George Nelson (1907-86)

American architect and industrial designer, born Hartford, Connecticut; active New York.


Nelson studied architecture at Yale University, and art history at the Catholic University of America. Shortly thereafter, he was awarded the prestigious Architecture Prize of the City of Rome, and he completed his training in that city at the American Academy.

In 1936, he gained additional notoriety through a series of articles for the journal Pencil Points in which he championed the International Style. An all-round proponent of Modernism, he was later instrumental in introducing the work of Mies van der Rohe to America. Nelson moved to New York in 1936, where he taught architecture at Columbia University, later opening his own firm in 1947.

Despite his architectural training, Nelson designed few buildings, preferring instead to focus on furniture, industrial and exhibition design ¬ó but his work was equally brilliant in whatever medium he chose. Design to him was a metaphor dealing with broader intellectual issues; he once called it, "a manifestation of the ability of the human mind to go beyond its own boundaries".

He began each project with the questions "why?" and "why not?"; the results were revolutionary. For instance, his Storage wall shelving units, widely publicized through a 1945 issue of Life, doubled as room dividers, redefining the concept of the office. Herman Miller subsequently recruited him, where he served as design director from 1946 to 1965.

During his tenure, Nelson brought an impressive roster of talent to the Zeeland, Michigan company, including Charles Eames, Alexander Girard and Buckminster Fuller. Nelson himself produced many of his best known furniture during this time, including the Slat bench (1954), the Coconut chair (1955), the whimsical Marshmallow sofa, assembled from bar stool seats (1956), the Catenary furniture group (1959), the Sling sofa (1964), and the Action Office system (1964).

Other notable works include the Bubble lamp (1953), Florence Ware plastic tableware for Prolon (1953), and the Olivetti Editor 2 typewriter (1968).

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