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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.