George Nelson oversaw both the Art X demonstration and the Moscow Exhibition, while acting as director of Herman Miller. Nelson often described himself as an unwilling administrator, preferring to write. He used his position to write history by recognizing talent and trusting them to do the right things. His friendship with Charles Eames would be his most economically fertile relationship, but Nelson refused to let profits dictate his actions. Nelson gave Buckminster Fuller free use of his office and staff in 1952, the same year as the Art X demonstration. His hospitality endured even when Fuller refused to allow Herman Miller furniture inside his Geodesic Dome being built in the Museum of Modern Art. Nelson trusted Fuller completely and in 1959, Fuller was able to provide a geodesic dome for Moscow Exhibition’s “Glimpse of the United States.” This foresight and disregard for short term rewards earned him the label “meta-designer” by contemporary design critics. Nelson’s hand was not entirely hidden behind his famous friends. His television programs on the Columbia Broadcasting System would invite the American public to improve their visual awareness. Nelson believed that if an overly materialistic society was a threat to the environment, only the education of the public can hope to address those problems.
Nelson was a naturally gifted communicator, but in his time there was no clear educational path for his career. This career included industrial design, information design, exhibition design, presentation, and teaching but he considered himself first a writer. He started like his friend Charles Eames and Lamar Dodd studying architecture.
Nelson lived from 1908 to 1986 and like Buckminster Fuller he life would span a series of cultural upheavals. He began his professional career by surveying the European landscape with open mind. Considering that this landscape was populated by people as varied as France’s Le Corbusier and Mussolini’s favorite Marcello Piacentini, this was some feat according to Deborah Ashcher Barstone in her 2008 book, “Building A New Europe: Portraits of Modern Architects Essays By George Nelson 1935-1936.”
Stanley Abercrombie Nelson’s biographer described him with mystified admiration. He is called, “perversely negative, and even self-destructive.” An architect who advocated an end of architecture, and a furniture designer who imagined rooms without furniture, an urban designer who contemplated the hidden city, and an industrial designer who questioned the future of the object and hated the obsession with products.
Abercrombie called him a “metadesigner” because of his peculiar paradigm. In Nelson’s smart set of friend’s and colleagues there numbered: Charles and Ray Eames, Eero Saarinen, Eliot Noyes, Serge Chermayeff, Ettore Sottass Jr., Joe Columbo, and many others.
Abercrombie notes that “Nelson was one of a group of designers which worked simultaneously at designing buildings and industrial products, at corporate identity programs and graphics, at curatorship and teaching, he was the only architect in that group that maintained a lifelong career as an artist. He was a prolific critic, publishing in popular press as often as in architectural and industrial design trade journals.”
He also contributed to TIME, LIFE, FORTUNE, and MCCALL’s as well as PENCIL POINTS, ARCHITECTURAL FORUM, INDUSTRIAL DESIGN, and INTERIORS. Additionally he wrote several books, he even produced films and television programs.”
At first he called himself an Architect and Designer in the fifties and then just a Designer starting the sixties. He was often self-contradictory over time or even “paradoxical” within one subject. He was critical of consumption and waste of American post-World War II capitalist culture. Somewhat ahead of the curve in both environmental concerns as well as the idea that a single style of design was no longer practiced, saying buildings no longer had a single author.
He constantly attempted to convince his readers of the need to produce, “quality design.” Harwood claims that design theorist Joseph Schumpeter’s theory of “creative destruction” influenced Nelson. The theory describes Capitalism as a incessantly revolutionizing the economic structure, from within, destroying the old one, incessantly creating a new one. It’s a process of Creative destruction. Good and bad lose meaning, because they are part of a “constant flow of evolution, revolution, creation, and destruction, all names for the same thing.”
It was full of war inflected metaphors, sensitive to the fear of sudden annihilation that existed since the atomic bomb was dropped. The bomb becomes the ultimate icon of capitalism for Trumpeteer.
His show at the MoMA for the Visual Communications Conference sponsored by the Art Director’s Club of New York and Herman Miller, the speech used ironic praise for the “crowning glory of civilization,” the junk.
The product had replaced the creators in scope, and Nelson proved this by replacing himself with a green robot with a robotic voice that narrated as the three screens showed “tightly framed shots of recognizable but discarded or broken products and wide-angle shots of mountains of debris.” He was expanding from an essay he wrote three years previous.
After acquiring a reputation with his writing in Europe he returned home investigating many fields, critiquing the prevailing ideas in industrial design and theorizing a way of progress- modern living. He was practically dragged into Herman Miller, not on the strength of sales experience or furniture making but on strength of his ideas. As the head of Herman Miller Incorporated he greatly improved profits and influenced both industrial design and how it was advertised.
“If you can’t afford advertising, focus on a few products because that will get into all the magazines because they are odd or crazy.” Nelson invested advertising budgets into striking full page advertisements. He designed their advertising, graphics, catalogues, and their show rooms. Meanwhile, he was a charismatic interviewer and tireless interviewee.
There Nelson’s meta-designing included the invention of the storage wall, the modern kitchen, and the creation of the “Action Office” which would prefigure the office cubicles of today. Furniture would take a decisive role America’s concept of the modern lifestyle. He pioneered mobile furniture that was not attached to the wall. “It belongs to the floor, not the wall.” Meanwhile, the Eames design team helped conceive of furniture for the masses and chairs that would fit elegantly in both office or home.
Nelson was both a critic and producer, and he combined these roles in his show “Art X” for UGA. Nelson continued to write and speak and create in the ways sparked by “Art X” experiment. As with Eames his chief collaborator on Art X, sparked an interest in education that became a passion.
He would formally teach at Harvard and Pratt but continued to teach by lectures to both a national and international audience.
Later as discussed in the “American National Exhibition in Moscow” his palette covered acres and he acted as creative director of the entire program. He invited Charles Eames to make a film, with a version of the multi-screen format that worked so well in Athens, Georgia. When at last the imagery of people all over the U.S. kissing each other goodnight appeared over and over again, larger than life, the Russian audiences were emotionally disarmed.
Nelson pulled designers and thinkers into the orbit of Herman Miller, using his resources to cross fertilize and stimulate each other’s work. They enjoyed the luxury of working slowly and refining ideas, simply because Nelson hustled and bustled in every possible direction, meeting deadlines of the market with the facilities available at the time.