George Nelson (designer)  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

George Nelson (1908 - 1986) was one of the founders of American modernism, along with Charles and Ray Eames. George Nelson was born in Hartford, Connecticut. He died in New York City.



For a person born in Hartford, the insurance capital of America, George Nelson would become one of the greatest risk takers in the history of design. In fact he would come to redefine what a designer is. After graduating Hartford Public High school in 1924 Nelson studied architecture at Yale University, where he graduated in 1928. When Nelson began his studies at Yale he had no Idea he'd become an architect. Nelson only happened upon the architecture school at Yale only because of a rain storm. Nelson ducked into the building in order to get out of the rain. While walking through the building he came upon an exhibit of student's works entitled "A Cemetery Gateway." While still an undergraduate student at Yale Nelson met with some early recognition. He was published in "Pencil Points" and "Architecture." Nelson’s early prominence as a drafter would however be eclipsed by his eloquent writing style. During his final year at Yale Nelson was hired by the architecture firm Adams and Prentice as a drafter.

In 1929 Nelson was hired as a Teacher's Assistant while getting his second Bachelor's degree at Yale and was planning for a life in academia. In 1931 He received his degree in Fine Arts. The next year Nelson entered the ROme Prize competition in Architecture as a preparation for the Paris Prize and won, although Nelson didn’t win the Paris Prize. In the ensuing years George Nelson would spend a great deal of his time with the other founders of the modernist architecture movement of the forties.Eliot Noyes, Charles Eames, and Walter B. Ford all of which he would later collaborate with. The award for the Rome Prize was a year in ROme studying architecture with a healthy stipend and accommodations in a palace down town Rome.

Based in Rome, he traveled through Europe where he met a number of the modernist pioneers, whom he interviewed for the purpose of writing articles for Pencil Points. While interviewing Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe Van Der Rohe asked about Frank Lloyd Wright whom Nelson was embarrassed to say, he didn't know much about. Years later he would work with Wright on a special issue of "Architecture Forum" which would come to be Wright's comeback from relative obscurity. While in Rome Nelson married Frances Hollister. A few years later he returned to the United States to devote himself to writing. Through his writing in Pencil Points he introduced the work of Walter Gropius, Mies van der Rohe, Le Corbusier and Gio Ponti to North America. At Architectural Forum he was first associate editor (1935 - 1943) and 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. Nelson believed that the work of a designer should be to better the world because, in his view, nature was already perfect but, man only ruined it when he began making things that didn't really follow the rules of nature. “The contemporary architect, cut off from symbols, ornament and meaningful elaborations of structural form, all of which earlier periods processed in abundance, has desperately chased every functional requirement, every change in sight or ornamentation, every technical improvement, to provide some basis for starting his work. Where the limitations were most rigorous, as for example in a factory, or in a sky scraper where every inch had to yield it’s profit, there the designers were happiest and the results most satisfying. but, let a religious belief or a social ideal replace the cubic foot costs or radiation losses, and nothing happened. There is not a single modern church in the entire country that is comparable to a first rate cafeteria, as far as solving the problem is concerned.” At this point in Nelson’s career he was still mainly involved in writing for architecture magazines but, not in actually designing the solutions to modern living that he would later become famous for.

By 1940 George Nelson had drawn popular attention with several innovative concepts. In his post-war book co-authored by Henry Wright, "Tomorrow's House", he introduced the concept of the "family room" and the "storage wall". The storage wall was actually a creative solution to an interesting non architectural problem. While writing the book Nelson's publisher was pressuring him to finish the section on storage. Neither Wright, nor Nelson could find any new innovations that were meeting the demands of consumerism when, Nelson posed the question, "What's inside the wall?" It was then that the idea of utilizing the space in between walls for storage was born. What made "Tomorrow's House so great was that it didn’t look at modern design as a case of styles but, instead looked at the way things needed to be solved. Nelson said that we have no way or reason to design in any other way than modern. We have to live like the normal 20th century people with the problems that we have today.

