When writing about his remarkable 50-year career, George Nelson described creative “zaps”—moments of inspiration “when the solitary individual finds he is connected with a reality he never dreamed of.”
An early zap came in the 1930s, when Nelson was an architectural student in Rome. An idea struck: He would travel Europe interviewing leading modern architects, hoping to get articles published in the United States. He succeeded, and in the process introduced the U.S. design community to the European avant-garde. This set in motion a series of what he called “lucky” breaks—really the inevitable outcomes of his talent as a designer, teacher, and author.
First, Nelson was named an editor at Architectural Forum magazine. Working on a story there in 1942, he was looking at aerial photos of blighted cities when—zap!—he developed the concept of the downtown pedestrian mall.
Another zap led to the Storagewall, the first modular storage system and a forerunner of systems furniture. Storagewall was showcased in a 1945 Life magazine article, causing a sensation in the furniture industry. Herman Miller founder D.J. De Pree was so impressed that he visited Nelson in New York and convinced him to be his director of design, which in turn prompted Nelson to found his own firm, George Nelson & Associates. The relationship between Nelson and De Pree yielded a stunning range of products, from the playful Marshmallow Sofa to the first L-shaped desk, a precursor to today’s workstation.
Nelson noted admiringly that Herman Miller “is not playing follow-the-leader,” and over their more than 25 years working together, George Nelson & Associates and Herman Miller shepherded design into the modern era.
Nelson said that for a designer to deal creatively with human needs, “he must first make a conscious break with all values he identifies as antihuman.” Understanding that a designer must always be aware of the consequences of his choices on people and society, Nelson, with the benefit of well-timed zaps, helped to define modern, humane design.