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George Nelson discusses industrial design and the effects on people; part 1

BROADCAST: Jan. 16, 1962 | DURATION: 00:33:00


George Nelson discusses his impression of industrial design in Brasilia ,Russia, and American Main Street and how business is prioritized over what is better for people.


Tap within the transcript to jump to that part of the audio.


Studs Terkel George Nelson has been described as an industrial designer. That may be part of a truth, I think truth is far more profound than that. George Nelson is an architect too. George Nelson, our guest this morning, whom I've been wanting to meet for a long time. He's more than these two, he's more than just a social observer of the scene, a very perceptive one. He is, perhaps, in the words of Arthur Drexler, who wrote the introduction to his book. It's a compilation of a number of his essays. Problems of Design, says Mr. Drexler of George Nelson, 'for Nelson, variety is not the spice of life, it is life.' He says 'the work in progress, the first and most significant product to emerge from this study is George Nelson. He is his own best design' and I can't beat that for a description of a man who certainly can be described as an original thinker and cer-there's a great need for for a man of that of that quality these days. Well, Mr. Nelson, where do we begin with you? An industrial designer. We hear the phrase itself design, the word design has many, has many connotations. What is an, this is a relatively new profession in in the world [George Nelson coughs] of arts if you will, in the world commerce.

George Nelson I suppose as professions go it's a new one. It's 30 to 40 years old roughly. And it came about, I think, with a recognition on the part of some very bright guys that the products that were coming out of the factories, say in the 20's, and in Europe actually somewhat earlier, that these products might work better, look better, and be more saleable if someone gave some thought to their appearance in relation to their function and so on. And, as far as I know, the whole industrial design thing began with great emphasis on the design or redesign of products.

Studs Terkel The industrial designer, we have been told, who was involved in so many products that we take for granted today, whether it be a certain kind of refrigerator or certain shape of an automobile or a doorknob. We are told his objective is to make life more comfortable for people. Is that the, is that the objective of our-

George Nelson Well, I doubt it. I think he's just trying to make a living like a lot of other people. And if his objective is to make life more comfortable for people this is really too damn bad because this pursuit of comfort that has obsessed us for so long is a very deadly kind of thing. We've erected it into a virtue but it's actually very bad. You see, if you take the idea of comfort it leads you to a very funny conclusion. For instance, you might be sitting in a chair and say 'well this chair isn't very comfortable, I'll go and buy a more comfortable one.' And then you do that and presently instead of sitting up stiffly in say an old wooden chair, you're now falling asleep in a very comfortable chair. And if you then say 'what is more comfortable than a comfortable chair?' you get to a bed with a nice soft mattress where again you fall asleep. And this finally takes you to the notion that maybe the most comfortable thing there is is a coffin. So that I think the idea of comfort while the race has always pursued this. If you push it beyond a certain point it gets to be rather deadly. There's a thing called luxury which we confuse with comfort. Luxury, as I see it, isn't these ratty hotels in Miami that cost 50 dollars a day. You know and are full of 2000 colors and, you know, attract people who have nothing to do except show off to other people who are even worse than they are. But luxury, as I get it, is a kind of heightening of the sense of being alive. In Japan, for instance, you have a lot of experiences that are sort of luxurious. You take a bath in a wooden tub instead of a metal tub, for instance, and the wood happens to smell good when you get hot water in it. So, this is luxurious, although the bathroom isn't comfortable like an American bathroom. Or in the same country, I remember in one or two famous houses or palaces that I visited they had outside platforms that you could just get on in your stocking feet and the platforms were made out of split bamboo, which meant that in your stocking feet this was very uncomfortable, you know, it hurts your feet to stand on these rounded strips of bamboo. [coughs] But the idea was that you would be a little uncomfortable so you'd stay awake and enjoy the luxury of the view of the moon or a tree or a lake or whatever you were supposed to be looking at. I think we've gotten completely derailed in this country and in a number of other Western countries with this pursuit of comfort which, as I say, if you take it to its last logical-

Studs Terkel Would be death itself,

George Nelson Yeah, it takes you to a fur-lined coffin.

Studs Terkel Sense of being alive as that seems to be your prime objective as a man in this crazy complex of the twentieth

George Nelson Well, it ought to be anybodys. What else is it

Studs Terkel Well, you spoke of in in your series of essays. You knew Frank Lloyd Wright pretty well. You spoke of Frank Lloyd Wright's sense of being alive. How he confused a lot of people. His, when he made 380,000 bucks I believe in in Japan and came back broke, and they couldn't understand this man not being a wealthy man. But he he bought things that he liked very much with the Japanese painting.

George Nelson Yeah he always-

Studs Terkel Sense of being alive.

George Nelson He always threw the money away but he lived like a prince. And it was a quite wonderful thing. I remember after the depression I went out to Wisconsin to visit him. Well, it was well after I think it was 1937. And they had just gone through some real bad winters. They hadn't had enough money to buy coal to heat this tremendous house, and apparently, they were short of food at moments. Then the old man got a client and the client sent him a check for 15,000 dollars. And he rushed to Chicago. And he didn't buy coal or food, he got a harpsichord.

