New York City, summer 1980. I was a baby of 20 years working as an intern for the iconoclastic design master George Nelson–one of the most accomplished voices on design and architecture of the 20th century. He was a towering design hero to me, having defined much of what I knew as “modern” in design. I arrived eager to learn, but George spent most of his time in a closed office, thinking (or so I presumed). I wanted to chat but he was intimidating and unreachable, not even granting eye contact as he shuffled about the office.
I noticed that every afternoon at 4 o’clock sharp George would disappear for thirty minutes. One day I followed him. He was in the restroom down the hall–one of those turn-of-the-century huge pink marble rooms, shared by other offices on that floor. George was standing at an open window twenty-two floors above Gramercy Park, smoking a cigarette and drinking coffee. I remember his knobby profile, so distinctly silhouetted by swirling Marlboro smoke and a stunning New York skyline. His Mr. Coffee machine, which he retrieved from a hiding place, sat precariously on the sink edge. His wife never let him smoke or drink coffee, but in here he was a free man I guess. This was hardly a place to get to know one of my heroes, but it turned out to be a perfect setting for an afternoon design lecture.
I carefully engaged him, sensing that all I had to do was ask a few big naïve questions and his engine would start. I started with “So, Mr. Nelson, what is like being a designer”? Thoughtfully, softly, and cadenced as if reading, he began a protestation about everything–especially clients, society, and people, and how they don’t understand design. He ranted on, reminding me that “man ruins nature when he thinks too much”. Pointing at the cityscape, he proclaimed “junk is the crowning achievement of our civilization–just look at how it shines”…and here I thought as a design student that our crowning achievement was beauty. He was the most eloquent grumbler I had ever met.
Our 4 o’clock restroom lectures became a daily ritual for months after that. Topics cycled through beauty, art, philosophy, and science–but always reverted back to the hardcore sting of ugly realities: He wanted me to remember that.
George shocked me into a new awareness–he made me think, made me see, and made me mad. This is a great mix for a designer in today’s world, because lots of maddening things need fixing that require seeing and thinking to do so. Some are big and most are small, and we designers are phenomenal at fixing small maddening problems. They’re everywhere–in the home, office, schoolyard, and in every industry you can think of, and when fixed, they fuel desire, need, and capitalism. If you’re lucky, your solution won’t add to the junk–but don’t count on it. The trick is seeing through the haze–the massive cacophony of sight, sound and experience that is our contemporary world–to create something meaningful and lasting with your junk.
Junk that really connects with individual users. Now that would have made George Nelson smile.
[Nelson photo via Vitra]
Dan Harden is president and chief designer of Whipsaw, a highly acclaimed industrial design and product development consultancy located in the Silicon Valley. A consummate designer and prolific creator, Dan has been an industrial designer for 27 years and has designed hundreds of hit products for major corporations around the globe. He has been honored internationally, winning over 100 design awards, including Red Dot, Gmark, IDEA, ID, IF, and MDEA awards. He has also been granted over 150 patents.