They kept coming out of me; I never went dry.
Irving Harper on his clock designs for George Nelson & Associates
The William Dorsey Collection
“Water, water, everywhere, nor any drop to drink.”
Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Like a thirsty man surrounded by saltwater, visitors to our midcentury modern home often glimpse more than 100, non-operating clocks on the wall and have this reaction. What use is a clock that isn’t plugged in and doesn’t tell time? The answer is that these are no ordinary clocks, as even a cursory inspection reveals. George Nelson and his team of designers—particularly Irving Harper—cared about function, but they were inspired by art, sculpture, innovation, and the philosophy of time.
A January 1, 1960 article in the New York Times put it succinctly. “Mr. Harper, seeking the soothing effect of shifting sands in hour-glasses, the mechanical wonders of eighteenth century clocks, and a new sculptural quality in time pieces, arrived [at the Motion Notion series]....By employing materials alien to clocksmiths of old, he has achieved a startling group of hypnotizing designs.” The designs are no less hypnotizing or influential sixty plus years later.
Born in Hartford, Connecticut in 1908, George Nelson studied architecture at Yale University, teaching for a short time before the Great Depression. In 1932, he won the Rome Prize and spent the next two years studying design in Italy. Returning to the states, Nelson sold his essays to Pencil Points and became an associate editor at Architecture Forum and Fortune magazine. After reading Nelson’s innovative book Tomorrow's House, then president of Herman Miller furniture company D.J. De Pree hired Nelson as design director. Nelson launched his first collection in 1947 and transformed the struggling company into a groundbreaking leader in the field. Nelson remained at Herman Miller until the mid-1960s, and was responsible for bringing Charles and Ray Eames, Alexander Girard and Isamu Noguchi on board.
In 1947, Nelson opened his own design studio, George Nelson Associates, Inc. which at one time employed over seventy people. The company’s work within corporate settings revolutionized the concept of branding and elevated industrial design to new heights. Throughout his career, Nelson continued to write critically about design across multiple planes, teaching and consulting until his death in 1986.