The Buyable Past

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George Nelson said he got into furniture design by accident, and indeed the architect didn’t actually create many of the mid-twentieth-century modernist icons synonymous with his name. The bubble lamp, the coconut chair, the sling sofa, and others he’s commonly credited with were styled by associates in his New York City office.

A 1950s Spike Clock, sometimes called a Starburst.
 
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George Nelson said he got into furniture design by accident, and indeed the architect didn’t actually create many of the mid-twentieth-century modernist icons synonymous with his name. The bubble lamp, the coconut chair, the sling sofa, and others he’s commonly credited with were styled by associates in his New York City office. Nevertheless, Nelson was the maestro whose baton cued their creative efforts, and his relationship with the Zeeland, Michigan– based Herman Miller Furniture Company, which employed him as design director, assured their production.

The firm’s president was an early convert to modernism, and in 1945 he coaxed Nelson into working for him in exchange for a $20 fee for every drawing the firm used plus a 3 percent royalty on each piece sold. Designs flowed in freely from Nelson, who also wooed gifted outside designers like the sculptor Isamu Noguchi and the husband-and-wife team of Charles and Ray Eames. “Make everything that Eames designs,” Nelson instructed, “and don’t show it to me. I don’t need to approve it.”

A replica of Nelson’s ball clock.
 
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In 1947 a related Miller-family firm, the Howard Miller Clock Company, needed new models, and Nelson’s principal associate, Irving Harper, conjured up a cluster of fanciful creations. The best known are wall clocks without numerals. One, based on Niels Bohr’s planetary model of the atom, has radiating spokes terminating in balls. Another mirrors the asterisk symbol, and there’s also a sunburst, a turbine, and even a large, voluptuous sun-flower with bent plywood petals. All possess a cheerful simplicity that visually reflects the sunnier side of their era.— David Lander