America and the rise of furniture design
Considered one of the founding fathers of American Modernism, George Nelson, trained as an architect at Yale before turning to product and interior design.
His long association with office furniture and equipment manufacturer Herman Miller, where he was design director from 1945 to 1972, and the success of his own company George Nelson & Associates, which he founded in 1955, confirmed his position as one of America’s most commercially respected designers.
Under his direction, these two companies produced many of the 20th century’s most iconic pieces of furniture, in collaboration with American luminaries such as Charles and Ray Eames Harry Bertoia, and Isamu Noguchi.
Nelson was also a prolific writer, and his pre-war meetings with, and subsequent articles on, several members of Europe’s design elite, such as Gio Ponti, Le Corbusier, and Mies van der Rohe, helped introduce America to these Modernist pioneers.
The concept of a mid-century design movement was readily embraced in the United States.
Fuelled in part by pent-up consumer demand, affordable mortgages for the returning soldiers, and a baby boom, the country’s post-war recovery was fast and unlike its European allies, America hadn’t suffered the devastation of its major cities or the subsequent shortages to hamper the rebuilding effort of its economy.
Country dwellers flocked to the cities and demand for everything from cars to furniture spiralled. The new, more organic forms on show were a refreshing progression of the more rigid International Style, and they worked well in the interiors of the light and airy American suburbs of the era, a style often referred to as “California Modern”.
The large American design companies such as Knoll, Herman Miller, and George Nelson courted the best of the European designers and rode this wave of design excitement and popularity.
In fact, the pre- and post-war migration of many influential Europeans made for an extremely cosmopolitan roster on the payroll of most design studios.
For example, the son of Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen, Eero Saarinen had moved to the United States with his parents in 1923.
His close working relationship with Charles and Ray Eames highlights the Scandinavian influence on the Mid-Century Modern movement, and Saarinen’s designs for Knoll typify the sculptural, comfortable, and organic forms of this era. His Grasshopper chair, Womb chair, and Tulip chair are rightly considered design classics. More about these later.