Michael Graves, Irving Harper, Others Remember George Nelson

George Nelson's talented team reveals the method to the madness—and how Nelson's greatest genius may have been in bringing them together.

With a recent traveling exhibition and catalog by the Vitra Design Museum, George Nelson (1908–1986) and his talented team are finally getting their historic due. Trained as an architect at Yale, Nelson was not only an important industrial designer but an incisive writer, editor, and lecturer. He wrote about all aspects of design: architecture, interiors, products. Nelson even came up with the idea for the modern pedestrian mall, and in 1960, at the height of the Cold War, he created a segment for the CBS program Camera Three called “A Prob­lem of Design: How to Kill People,” a satire on war.

After World War II, the focus of contemporary design shifted to New York, and the Nelson office was at the center of it, producing a series of classics: the Coconut chair, the Marshmallow sofa, the Ball clock, the Bubble lamps, and the Action Office systems. The firm spearheaded the American National Exhi­bition in Moscow, where several hundred American-made products were shown on a vast, three-dimensional jungle-gym display; it became the backdrop for the famous “kitchen debate” between then Vice President Richard Nixon and Nikita Khrushchev.

The office was straight out of Mad Men, with men in crisp white shirts and ties, and the few women in black dresses—cigarette smoke everywhere, classical music in the background, and Nelson, ever the impresario, standing in the middle of the tumult with a camera dangling from his shoulders. The graphic designer Don Ervin, who worked at the firm for eight years, describes the atmosphere as open and free. “Everybody worked hard and late,” Ervin says. “We were all underpaid, but it was like going to a special camp.” Michael Graves, Peter Marino, and Ettore Sottsass all spent time in the office. Other designers—George Tscherny, Tomoko Miho, Lucia DeRespinis, Irving Harper, Ron Beckman, and John Svezia—are less well known but equally talented, and they worked on practically everything: exhibitions, interiors, graphics, architecture, and industrial design. We asked them to share their recollections of their time with Nelson and the process that created some of design’s most iconic pieces.

During the 1950s, I was working with the United States Information Agency, in Washington, where I was Jack Masey’s assistant. He had started this whole division with five separate projects going. One of the designers he had a contract with was George. I met him while working on the Sao Paolo exhibition. In the early ’60s, I became part of the Nelson office. Not that I enjoyed it much.

I remember talking to Mrs. Dreyfuss, who had a hard time, and she said, “It’s not a pleasant thing to be the boss’s wife.” I was hesitating; then I talked to Henry Dreyfuss, who said, “Do it.”

The Chrysler Pavilion for the 1964 New York World’s Fair was one of George’s most important proj­ects. They came to him late in the process and didn’t have much money. GM and Ford were already practically building theirs, so there was very little time to design and put it together. Nobody in the office had the faintest idea of what to do. George, in the meantime, had been writing. I’d rather go spend weekends at the beach, and we had a house a friend loaned us, and he sat outside pounding his typewriter—tap, tap, tap—and he had it all figured out.

The problem with George is that he never kept his sketches. He would pin them up, and they would get tossed. I have one of them for that project. So the pavilion had things where you’d walk under this giant car, and there were things like bucket seats and a giant donut-shaped engine. Chrysler was worried about its cars, so George put them in a lake! People would go there and just laugh and laugh. Vogue said it was the best thing at the fair.

I began working for Nelson in 1956, when the office was located on 57th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues. Two memorable impressions from that office: Irving Harper’s deceptively simple solution to hide the banal ceiling with venetian-blind slats rigidly held in slotted wood strips; and Hilda Longinotti, our smiling, spirited receptionist, wearing clothes chosen to relate to the purple wall behind her Executive Office Group desk. The 20 or so designers sat together in the same long studio at three rows of desks—architects, industrial designers, graphic and interior designers. We were aware of what each was doing. It was a very democratic arrangement that encouraged collaboration across the various disciplines. On the floor below was a shop and prototype floor operated by two masters, Ken Chorley Jr. and Phoebe Murray. The integrity of drawings produced by the designers grew in part from the fact that projects were built in three dimensions first, and then drawings were made directly from the object or the model. When I was appointed to complete the George Nelson Experimental House project in the summer of 1956, it had been under study by the Nelson designers Albert Woods and William Katavolos and the visiting designer Ettore Sottsass. Woods prepared building plans and elevations; Katavolos fashioned 4 x 4–inch aluminum extrusions that Nelson referred to as “aluminum lumber”; and Sottsass created a series of poster-sized illustrations and diagrams for presentations.

I also worked in the office on 50th Street, facing the side entrance of St. Patrick’s Cathedral. This was a handy location because on late-night charrettes we could pick up carryout at Hamburger Heaven on 51st Street. The office was in its prime and conveniently located below Whitney Publications, which published Interiors and Industrial Design. Once again the shop was all-important, sharing the studio space with the drafting room. The staff grew larger, and the principals­—Irving Harper, Gordon Chadwick, and John Pile—had private offices.

It was here that we created CSS, the Sling sofa, Action Office systems and an extensive catalog for Herman Miller, Mini-Max kitchens for General Electric, and the American National Exhibition in Moscow.

