single handedly george and samurai lumberjack

by Art Chantry (

everybody knows all about the eames chair designs. in fact, right now, everything ‘charles and ray eames’ is solid-gold cool standard. whenever my designer friends start talking about 20th century modernism, they always immediately blurt, “oh, i just love all things eames!” but, ya know, they worked for herman miller furniture designing that stuff. and the guy they worked for (and under), the guy who hired them and directed their efforts was the real monster of modernism. his name was george nelson.

this little brochure (it folds down to 2 3/4″h x 6″w) is a mailer promoting the herman miller company’s line of modern wall clocks. whenever i think about george nelson, i think about these clocks first. that ‘ball clock” (sometimes called the ‘atomic clock’ – pictured being held in those ‘hands’ on the cover) is so iconic, it’s almost THE hallmark piece of mid-century modernism – the apex of the style (or even ultimate cliche.) this is george nelson’s work. granted, he may have not personally created that clock (it may have been the work of one of his staff design team, irving harper), but george nelson was the visionary and HE was in charge of all design decisions. everybody was creating HIS ideas and designs FOR him. he was an art director of the highest caliber. in his long career he virtually created 20th century modernism single handedly. everybody else may be seen as ‘working for him.”

---now that nelson is dead, everybody else still living is claiming that clock. but, they all worked FOR nelson and his name was on the door. so, it's HIS design. them's the rules. design studios (and "art" studios, too) work that way and traditionally, it's worked that way for millenia. it's what made 'art' the cult of personality that it is. the truth is (in reality) lost. but, nelson used to be the sole claimant of it for decades. then he died - watch the sharks circle.---AC

indeed, when he was directing for herman miller, nelson employed people like charles and ray eames, isamu noguchi, donald knorr, richard schultz and harry bertoia, among others. after leaving herman miller in 1947, he opened his own design studio (called george nelson associates) and employed people like irving harper, george mulhauser, robert brownjohn, don chadwick. bill renwick, suzanne sekey, ernest farmer, tobias o’mara, geroge tscherney, lance wyman and john pile. basically, george nelson surrounded himself with the very biggest names in design modernism (and he built their careers.)

he was born in hartford, connecticut, attended yale and then studied in europe (turkey and rome). there, he learned a more european approach to design. here in america, we tend to divvy up different design tasks into specific areas with little or no overlap. for instance, if you design advertising graphics, you don’t design fashionable clothing. if you design clothing, you don’t design automobiles. if you design automobiles, you don’t design furniture. get the idea? even within these ‘arenas’ (barely ‘disciplines’) it’s even further segmented. a graphic designer becomes specialized as a poster designer, or an advertising designer, or a logo designer or a magazine designer. we americans specialize and then use those various strata to charge more for the same service of ‘design’. instead of JUST for ‘design’, we make it LOTS of design services and charge individually. better money.

however, in europe, there is an approach to design education that considers it all lumped under one more generalized heading of “design.” so, it’s not uncommon for an italian graphic designer to create cars and fashions and silverware and buildings and interiors and even corkscrews – often all for the same client. this is the educational pattern that george nelson was reared within. we in america generally consider him an ‘industrial designer’ (a designer who designs things for industry – however vaguely defined that is). but, he could do (and often did) just about anything. for instance his ‘graphic design’ work is as inspired and intelligent and even as brilliant as any graphic designer produced in america. however, you rarely see that work, except in old period books and magazines. but we all know his sling chair and his marshmallow chair and his ball clock and his “office cubicle”.

george nelson actually started his professional career as a writer about architecture and as an editor (first) for ‘pencil point’ (the early architectural digest), and (then) as the editor of architectural forum magazine in the early glory years of the 1950′s. when he left that publication to become head of design at herman miller, he was literally stepping into what most americans considered a completely different field from anything he ever had done before. but, he never batted an eyelash and immediately changed the entire modern american vision of what the future would look like.

sara anderson (an illustrator friend of mine, who worked in the same building as me) arranged to have george nelson come to seattle to do a lecture for the local design organization. even though she was an accomplished designer in her own right, she hired me to design the flyer/announcement/poster for the talk. so, when he came to visit her studio, she brought him around to my studio space to say ‘hello’. that was pretty cool. it was like having krishna drop in to say ‘howdy!’

the building sara and i worked in was called the ‘northwest industrial buildings’. essentially, it was old ratty warehouse spaces that had been broken up into large areas of square footage that housed every sort of business from woodworkers to printers to ad agencies to fine artists. it was built back when seattle was still a very young city in the wilderness. so, it’s construction used huge locally-cut old-growth wooden beams held together on huge huge wooden posts with giant metal bolts and chunks of sectioned I-beams to act as a sort of ‘hinge’ against the wiggles

ated by our environment of constant earthquakes.

george nelson found it fascinating. he couldn’t stop looking up – rubbernecking – in the studio. frankly, it was annoying. suddenly, he said, “i just love the way this old buillding is put together. it’s a style you could only call “samurai lumberjack.”


AC: …i used to think the european approach made more sense and produced better design and designers. but, after 40 years of this crap, i’ve come to the conclusion that american way produces better designers, even though it’s a stupid shallow system. so, i suppose any approach is fine. the point is to start ‘doing’….

if he didn’t put that on his tombstone, i just might put it on mine.

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