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Features / Opinion

Visual adventures in a world God never made: Michael Bierut on the genius of George Nelson

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George Nelson

Architect, industrial designer and writer George Nelson was responsible for some of the 20th Century’s most iconic designs. First published 40 years ago his seminal publication How to See on the power of observation and the interpretation of the world that surrounds us has remained a cult classic. The book has now been republished by Phaidon and has an introduction by Pentagram partner Michael Bierut, which we publish here alongside George’s photographs.

I wonder what George Nelson would have made of today’s image-driven culture. The ubiquity of smart phones and social media has made it effortless to take pictures to be shared with friends and strangers. But in Nelson’s day, the years in the middle of what would be called The American Century, taking a picture was no simple thing. As his friend Ralph Caplan remembered: “When you looked at a Nelson picture, or at a dozen of them, you did not wonder, “How does he get those effects?” You were more likely to wonder, “Where does he find things like that?” Later you would realise that the scenes George shot were everywhere for the finding: patterns and aberrations in the building environment. [George] noticed them and, in noticing them, revealed the patterns as extraordinary, the aberrations as understandable, and both as enlightening.

Taking a picture meant, first, carrying a camera. Reportedly Nelson never traveled without one of these bulky objects dangling from a strap around his neck. He snapped photos spontaneously and constantly, less concerned about the niceties of artful composition than simply recording the people, places and things that caught his eye, dozens of rolls of film at a time. Upon his return to his office, each roll and its 36 images would then be developed and reviewed. These images – most often 35mm slides – were then sorted, classified, and added to an archive that eventually came to number in the tens of thousands. Augmented by still more pictures of art, architecture and historical events from other sources, they comprised what Caplan called a vast “Ministry of Slides”.

Nelson’s fascination with images proceeded from his obsession with something he called visual literacy, “an ability to decode nonverbal messages.” He saw this as indispensable to our ability to think critically about the built environment, so often referred to as “man-made” but which he wittily called “a world God never made.” Nelson was quick to acknowledge this skill was often confused with innate and mysterious traits like taste or talent. But he was convinced that we could learn to read images in the same way we learn to read words: through experience, exposure and practice. How to See, published in 1977, is his primer.

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George Nelson was one of the figures who defined American design in the 20th Century. Certainly no other straddled so many fields or connected the talents of so many diverse collaborators. Born in 1908, he was trained as an architect and graduated from Yale University. He won the prestigious Rome Prize in 1932. Tellingly, he spent his two years at the American Academy in Rome not isolated in a studio, but travelling around Europe, meeting established and emerging architects like Mies van der Rohe, Le Corbusier, Gio Ponti, and Walter Gropius, eventually filing articles about each of them with the new American design journal Pencil Points.

Virtually unknown himself and still in his 20s, he was not only insatiably curious, but confident that the objects of his curiosity deserved a wider audience. Even as his articles from Rome were being published, upon his return to the United States he was appointed an associate editor at the magazines Architectural Forum and Fortune, an experience that not only consolidated his position as an emerging design thinker, but also exposed him to the principles of visual storytelling, how words and pictures could be combined to add clarity and force to his theses. It is worth noting that Nelson’s pieces in Pencil Points looked like no one else’s: with dramatic layouts, large photographs, and striking juxtapositions, it is clear that he intended the pages to be looked at as well as read.

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In 1935, Nelson established an architectural practice in New York with William Hamby, and their most significant commission, a home for the aviation entrepreneur Sherman Fairchild, was one of the first modern townhouses in Manhattan. Nelson approached the design of homes not just as an architect but as a product designer; the Fairchild house, for instance, employed new technologies like electrically adjustable window blinds and custom furniture pieces that integrated radios and telephones. For a book he was working on with Forum colleague Henry Wright, Tomorrow’s House, Nelson conceived something he called the Storagewall, a concept for a modular, architecturally integral storage system. Its publication in Life magazine got him appointed consultant to furniture company Herman Miller in 1945, where he would serve as design director over the next two decades.

During this period he had a hand in the production of many of the iconic objects – the Bubble Lamp, the Ball Clock, the Marshmallow Sofa – that are indelibly associated today with mid-century modernism. At the same time, Nelson thought big. In 1952, he and Charles Eames created an iconoclastic art program at the University of Georgia predicated on a vision of multimedia-based education which was perhaps half a century ahead of its time. With Buckminster Fuller, he designed the 1959 American National Exhibition in Moscow, which set the stage for one of the Cold War’s most memorable encounters, the “kitchen debate” between Richard Nixon and Nikita Khrushchev.

His consulting office worked across all scales and disciplines, from home to office, from small objects to complex systems, moving effortlessly and with authority between industrial design, architecture, exhibition design, graphic design, and interior design. At the same time, he was a tireless teacher, writer, lecturer and, above all, communicator.

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Inevitably, it was as a public speaker that all of George Nelson’s gifts came together. A complacent portfolio review of past work never would have suited him. Instead, his lectures were original, provocative, and even shocking. Such was his 1960 appearance on CBS when he delivered a talk called How to Kill People that was at once a deadpan history of weaponry and a devastating critique of a society that values death over life. His most ambitious presentation, U.S. Versus Us was a tour de force that combined slides, films, audio, and live speakers. A caustic indictment of the shortcomings of American consumer culture created for the Museum of Modern Art in 1960, it was subsequently seen by large audiences in Houston, Los Angeles, and San Francisco.

A later lecture, The Civilized City was more positive, documenting a more humane vision of urban life. As Vitra Design Museum curator Jochen Eisenbrand has observed: “As a popular prototype to [his] way of thinking, Nelson referred to Sherlock Holmes, who again and again baffled his assistant Watson as well as his readers with conclusions that were based on the ability to see more and establish more relationships than his counterpart.”

The unifying theme behind all of Nelson’s lectures – and, indeed, behind his life’s work – was a simple, and optimistic one: by seeing more clearly, one could make better, more thoughtful, and ultimately more humane choices about our manmade environment, that world “God never made.” How to See, 40 years after its publication, is a vivid testament to the power of this philosophy, and a potent tool that can enlighten, entertain, and educate us today.

How to See by George Nelson is published by Phaidon.

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George Nelson: How to See, published by Phaidon