The office then moved to Nelson’s brownstone at 25 East 22nd Street. The workshop was in the basement, occasionally sending epoxy odors up to the top floor, where George and his family lived in a private apartment. George spent time in Europe working on a housing community in Portugal and a chalet in Switzer­land. Finally, the long association with Herman Miller ended, perhaps because the DePree sons didn’t revere Nelson as their father had. But the unsung hero was really the designer Ernest Farmer, who contributed continuity to the furniture program, kept the records, and stayed through the entire adventure.

George was a gadfly. He would go around the office and prod you into doing things. He would come up with a brilliant idea, and it was basically up to somebody in the office to work out all of the details and get it made. Sometimes one of these brilliant ideas wouldn’t work out because it was just too far ahead of its time—there was just no way that current engineering or technology could cope with it. And sometimes it was beyond the scope of the client you were working for. But essentially you were left alone and encouraged to do things in as broad a sense as you could. That’s how the Sling sofa grew: someone had a notion to make a basket-type sofa, and I was left on my own to dream it up. I pursued it in sketch and model form. We actually mocked the thing up right in the shop we had in the office, and eventually everyone said, “Well, this is something you’ve got to present to Herman Miller on the fast track.”

I started out as George’s receptionist. I think it paid $55 a week. They were so thrilled with me that the designers completely redesigned the reception area, and they made the colors of the space complement me—behind me was a purple felt wall with an orange-and-white Howard Miller clock and the Herman Miller daybed. It was amazing. Whenever they needed to take photographs of anything, they would march me to the roof, and I was the in-house model for all of the prototypes: the Coconut chair, the Marshmallow sofa—whatever they were designing that needed a body, I would sit on it.

What about the design process? We would get a project, and George would be very excited or semi-excited about it (and he bored easily), so he was always excited about the next thing that was coming in the door. A project would come in, and depending on the size and the scope, he would call in designers like Irving Harper, Gordon Chadwick, John Svezia, Ron Beckman, or John Pile.

If it was graphics, it would be George Tscherny or, later, Tomoko Miho or Carl Ramirez. They would talk for hours about the concept. This is where George was brilliant. They would spin it until out of it came an idea. Then George would start to doodle, and his doodles suddenly became a concept. Then they would talk about what had evolved from all of these conversations and doodles, and they would go marching off to develop a concept.

Every Monday there were project meetings. Everyone would sit at this huge table, and George would attend. They’d go through the projects, where they were going, the billings, et cetera. In ’62 I bought an old gate house in Whitestone, and Dolores Engle and everybody else at the office was helping me withthe interiors. So one morning George said, “What is the biggest project on the boards that we have at the moment?” And some smart aleck said, “Hilda Longinotti’s house.” And he banged on the door and said, “Goddamn it! I mean paying client!” But he said it with good humor.

I was the first female industrial designer hired at the office. I started in 1956 and was there until I was too pregnant to lean over the drawing board in 1963. It was a special place in part because George knew who to hire. He could tell who was going to work together, who he could trust to take on something, and if you had a high enough level of confidence and talent to know when something was really finished. Every single designer who stayed on for more than a year would take a job, and it would be wonderful. For the American exhibit in Moscow, I was given a section, and George told me to design the apartment of a Manhattan doctor with all the rooms—the living room, the child’s room, the kitchen, and the bathroom. I also had to fill it with a lot of furniture from a cross section of American furniture. So I included furniture from Herman Miller, Dunbar, and some Knoll.

George’s approach was not to look at things as an architect but as an industrial designer. He’d say, “This is not architecture that you’re doing.” He was logical: Who is it for? Who’s going to use it? Where is it going to be? That industrial-design process, which he understood from a different point of view, was unlike that of an architect. That’s why I think he was successful. George would always ask the right questions.

I worked for George and Gordon Chadwick in 1959 and part of 1960. My experience was very different from anybody else’s in that I was hired as an architect, not as a designer. Quite frankly, I don’t think George was interested in architecture, so he wasn’t very interested in what I was doing. He would come in and touch down his magic dust on somebody and then leave. We didn’t know what he did all day long. But you knew that if you ever made the trek to his office—through the drafting room and the reception area—he wouldn’t be there.

I will tell you a very positive story about George that makes me think of Philip Johnson. They were both enormously generous. There was a woman by the name of Myrna Muskin who was, at the time, Richard Meier’s girlfriend. She was a publicist for George and simply a delightful human being. Richard would come into George’s office after closing to pick up Myrna, and he would stop by my desk and pull up a chair, which is how my friendship with Richard started. At a certain point, Richard decided that it would be good to collaborate on the Roosevelt Memorial competition. He said, “We don’t have any place big enough to work—your apartment’s not big enough, my apartment’s not big enough.” So I went to George and I said, “George, I have a favor. I would love it if I could do this competition after hours and work with a friend, Richard Meier, and the two of us would work here because the desk in front of me is not being used.’ He thought about it for, like, 30 seconds, and he said, “Yes, that’s not the problem.” And I said, “What’s the problem?” And he said, “I think I’d like to do it too. You can certainly do it, and you don’t need to do it at night. If you have your work done for Gordon, you can do it during the daytime and I’ll pay for it.” So I worked all day on it. Richard would come in at night, and I’d be a day ahead of him each time, so I got to do a lot on it. It came out as “George Nelson, Richard Meier, Michael Graves.” George never asked whether we won or lost. He never saw it. As far as I know, Richard and I got last place. I know we didn’t win.

