Reading George Nelson

God can only hand out so many gifts. The very beautiful are seldom great wits. The strong are not always kind. And those with artistic aptitude are infrequently eloquent.

If the parade of speakers at the School of Architecture’s recent symposium — “George Nelson: Design for Living, American Mid-Century Design and Its Legacy Today” — is to be believed, it seems that while God’s back was turned, George Nelson cleaned out his safe.

This past week’s symposium, and the accompanying exhibition, showcased the work of a rare polymath in the design world. George Nelson is a canonical figure in industrial design, credited with a share in the founding of American Modernism. He was equally gifted as an artist, architect and, significantly, as a writer.

Though Nelson may be best remembered for the bubble lamps, kite clocks and marshmallow sofas elegantly arrayed in Rudolph Hall’s gallery, his ability to clearly articulate a philosophy of design makes him an unusual figure. In a field where bewildering prose is often mistaken for a literary aesthetic, Nelson stands apart for his wit, lucidity and ability to incorporate a thoughtful, human perspective into a corporate career.

Nelson’s “How to See” is a book written for an idiot. The author assures us, his readership of “visual illiterates,” that we qualify as his target audience. In spare, graceful prose, Nelson explains very simple things in fine detail, enumerating the parts of an umbrella, explaining that highways have many signs with arrows and announcing the ubiquity of circles.

In this short illustrated text, Nelson attempts to train his readers in that “visual literacy” and in the process showcases a verbal acuity and philosophical perspective that is surprisingly rare in the design profession.

His is a philosophy more readily put into practice than a ponderous German’s, less dogmatic than a cult’s. It is a gentle philosophy that politely but insistently tugs on the edges of common perception and demands a reassessment. Nelson implores his readers, those who use his products, to carefully consider the objects surrounding them and to better understand their relationships to the stuff of the visual world.

As Nelson put it: “Seeing things is an intellectual-aesthetic exercise which increases one’s inalienable capital: riches that can be accumulated without cost and, once acquired, cannot be lost or stolen.”

Nelson applies the same level of care to his career as a designer of housewares, furniture and office seating systems; the objects that comprise the school’s current exhibition titled “George Nelson, Architect / Writer / Designer / Teacher.” This close marriage of design and philosophy results in a set of products that challenge their purchasers, critiquing and shaping the lives they lead. Nelson tore the numbers from clocks, put clutter in “storage walls” and turned workplaces into “Action Offices,” where furniture complemented an office’s flow of work. He altered the function of products and the course of daily events, rather than merely applying a style to an existing type.

Nelson’s lasting influence in the field of design may be measured by the fact that two of the world’s most radiant design luminaries were amongst the pilgrims to New Haven this week: Marc Newson, author of Quantas Airlines’ in-flight experience, and Jonathan Ive, Apple’s senior vice president of design, better known as the bald man with the British accent who assures you every six months that the new iPhone is “the best yet” from the depths of your now-obsolete “retina display.” Nearly 30 years after his death, Nelson’s work still draws prominent contemporary designers.

Nelson’s legacy, in addition to the clocks and lounges now adorning retirees’ homes and galleries alike, may well be the lesson that humanity, wit and eloquence are valuable design skills in themselves.

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