Born 1908, Connecticut
Practised in America
Studied Architecture at Yale University
George Nelson is considered by many as the ‘Father’ of American modernism, more commonly referred to as ‘mid-century modern’ today. A renaissance man, Nelson had a prolific career in writing, architecture, interiors and furniture design.
Born in 1908 into a highly educated family, Nelson’s approach to his future was cemented at a young age; “There was none around who said ‘Go out and get rich’, so I followed their instructions and never did”. This rather maverick philosophy on life resulted in a career that was as varied and colourful as one might expect.
His very role in the design world was determined by some bad weather and a chance encounter. He won a place at Yale at just 16 years old and in 1924 he joined the university, with little idea of what to study.
A bad storm made the decision for him – he took shelter in the architecture faculty and came across a student presentation called ‘A Cemetery gateway’ and that sealed the deal. “They were the most exquisitely beautiful and exciting things I had ever seen in my life. I fell in love instantly with the whole business of creating designs for cemetery gateways. This was when, without any further question on my part, I decided I had to be an architect”.
George Nelson graduated from Yale in 1931 with bachelor’s degrees in both Architecture and Fine Arts, before he won the ‘Rome Prize’; this consisted of two years at the American Academy in Rome – with all the expenses covered.
His success as a writer began in Europe and he travelled extensively, writing about architecture and interviewing design and architectural luminaries like Le Corbusier, Mies Van de Roe, Walter Gropius and Gio Ponti. His witty, engaging style of writing saw these interviews being published in Pencil Point magazine in the United States and he has been credited with introducing European avant-garde design to the developing American design community.
His writing career would continue over the following decades and he was published in a range of design books and magazines, this included the publication of the revolutionary book Tomorrow’s House with co-author Henry Wright in 1945.
A close friend described Nelson’s ability by saying that “no other prominent designer spoke as intelligently or wrote as coherently about design”.
Nelson also worked as an architect, designing an innovative home for the industrialist Sherman Fairchild. He ran his own New York-based architecture firm with William Hamby and championed the modernist ideas that had inspired him in Europe as an architecture critic.
Nelson’s strength as design director was not just limited to the many pieces he designed himself, but also through the various designers that he drew into business. His connections led to collaborations with people like Ray and Charles Eames, Isamu Noguchi, Robert Propst and Alexander Girard.
Nelson also ran his own New York City design firm, George Nelson Associates. It was a multidisciplinary firm, with Nelson’s philosophy at its centre; “No design can exist in isolation. It is always related, sometimes in very complex ways, to an entire constellation of influencing situations and attitudes. What we call a good design is one which achieves integrity – that is, unity or wholeness – in balanced relation to its environment”.
The marshmallow sofa, coconut chair, bubble lamp and ball clock are among some of Nelson’s most well-known designs.
The marshmallow sofa is a playful three-dimensional object – its unusual shape and construction makes it one of the most extraordinary sofas in the history of design. Nelson compared his coconut chair to a segment of a coconut cut into eight pieces and it has been popular in settings like lobbies, lounges and waiting areas.
The bubble lamp’s design came about because of Nelson’s desire for a Swedish-made spherical lamp, “I wanted one badly”. However, he couldn’t bare to pay the $125 dollar price he saw in an imports store and so decided to design one himself. Within 24 hours he had crafted a spherical metal frame and tracked down the maker of a spiderweb-like plastic and “it did not cost $125”.
The ball clock’s design was as a result of a long ‘liquid’ evening with colleagues – upon awaking they came across its draft design and couldn’t quite say for sure who had drawn it. It explores the starburst and the asterisk symbols – frequent motifs in the 1950s and became a best-seller. Nelson attributes this to the fact that “it was decided by Mrs. America that this was the clock to put in your kitchen. Why the kitchen, I don’t know. But every ad that showed a kitchen for years after that had a ball clock in it”.
George Nelson Associates also pioneered the practice of corporate image management, graphic programs, and signage. By the time the company closed in the mid-1980s it had worked with most of the Fortune 500 companies.
George Nelson went from a young man who stumbled on the design world by chance, to a revolutionary artist of the mid-century age. His knowledge and talent in a variety of design spheres were based on his principle that “total design is nothing more or less than a process of relating everything to everything”.
- 1946 Slat Bench a/k/a Platform Bench
- 1946 Basic Cabinet Series
- 1946 Sofas, chairs, settees, and bedroom pieces
- 1947 Bubble Lamp
- 1950 Ball clock (likely designed by Irving Harper)
- 1952 Rosewood Group
- 1952 Executive Office Group
- 1954 Miniature Cases
- 1954 Steel-frame Group
- 1954 Nelson End Table
- 1955 Flying Duck Chair
- 1955 Coconut Chair
- 1956 Thin Edge Cases
- 1956 Kangaroo Chair
- 1958 Swagged-Leg (a/k/a/ Swag Leg) Group
- 1959 Comprehensive Storage System (CSS)
- 1963 Catenary Group
- 1964 Action Office I (principally designed by Robert Propst)
- 1964 Sling Sofa & coffee table
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