George had this great talent: somebody could give him something that he had never seen before, and he immediately knew all sorts of things to say about it. I designed the logo for the 1959 American National Exhibition in Moscow, and I gave him the design, made up of two forms out of a circle, one red and one blue, and he said something about “Two great nations facing one another, one of them red and one of them not. They were both magnets that repelled or attracted each other … .” It’s all just bullshit that people come up with after somebody has designed a mark, and it’s just pretty marvelous. He had this big talent, this charm, that went along with his presentation. I did a project with him for Scott Paper, in Philadelphia, and when I got on the plane with him, I had this jumble of slides on my lap, and I said, “Do you want to see the slides?” He said, “No, I’ll see it when I show it.” And so, later, when he showed the presentation, a slide came up and he had no idea what it was. And he said, well, you know, stuff. And this vice president turns, hits me on the shoulder and says, “Isn’t he wonderful?” That was just his talent.

I also did all the promotion, titles, ads, and the trailer for The Misfits, the movie with Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe. George and I went out on location in Nevada, and I also had to go to Hollywood to make the trailer, for which I used a whole lot of still shots of Reno that Magnum photographers like Elliot Erwitt and Bruce Davidson had taken, in a very rapid sequence. It was something different at that time. The idea for the titles were these jigsaw puzzles which didn’t fit—misfit—and they moved toward each other, and then they interpenetrated and kept on going. It worked pretty well. Later, I was introduced to Marilyn Monroe as the person who was going to do the trailer. And she, believe it or not, said, “The air-conditioning in my trailer doesn’t work.”

I started work at George Nelson & Associates in 1953. The entire staff consisted of Madeleine Lunt, Nelson’s secretary; Ernest Farmer; Bill Renwick, who worked on the Howard Miller Bubble lamps and was generally involved in solving production problems; John Pile, who worked on furniture development and slide presentations; and Irving Harper, who designed furniture and Howard Miller clocks as well as graphics and advertising until I took over that responsibility.

Nelson was extremely eloquent in expressing ideas about design and the popular culture around us in a way that few, if any, were able to do at the time. The major client was Herman Miller. Determining content for promotion and advertising was largely dictated by the introduction of new products. Jim Eppinger, Herman Miller’s sales director, in consultation with the DePrees, made those decisions. Auerbach Advertising, a small agency, provided the text (always minimal and to the point) and placed the ads in magazines. Budgets were small so that photography was always in black-and-white, with the trademark red as the second color.

The most important lesson I learned from George was not to bring preconceived ideas to a new project, to begin each time with a blank page. While that is not the most economical way to run an office, it does provide the best climate for doing creative work. In the summer of 1955, after two and a half years with the office, it was time to move on. The last ad I designed heralded, “Herman Miller comes to Dallas,” and that ad has resounded for over 50 years.

I was eager to work, and George Tscherny recommended that I show my portfolio to Irving Harper. I met with him at the 50th Street office, and he hired me as a graphic designer. It was a memorable learning experience to work with Irving, who was an architect crossing over different disciplines to participate in the design of important projects like the Herman Miller furniture, the Howard Miller clocks and Bubble lamps, exhibitions, graphics, a beautiful series of advertisements with photography by Art Kane and copy by Mary Welles. And meeting the many visitors—Philip Johnson, Charles Eames, Bob Blaich, Isamu Kenmochi, and others—enlarged the world for me. Irving designed a neat portable exhibit system (based on a pantograph system) that would fold up for travel. I designed graphics for the panels, featuring Nelson, Charles and Ray Eames, Alexander Girard, and Isamu Noguchi. We had the photo of the Noguchi table but not a portrait of him. So I called him, and in about an hour, Noguchi showed up in his work clothes with a photo for us to use.

During the 1940s, I was working for Raymond Loewy, and one day after work George Nelson showed up in the drafting room with his only employee at the time, my close friend Ernest Farmer. We went down to a local coffee shop, and George told me that he was going to form an office and asked if I would be willing to quit my Loewy job and join him. I jumped at the chance. At the time, George had only the Herman Miller account, and he needed somebody to do graphics for them. I’d mentioned that I had never done graphics but was willing to try. What the hell? I turned out the first ad for Herman Miller and designed the logo that became their trademark. I did one ad a month for years.

How did the Marshmallow sofa come about? One weekend, I thought about doing an upholstery unit, and wondered, Is there any way to do a sofa out of reproducible parts that could be done as if fitted out to a frame? I cooked up this model out of a checkers set, and I stuck the checkers disks on a metal frame, and it looked good to me. So I drew it up, brought it in, and that was the birth of it.

Categories: Design, Workplace Architecture