sciences provided a kind of basic model that could be used by designers to design the manufactured world. He believed that designers ought to attempt to develop a scientific method for critical assessment of design. He believed that design, like science, needed a system as objective as theory, hypothesis and experimental investigation to insure its integrity. Of course, Nelson was at his most effective as a designer during the time when the scientific discoveries about the "design" of the physical world were thrillingly changing our perceptions and providing new models and metaphors to obtain greater clarity and depth of understanding of that physical world.
From the mid-1940s to the mid-1980s the Nelson office had a client list that included a host of Fortune 500 clients, a choice selection of those decades' entrepreneurs, some wacky projects, some possibly revolutionary proposals that were never realized, a number of endeavors years ahead of their time and, most unusual, a series of corporate brain trust-like consultancies even now outside the range of most designers' activities. Nelson continued to write, design, travel, lecture, organize (particularly Aspen conferences) and to serve generally as a self-appointed gadfly buzzing around the design community, stinging it awake every so often with an outrageous truth.
It is impossible, within the confines of this essay, to chronicle, even in précis, the work that Nelson himself and the Nelson office produced from 1945 until its close in the mid-1980s. That a gargantuan number of designs came to fruition is a wonder of its own. Much of the work has remained memorable, some of it has achieved icon status, and some designs have become cult classics. That this is so is a tribute indeed to the rigor of thought and agility of mind that went into their development. Other of Nelson's works, perhaps, were just a matter of luck;—the right idea came at the right time; the flash of insight illuminated unexpected possibilities.
Over the years, various people were more and less responsible for interpreting, translating and executing Nelson's ideas into graphics and packaging. The "paper" work and its applications were in concert with and expressive of design ideas contained in other aspects of any given project. The list of designers in the Nelson office who created graphics includes Irving Harper, Chris Pullman, Tomoko Miho, George Tscherny, Don Ervin, Fred Witzig, Herbert Lee, Tobias O'Mara, Philip George and Anthony Zamora, to name several.
The zest, appetite, curiosity, skill, and, in a way, innocence—or at least a certain idealism—Nelson brought to his life and work characterize him as a man of a specific time: an era which saw the rise and fall of a faith in America as a benevolent superpower with might and right on its side; and era which saw science fail to succeed its successes in its role as a catalyst; an era of progress usurped by politics and force of economics.
Most fortuitously, Nelson lived during the roughly one-half century of the post-war period when design really could have mattered. Its current concerns, ideals, and style may unfortunately no longer mirror those that preoccupied him. But while they did, there was not a stronger, more eloquent nor more articulate practitioner than George Nelson.
Copyright 1992 by The American Institute of Graphic Arts.