GEORGE NELSON: American Modernist

George Nelson - photo by Vitra

George Nelson was an American industrial designer who was one of the co-founders of American Modernism. Aside from being an industrial designer, Nelson was also an architect, a furniture designer, graphic designer, teacher, and author. His contributions to the design world are vast, especially in the United States. He is considered one of the most important American designers of the 20th century.

Childhood and Education

George Nelson’s Bubble Lamps – photo by Daniella On Design

George Nelson was born in Hartford, Connecticut on May 29, 1908. He was the eldest son of Semion and Lillian Cantarow Nelson. George Nelson finished high school at Hartford Public High School in 1924 and went on to Yale University where he eventually got a degree in Architecture.

But when he first entered Yale, he did not initially study architecture. He came upon it by happenstance when he entered the Yale School of Architecture building to get out of a rainstorm. There, he saw exhibits from students that inspired him to shift courses.

Even while studying, Nelson had started to work in the design field first by writing articles for Pencil Points and Architecture Magazine. He also worked as a drafter for the architecture firm of Adams and Prentice during his senior year. Nelson graduated with a degree in Architecture in 1928. In 1929, still at Yale, he worked as a Teacher’s Assistant while working on his second degree. In 1931, he graduated with a degree in Fine Arts.

Even after two degrees, George Nelson was still not through with studying. In 1932, he won the Rome Prize, a study fellowship granted by the American Academy in Rome. Nelson studied at the American Academy from 1932 to 1934.

Nelson In Europe

George Nelson Platform Bench – photo by Herman Miller

While in Rome, Nelson travelled around Europe and met a number of the luminaries of modernist design. He interacted with such greats as Walter Gropius, Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe, and Le Corbusier to name a few. He also met lesser-known figures such as Ivar Tengborn and Bent Helweg-Moeller. He interviewed them for articles that he would send to Pencil Point magazine. These articles would later become a sort of introduction to the works of these designers for the American public.

It was also while Nelson was in Rome when he married Frances Hollister.

Back in the United States

Returning to the United States, George Nelson devoted himself to writing. In 1935, he became an associate editor at the Architectural Forum. He held that position from 1935 to 1943. In 1944, he rose to become a consulting editor, a post he held until 1949.

In 1936, while still working for the Architectural Forum magazine, Nelson opened his own architectural practice with William Hambly in New York. The firm did not last long and was closed around the time the United States entered the Second World War. During the war, Nelson taught Architecture at Columbia University to supplement the income he was getting from his magazine work.

Herman Miller

Coconut Lounge Chair, George Nelson for Herman Miller – photo by 1stDibs

In 1945, George Nelson caught the attention of D. J. De Pree, then president of Herman Miller, a Michigan-based furniture company. De Pree had read an article that Nelson wrote and decided to hire him to design furniture. Even though Nelson had no prior experience in designing furniture, he stepped up to the challenge. Not only did he redesign the Herman Miller product line, but he also changed the company’s marketing and advertising materials. Nelson came out with his first catalogue for the company that same year, and it was well received.

As part of his contract with the company, Nelson had the freedom to work for other companies. He was also allowed to bring in other designers and use their designs for the catalogue. This led to Herman Miller having the most iconic home furnishings that ever came out in the 20th Century. Designers such as Ray and Charles Eames, Richard Schultz, and Harry Bertoia all contributed designs for the company’s catalogues over the years. All of this, of course, was under the supervision of George Nelson. In 1947, Nelson was made Director of Design for the company. A position that he held until 1972.

George Nelson Associates, Inc.

While still working for Herman Miller and using the funds he gained from becoming its Director of Design, Nelson opened his own design studio in New York City in 1947. Several years later, the studio became incorporated. With his own studio—which eventually became a company—set up, Nelson began developing his own designs which ranged from furniture to architecture. He also started hiring talented individuals to work for him. His staff included designers such as Irving Harper, Ernest Graves, and Ettore Sottsass. These people would become great designers in their own right, building successful careers of their own. The company proved to be a successful endeavour for George Nelson. The company stood for decades until it closed in the mid-1980s.

Furniture Design

Marshmallow Sofa upholstered in red fabric, George Nelson for Herman Miller – photo by Herman Miller

Although best known as an author, teacher, and as Director of Design for Herman Miller, George Nelson also designed furniture. His best-known designs were: the Coconut Chair, a lounge chair that looked like, as Nelson puts it “a coconut cut up into eight sections”; the Marshmallow Sofa, a sofa made by using multiple round cushions forming both the seat and the backrest; and the Ball Clock, a wall clock with balls as part of its motif and design. These are but a few of the scores of furniture he designed either solo or through collaboration with another designer or through his company.

Design Philosophy

Nelson had been called a metadesigner. He was more interested in the process that led to the end product than in the end product or culmination of his work or design itself. This led to some unconventional design ideas that could have only come from him.


George Nelson Ball Clock In Multicolour – photo by Hive Modern

George Nelson retired in the mid-1980s when his studio closed down. He passed away in 1986 in New York City at the age of 77. He left behind his second wife, Jacqueline Wilkinson, three sons, and two grandchildren. Throughout his life, he received a number of awards in recognition of his talent. Among these are the Rome Prize he won in 1932, a Gold Medal from the Art Directors Club of New York in 1953, and the Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Institute of Graphic arts in 1991. He also has permanent collections in the Museum of Modern Art, the Brooklyn Museum of Art and the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Nelson’s greatest contribution was his introduction of modernism to American society. This he did through the articles he wrote, the things he designed, and the people he worked with. George Nelson and his work both for Herman Miller and for his own design studio helped shape the design landscape of America to include modernist approaches.