How George Nelson Became the Father of Mid-Century Modern Design
With iconic pieces that continue to influence the design industry to this day, George Nelson helped to pioneer American modernism (commonly known today as mid-century modern). A renaissance man of his time, Nelson made his mark on the industry in more ways than one throughout his lifetime.
It all started after Nelson graduated from Yale University in 1928 with a degree in architecture. He soon found himself studying at the American Academy in Rome, after winning a fellowship to study there from 1932-1934. During his time in Europe, Nelson interviewed a number of leading architects (including Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rhoe, Walter Gropius and Gio Ponti). His goal was to write an article that would introduce European avant-garde design to the developing American design community upon his return.
After publishing his article in Pencil Points, Nelson gained himself attention and admiration, and quickly established himself as Architectural Forum’s first associate editor in 1935. The following year, Nelson was running his own New York-based architecture firm with William Hamby. The firm closed upon the U.S.’s entrance into World War II, and at that point, he began to supplement his writing by teaching architecture at Columbia University.
In spite of his firm closing, Nelson continued to experience career success with a 1945 article in Life that featured the practicality of Storagewall. This earned him the attention of Herman Miller president, D.J. De Pree. Nelson’s career in furniture design rapidly took off under the employment of Herman Miller, where he remained until 1972. Wasting little time, Nelson got to work redesigning the brand’s product assortment. He also led the company’s marketing efforts, and recruited top designers like Charles and Ray Eames, Isamu Noguchi and Alexander Girard.
As the design director of Herman Miller by 1947, Nelson’s numerous design efforts—including now-timeless pieces like the Bubble Lamps, the whimsical Marshmallow Sofa, the Nelson Platform Bench and the first L-shaped desk (a forerunner to modern workstations)—graced the market and instantly proved popular. This served to establish Nelson further as a noteworthy designer and helped to make a name for Herman Miller within the Mid-Century Modern furniture design industry. However, being the busy and ambitious individual that he was, Nelson’s scope of design interest expanded beyond work with Herman Miller.
In 1946, just a year after being employed with Herman Miller, Nelson started his own design office (George Nelson & Associates), through which he produced many would-be iconic designs. In 1957, Nelson collaborated with Vitra to design accessories aimed at bringing modern design into the typical American home. Nelson’s designs continued to work their way into everyday homes, with a wide array of clocks, lamps and various other household items designed with Vitra.
Throughout his career, Nelson persisted with writing and teaching (as he traveled widely with a camera ever at his side). In an effort to communicate the importance of mid-century modern design to students and the public, Nelson was always finding ways to promote the industry. He formed conferences, led the design for the American National Exhibition in Moscow (which prompted the infamous exchange between President Richard Nixon and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, also known as the “Kitchen Debate”), wrote articles and gave lectures.
George Nelson’s efforts and designs truly made a mark on the budding American furniture design industry of the time. As one of the leading pioneers behind mid-century modern design theory, Nelson’s pieces proved innovative in form and function. It was exactly what the prosperous post-World War II home was looking for.
Nelson’s honest designs were aimed at offering simple solutions to the challenges of everyday living. With them, the home turned into an opportunity to create spaces that were functional and easy to maintain. The workspace evolved into a space that straddled comfort and pragmatism. Nelson wanted the “visually illiterate” to understand the value of great design and its potential to go beyond mere aesthetics by making the distinction between style and design.
Compared to the designs of his predecessors, Nelson’s pieces elevated function on par with form. Nelson’s iconic mid-century modern pieces have, indeed, taught the importance of all-around great design. After all, they made their impact on the industry many decades ago and remain significant to this day.
Yvette is a Site Merchandiser for YLiving. Her deep appreciation for design stems from a background in art history and interior design. During her off hours, she enjoys ogling cute animals, reading, catching up on TV series, following blogs, and enjoying the quirks of California's Bay Area.