George Nelson : George Nelson - Architect, Writer, Designer, Teacher
George Nelson
George Nelson - Architect, Writer, Designer, Teacher
J.E. + Vitra Magazine, March 31, 2011
After Vitra Design Museum, the retrospective is presented at The Oklahoma City Museum of Art, Oklahoma, USA and then will be also at The McNay Art Museum, San Antonio, USA.


In the year 2008, the American designer George Nelson (1908-1986) would have celebrated his 100th birthday. To commemorate this occasion, the Vitra Design Museum is touring the first comprehensive retrospective of his work. Nelson was one of the most influential figures in American design during the second half of the twentieth century. With an architectural degree from Yale, he was not only active in the fields of architecture and design, but was also a widely respected writer and publicist, lecturer, curator, and a passionate photographer. His office produced numerous furnishings and interior designs that became modern classics, including the Coconut Chair (1956), the Marshmallow Sofa (1956), the Ball Clock (1947) and the Bubble Lamps (1952 onwards). As design director at Herman Miller, a leading US manufacturer of modern furniture design, Nelson had a major influence on the product line and public image of the company for over two decades. He played an essential role in bringing the company together with designers such as Charles Eames, Alexander Girard and Isamu Noguchi. Early on, Nelson was convinced that design should be an integral part of a company's philosophy, and by promoting this viewpoint, he also became a pioneer in the areas of business communication and corporate design.

Shortly after this, George Nelson assumed the position of design director at Herman Miller. Remaining there until 1972, he became a key figure of American design, also convincing the likes of Charles and Ray Eames, Isamu Noguchi and Alexander Girard to work for Herman Miller. His collaboration with Vitra began in 1957. From 1946 onwards Nelson also ran his own design office, creating numerous products that are now regarded as icons of mid-century modernism. Nelson's office also produced important architectural works and exhibition designs. George Nelson died in New York in 1986. His archive belongs to the holdings of the Vitra Design Museum.

George Nelson2/+ Pretzel Chair, 1952_Vitra Design Museum
George Nelson2/+ Pretzel Chair, 1952_Vitra Design Museum
Like no other designer before or after him, George Nelson, as author and journalist, dealt with the issue of the cultural and economic constraints of design. Here, one of his central themes was the role and function of the designer – his own role – in the service of the economy. Hence, in the mid fifties, he asserted that “every society lives out its span in the grip of certain ideas which are so powerful and so widely held that people are scarcely aware of them. These ideas come to a focus in what might be described as a ‘master area’ and they spread out from there to give the entire community its character. Such an area, in the 13th Century, was the church. Today, in America, it is business. Business is based on a gigantic industrial complex, and the heart of the industry is in the area of capital goods. Science and technology exist to service this complex, and they are supported by it.” In this context, Nelson regarded the designer's task as being the early recognition of latent yet existing societal trends, and then to use the latest findings from science and technology in order to respond with an industrial product.

George Nelson2/Pretzel Chair, 1952_Vitra Design Museum
George Nelson2/Pretzel Chair, 1952_Vitra Design Museum
Since its beginnings in the late 1920s, design in the USA has been more closely linked with the economy than has been the case in Europe, where the avant-garde among the designers were mainly motivated by social reformatory intentions. After the Great Depression, the main reason why representatives of business engaged designers was in order to increase sales volumes. This very one-dimensional and persistent concept of design was something that Nelson as a qualified architect continually wrote against. Hence one of his primary concerns was to establish design as an integral component of a business – not only in his own practice but also as a writer.

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