George Nelson (1908–1986) was an American industrial designer, and one of the founders of American Modernismm, designed much of the 20th century's most iconic modernist furniture.
An early zap came in the 1930s, when he was an architectural student in Rome. Before returning home, an idea struck him: He would travel Europe and interview leading modern architects, hoping to get the articles published in the U.S. He succeeded, and in the process introduced the U.S. design community to the European avant-garde. This set in motion a sequence of what he called "lucky" career breaks that were really the inevitable outcomes of his brilliance as a designer, teacher, and author.
One such "zap" came in 1942 when Nelson conceived the first-ever pedestrian shopping mall – now a ubiquitous feature of our architectural landscape – detailed in his "Grass on Main Street" article. Soon after, he pioneered the concept of built-in storage with the storage wall, a system of storage units that rested on slatted platform benches. The first modular storage system ever, it was showcased in Life magazine and caused an immediate sensation in the furniture industry.
In 1946, Nelson became director of design at Herman Miller, a position he held until 1972. While there, Nelson recruited other seminal modern designers, including Charles Eames and Isamu Noguchi. He also developed his own designs, including the Marshmallow Sofa, the Nelson™ Platform Bench and the first L-shaped desk, a precursor to the present-day workstation. He also created a series of boldly graphic wall clocks and a series of bubble lamps made of self-webbing plastic.
Nelson once wrote that Herman Miller "is not playing follow-the-leader." That's one reason why George Nelson & Associates worked with Herman Miller for over 25 years as they shepherded design into the modern era.
During this same period, George Nelson & Associates also created many landmark designs of products, showrooms, and exhibitions for a variety of companies and organizations.
Nelson said that for a designer to deal creatively with human needs, "he must first make a radical, conscious break with all values he identifies as antihuman." Designers also must constantly be aware of the consequences of their actions on people and society. In fact, he declared that "total design is nothing more or less than a process of relating everything to everything." So he said that rather than specializing, designers must cultivate a broad base of knowledge and understanding.
Nelson did so as few are able, and, with the help of well-timed zaps, he helped define modern, humane design.