Until 1945 the Herman Miller Furniture company was a predominantly wood based design house. that had only begun to move into the realm of modern furniture. When Chairman of Herman Miller, D.J. Depree read "Tomorrow's House" he knew that George Nelson would be the next Director of Design. The only problem was that Nelson hadn't really ever designed furniture. Depree was more interested in Nelson’s insight into the best way to make useful furniture. Because of a contract that allowed Nelson freedom to work outside of the Miller company and also allowed use of designs from the numerous other architects Nelson had worked with, the deal was done. That same year the first George Nelson produced Herman Miller Catalog started a collaboration that would result in some of the most famous home furnishings of the past century.Ray and Charles Eames, Harry Bertoia, Richard Schultz, Donald Knorr and Isamu Noguchi all worked for Herman Miller. 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 catalog design and exhibition designs for Herman Miller close a long list of involvements designed to make design 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. Nelson was without any doubt one of the most articulate and one of the most eloquent voices on design and architecture in the U.S.A. of the 20th century. This was both the result of Nelson’s time as a magazine editor ad because of the unique writing voice Nelson uses. He was a teacher and he wrote extensively, organized conferences like the legendary Aspen gatherings and published several books. In 1971 he received a grant from the Graham Foundation for his project "Hidden Cities". One of the lasting contributions George Nelson made to not only to the architectural world but, more so to common life was his great desire to produce a cleaner city. Through his attempts to reduce pollution be it visual, audio or chemical George Nelson gave the world the idea for the out door malls we see in every suburb. He first used the idea in a proposal for the city plan of Austin which wasn’t used.


  • 1946 Basic Cabinet Series
  • 1946 Slat aka Platform Benches
  • 1952 Rosewood Group
  • 1952 Executive Office Group
  • 1954 Miniature Cases
  • 1954 Steel-frame Group
  • 1955 Flying Duck Chair
  • 1955 Coconut Chair
  • 1956 Marshmallow Sofa
  • 1956 Thin Edge Cases
  • 1956 Kangaroo Chair
  • 1959 Comprehensive Storage System (CSS)
  • 1963 Catenary Group
  • 1964 Action Office I
  • 1964 Sling Sofa

His firm, George Nelson Associates, also designed a large series of wall and table clocks for the Howard Miller company, as well as Bubble Lamps which were hanging plastic covered metal shades in a number of shapes and sizes (also for Howard Miller but currently available from Modernica), wrought iron fireplace pieces, planters, room dividers, ceiling-mounted "Ribbon Wall", spice cabinets, and many other products that became milestones in the history of a profession that he helped to shape.

Many of his designs were actually designed by employees of his "George Nelson Associates" design firm, including Irving Harper and John Pile.

Analysis of Work

Fairchild House

New York, New York. USA 1941-The Fairchild House was built for the Airplane manufacturer Sherman Fairchild and was meant to be a "machine for living. What made the Fairchild House different from every other Brown Stone in New York was its views. There was a courtyard in the middle of the building and all the windows faced in toward it. This made the home feel more tranquil and the view provided use for Nelson's signature floor to ceiling windows. Much of the house is designed in style not necessarily common in early modern design. This is evidence of Nelson's philosophy that "good design is timeless."<ref name="fehrman">Ferhman, Kennith, Cherie Ferhman, Post War Interior Design. Van Nostrand Reinhold Co., 1987.</ref>


Herman Miller 1963- This sofa is made of leather and filled with solid foam cushions. The joints are all held with epoxy so that it can be more easily mass produced and sold for a cheaper price. There is no need for hand crafting with this sofa.<ref name=Meadmore>Meadmore, Clement. The Modern Chair: Classics in Production. Van Nostrand Reinhold, New York, 1979.</ref> Because of its perfect proportions and light appearance it doesn't look like it's just an elongated chair. Nelson's use of a single welt along the perimeter of the padding gives the seating an approachable softness and yet, there is more going on that cannot be seen. The padding is held up by rubber bands that allow for more comfort and the use of epoxy for the joints gives the shape a much smoother feel. It is a modern design only because it was made recently. Like most of Nelson's work it was only designed to be as useful and comfortable as possible.


  • "What is the crowning glory of your civilization... the symbol as clear a statement as the pyramids, the Parthenon, the cathedrals? What is this symbol? What is its name? Its name is Junk. Junk is the rusty, lovely, brilliant symbol of the dying years of your time. Junk is your ultimate landscape." - Statement made by George Nelson at the International Design Conference in Aspen, 1965.
  • "Russel Wright was the most responsible for the shift in taste toward modern in the late 1930s." - George Nelson, New York Times, 1976.
  • "There have been proposals to ”improve” design by converting into a kind of science. Those with even a smattering of recent history will remember that the same attempts were made in psychology and sociology. I suspect that such efforts are not so much an attempt to improve, but rather to get a free ride on the enormous prestige science enjoys. Design is not science and it never will be."
  • "Most people think George Nelson, Charles Eames and Elliot Noyes invented industrial design. That is an exaggeration, George did it without any assistance."

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