If you type “George Nelson” into a search engine, odds are you’re going to get the profile of a prolific bank robber, also known as “Baby Face” Nelson, who worked closely with John Dillinger in the 1920s and died tragically (and very criminally) at the tender age of 25.
Direct your gaze a little bit further down, however, and Wikipedia will offer you the profile of the great American modernist George Nelson, responsible for giving us that particular sideboard feel and look that many homes enjoy today.
Nelson was ironically born on the same year as his criminal namesake, but he lived all the way up until 1986, and left quite a copious (and more socially responsible) legacy.
The mind of a meta-designer
Nelson early preoccupations with design had very little to do with the finished product and more to do with the process of design itself. How can we become better at building, crafting, and realizing ideas?
He was primarily an architect, and he introduced many interesting concepts to this particular field, such as the notion of a “family room.”
From 1946 onward, Nelson would start imagining pieces of furniture to complement, improve, and complete his conceptions for home architecture and living space management.
The Basic Cabinet Series, reintroduced to the world market by Herman Miller in 2011, would become his signature design.
However, he didn’t just do sideboards. Nelson introduced many iconic designs to the world, including the ubiquitous and easily-recognizable Coconut Chair, Flying Duck Chair, and Kangaroo Chair. He also delved in table making and décor, the Ball Clock being his most famous addition to this particular niche.
Legacy and other works
Heavily inspired by the very concept of timekeeping, Nelson also designed a wide variety of wall clocks, many of them deviating strongly from the Ball Clock’s design. This was one of his most beloved fields for experimentation, and his continued efforts produced emblematic décor items such as the Eye, Kite, and Turbine clocks, which are still in production today.
In the 1940s Nelson founded his own firm and joined the “Architectural Forum” magazine as an editor. Like most other mid-century modernist colleagues, he wrote extensively about the errors of human design and about the need for a return to nature in all architectural fields.
After this death, some controversy sprung from his latest works, some of them believed to be original ideas from other, lesser-known designers at the time. Nelson usually credited new designs with the name of his own firm, which keep some creators on the shadows.
However, most of them recognize the huge influence he made on their work, and most of them grew up to become world-renowned designers on their own right, such as Irving Harper. Nelson’s legacy goes beyond his furniture and directly into his teaching efforts, which is something that not many other mid-century representatives can claim for themselves.