Throughout the years, furniture design has evolved immensely. As furniture was traditionally produced through the guild system of highly skilled artisans, the style of furniture has changed along with new innovative forms of production. One of the pioneers who have helped pave the path of modern furniture in America is none other than George Nelson.
He graduated from Yale University in 1928 with a degree in architecture. At the time, Yale’s architecture program was rooted from Beaux-Arts teaching method. The lessons were conservative and Nelson found a lot of the projects assigned to be “absurd.”
A detailed sketch Nelson had done while in school.
His experience at Yale led him to The American School of Architecture in Rome, where he was exposed to the three giants of modernism: Mies, Le Corbusier, and Gropius. Modernism was the reaction of the horrors of World War I, viewed through the lense of designers. Furniture became simple and minimal, using mass produced or industrial materials left over from the war. The spaces designed were harmonious with an international message of creating something beautiful and peaceful out of something that was supposedly destructive. The positive outlook inspired Nelson to later on identify himself as a metadesigner. Metadesign’s goal was to define social, economic, and technical infrastructures in which innovative collaborative design can take place. In short, it was a calling for practical design. Nelson later believed “‘The most important single fact about furniture is that it is a craft product built around one material—wood—using techniques that originated centuries ago, and practically every distinguishing characteristic of the industry can be traced back to this fact,’” (Abercrombie, 88). While Nelson worked in the architecture field for quite some time; in 1945, D.J. De Pree, president of the furniture manufacturer Herman Miller, hired Nelson as a furniture designer. Through product design, Nelson’s attraction toward wood can be demonstrated through his 1947 L-shaped desk.
The L-shaped desk modernized the office space. The significance of the desk was not the beauty within its shape, but what the shape evoked. Nelson designed the office furniture with the notion “that the distribution of office furniture should be based on actual patterns of communication between workers rather than on rank, organization charts, or departmental divisions,” (Abercrombie, 210). The desk was described as a “work center.” It was more than just a desk. With the addition of two work surfaces, there were spacious storage units that advocated organization. The L-shape also acted as a divider that further helped to organize the office space. Nelson’s new design improved the efficiency and experience of “white-collar” work.
By simplifying materials, Nelson commercialized furniture and created a new aesthetic in America. By using a limited amount of material, Nelson’s furniture was easily massed produced. “He wanted to design for an American Society to come, a society that could have become the new society, invaded by prosperity, by the certainties of technology, invaded by optimism—a relaxed society, a society capable of playing, a society capable of humour, and above all a society without fear,” (Abercrombie, ix-x). Nelson’s vision of a utopia was carried out through simple functional forms and limited materials. This idea goes hand in hand with practices seen by the shakers of the mid-19th century. The Shakers are a religious group founded in 18th century England. They believed that furniture should be as simple and functional as possible. They kept materials and forms natural because of their belief that everything is God’s creation. By keeping their environment as naturalistic as possible, they were living in “heaven on Earth.”
Not only did the Shakers keep their environment as natural and simplistic as possible, but they also believed in creating cleanliness. While living with the minimum amount of furniture, it was easy for the Shakers to complete quotidien chores. By having small amount of lightweight furniture, they were able to follow “the Lord’s command to sweep clean for the brethren and sisters to cleanse their hearts of the stains of sin,” (Burks, 45).
The form of shaker furniture had a lot to do with their lifestyle and cultural beliefs. Going back to Nelson’s L-shaped desk, he believed “[they] were not desks and file cabinets. This is a way of life,” (Abercrombie, 213). Industrial Design said, “one wonders why office workers have put up with their incompatible, unproductive, uncomfortable environment for so long.” With that, the L-shaped desk shifted Herman Miller’s business from residential to commercial furniture.
The L-shaped desk later led Nelson to his new project called the Nelson office. He designed office interiors for the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. Before, office spaces were organized with desks arranged in rows. It lacked communication, efficiency, and comfort.
To solve this problem, Nelson designed a panel system surrounding his L-shaped desk. It will later be known as the cubicle and the complete project of Nelson’s interior offices would be called Action Office 2.
The divided compartments along with Nelson’s original L-shaped desk became an immediate hit in the market and has become the mainstream of office design.
Nelson wanted to make the world a more beautiful and useful place. He made design a mindful process by questioning the meaning of visual choices. He innovated the American society and economy with his iconic L-shaped desk. It was a product that shot Herman Miller to great commercial success, selling more than $5 billion worth of units by 2005. People were drawn to simple design that gave direction. Nelson communicated a straightforward message through form. He made storage units in a simple clean rectilinear shape without any frivolous details, similar to 18th-century Shaker cabinetry. Although Nelson did not directly take inspiration from the Shakers, it is very apparent the forward-thinking Nelson and the traditional Shakers shared many similar qualities with the intentions in their design. Both hone functional forms with the intent of changing lifestyle for the better. It goes to show the power of minimalistic and functional furniture. The relationship between humans and furniture should be symbiotic to induce positive change within lifestyle and society.
Abercrombie, Stanley, et al. George Nelson: the Design of Modern Design. The Mit Press, 2000.
Bowe, Stephen, and Peter Richmond. Selling Shaker: the Commodification of Shaker Design in the Twentieth Century. Liverpool University Press, 2006.
Burks, Jean M. Shaker Design: out of This World. 2008.
Menegazzo, Rossella, and Stefania Piotti. Wa the Essence of Japanese Design. Phaidon Press Limited, 2015.