Born in Connecticut, USA, in 1908 to a Russian émigré father and an American mother, George Nelson attended Yale University, where he graduated in architecture and also completed a bachelor degree in fine arts. Graduate work at the Catholic University in Washington led to a fellowship at the American Academy in Rome, Italy, from 1932-34.
By the time Nelson returned to the US he’d become more interested in the intellectual aspects of architecture rather than the practise of it, and started writing for the influential magazine Architectural Forum.
A 1945 article on Nelson’s Storagewall system in Life magazine caught the attention of D.J. De Pree, founder of Herman Miller.
In 1946, despite almost no experience in furniture design, Nelson was made design director of the company and remained there until 1972, 14 years before his death in 1986.
What made him an asset to the company was his grand view on design and the ways in which it is connected to life.
It was Nelson who created the model that led to Herman Miller’s unique approach to design, the environment, ergonomics and human interaction. He also had a very good eye for spotting talent and quickly brought together a stable of new designers such as Charles & Ray Eames, Isamu Noguchi and Alexander Girard.
He designed many of the Herman Miller showrooms, along with graphics, catalogues, textiles, dinnerware and glassware. He won many honours, including the Museum of Modern Art’s Good Design Award in 1954 and the American Institute of Graphic Arts Lifetime Achievement Award posthumously in 1991.
As the design director of Herman Miller, it was up to Nelson to ensure that the company’s ranges were stylish and modern and served a practical purpose. As a result, his designs ranged from simple functional timber items, such as his basic cabinet series of 1946, to more extravagant designs, such as the Coconut chair (pictured) and Sling sofa.
In 1955, he founded his own design company, George Nelson & Associates, which contributed to Herman Miller’s design portfolio. Many pieces attributed to Nelson were actually designed by those in his office – Irving Harper, John Pile, George Mulhauser and Ernest Farmer.
Best known for
While many of his designs are no longer in production, certain pieces have endured. The sleek Coconut chair (1955) and End table (1954), and the refined Nelson Platform bench (1946) are all still made by Herman Miller. His groundbreaking Bubble lamps (1947; pictured) have been reissued by Modernica and become popular all over again.
An iconic piece credited to George Nelson is the Marshmallow sofa (1956), which was actually designed by Irving Harper at the George Nelson office. It has recently been reissued by Herman Miller.
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