What is the crowning glory of your civilization… the symbol as clear a statement as the pyramids, the Parthenon, the cathedrals? What is this symbol? What is its name?
Its name is Junk.
Junk is the rusty, lovely, brilliant symbol of the dying years of your time. Junk is your ultimate landscape. – George Nelson, 1965
The ball clock. The slat bench. The bubble lamp. I’m not suggesting that these specific icons of mid 20th century design are junk, but their wild popularity has continued to spawn a flood of cheaply-made imitations in the last years. On a more positive note, they’re a testament to the strong influence of George Nelson (1908-1986), the great designer who helped chart the course of American Modernism towards functionality and purpose for over 50 years.
After completing degrees in both art and architecture, Nelson began what many see as one of the most successful careers in the design world. It started when the young graduate decided to tour Europe and interview the leading avant-garde designers in the hope that he could sell his articles to a publication back home. The the idea paid off: American readers were soon introduced to the likes of Walter Gropius, Mies van der Rohe, Le Corbusier and Gió Ponti. And it earned Nelson the respect of D.J. DePree, the head the Herman Miller Furniture Company who asked the young architect to be his new director of design. The Howard Miller Clock Company, headed by financier Herman Miller’s son, contracted Nelson in 1947 for a series of clocks and bubble lamps, winning Nelson more respect in the design world.
It was during this time that Nelson truly began to develop his design experience on multiple fronts, creating packaging, corporate logos for his own firm, solving interior design problems, and through countless conferences, essays and articles, explored design in its entirety, looking for solutions and an answer to the demand for modern products, all created by the new post-war prosperity.
Nelson was not one to simply push product for the sake of corporate success; he made it a mission to help people see that there was a rational process driving good design, one that would clearly benefit those who trained themselves to look beyond visual style.
This philosophy was evident in one of his earliest designs, a flip clock, which he designed for Howard Miller. Miller’s own sense of engineering (he learned clock making from his father in Germany) paired well with Nelson’s American ingenuity, which in this case was focused on making the actual mechanical processes visually evident. Whereas many flip clocks of the ’60s and ’70s were made from plastics (take Gino Valle’s Cifra 3, for example), Nelson’s flip clock is much more tactile. The internal mechanisms are beautiful, the materials elemental, the entire clock an encapsulated sensory experience. Nelson chose to display the miniature engineering feat in a glass case (not plastic or bakelite) and finished it with natural walnut accents.
The designer is at his best when he uses those natural materials such as walnut, rosewood, or maple in his office furniture, or ceramic and steel in his clocks, and a simple clean geometry that communicates functionality and beauty as much today as it did 50 years ago. These sober examples of his work lack the commercial kitsch of his more playful pieces, but may be truer representations of what he refers to in his 1965 speech as the “crowning glory” of civilization. They are most definitely not “junk”, but carefully thought out solutions for living. These designs demonstrate a beautiful logic much needed in a synthetic, plastic world where junk has flooded the market in the years since.
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Images of Clock by Frank and Oliver.
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