Studs Terkel This reminds me of something. As you said this [George Nelson coughs] he bought a harpsichord, not the coal. You know when, when Bessie Smith records first came out, the blues singer, the negro, the south. And many very poor negroes in the south lined up by the, in front of the record stores for blocks. They'd couldn't buy coal but they bought Bessie Smith records.

George Nelson That was very sensible of them because this would warm you longer.

Studs Terkel Yes. Isn't, isn't this, we come back. There are so many questions I want to ask you and all directly connected. You speak of the Western world that which America values. We, the richest country in the history of the world. At the same time, you sense in all of your writings and comments you sense a a deadliness here or a deathness that is every-we're surrounded by all the material wealth, the products of of your colleagues. And you to a great extent the beautiful designs. And yet, you said som-design does not substitute for life merely ornaments.

George Nelson Yeah. Also, the richness is a myth. The richness is just money. It isn't real richness. I don't mean the country is lacking in richness. There are lots of marvelous things that can happen here. But Europeans, for instance, tend to get a little exasperated. The more intelligent ones anyway, by our endless babbling about our standard of living. And a lot of them don't see it as a standard of living at all. And the the sharp critics say it's really a standard of dying, you know. They say what is the standard of living if a kid graduates from a good university and the next thing he's wondering is: what his retirement pay is going to be and whether he's going to die in Fort Lauderdale or St. Petersburg on a pension. You know, they're not sure that this is a standard of living. You, time was when a, maybe a man would want to have a nice Sunday, so he would get his family and they would walk across a couple of hills to a little pond and they'd have a picnic. Now you try to go out to the country or come back from the country on a weekend and this is a kind of purgatory with jammed lines of cars and all the rest of it. Well, this isn't anybody's fault maybe. But you could hardly call these cars the expression of a standard of living. All they are is the expression of the production of a lot of automobiles, which is quite different. And then you look at the housing. I just saw some in Chicago today. I don't know where I was exactly it was a little bit north of the loop and there were some brick and concrete high-rise apartments, so I suppose some urban renewal project and probably very conscientiously done by some good architect. But on a day like this when the sun wasn't very bright and it was kind of cold and you didn't see any leaves on any trees. This looked like, you know, the Lubyanka prison in Moscow, which actually is prettier. It was done in a sort of fake Renaissance style. But, you know, hardly a thing to lift your heart to look at these big lumps of nothing.

Studs Terkel Since you raised this point of urban renewal. You have a number of [coughs] very pungent comments and perceptive ones to make about that in one of your pieces. I think it was called Design and Values. You were was speaking of one of the finest examples of it and yet frightening examples in the city of Brasilia. You you you flew over the city of Brasilia in Brazil.

George Nelson I went down there last year and was absolutely fascinated because, like any genuine work of art, this thing is a very truthful statement about certain aspects of modern life. And not North American United States life, but modern life because Brazil has its own traditions and attitudes. And the thing that impressed me was, well in the first place, it was a startling sight because it doesn't look like any city any of us have ever seen before. It has all sorts of things that are authentically modern. For example, if you go to New York or here or Paris or London a major street can be recognized because it's lined with important buildings. Well, in Br-in Brasilia the main street in Brasilia looks like a superhighway that's about four or five miles long and it's been chopped off at both ends and this superhighway sits in a park so that you can't even recognize this main street as a street. So that I'm not being critical about this. Quite the contrary it's very nice to have a avenue set up this way, but it doesn't look like any street you've ever seen before. But then another thing goes on in Brasilia. I noticed a whole series of ministry government ministry buildings they ha-I suppose like anywhere else they have a Ministry of War and a Ministry of Peace and a Ministry of Attack and Ministry of Defense. You know, and all these idiot things that we pay so much money for. And there were seven of these things lined up and they all looked like the U.N. building in New York by which I mean they're thin slabs, quite high, and they have stone or marble ends and then the broadsides are all glass. And you can imagine a guy going to work in one of these buildings. It would be rather like New York or Chicago but even more so because all seven buildings were exactly alike. So you could see a guy getting out of a car or a bus and then counting because he couldn't recognize the building, you know, he'd have to count one two three. And if he could count up to seven then presumably he could find where he was going. Then he'd have to count when he got in the building. Did he go to the fifth or eighth or tenth floor because they all look alike. And when he got to his floor he'd have to count to find where his cubicle was because you couldn't tell the difference between the cubicles. [coughs] So you you got a beautiful, not beautiful sort of horrendous expression of say Brazil's organization man, who isn't too different from the United States variety. So he gets to work by counting you see. And then when the day is over he goes back to live in one of these superblocks which are a lot nicer than some of the housing things we have around here. But but the thing that happens is that the superblock buildings he lives in are also U.N. buildings. They're thin slabs and they have glass on the sides, sometimes they have this grillwork to keep the sun out which they've used in Brazil for a long time. And you really can't see any difference between the building he's living in and the building he's working in except for a little grillwork on it and the windows are a little bit different. So again he has to count you know.

Studs Terkel This sounds like something out of Kafka.

George Nelson Yeah, but Kafka wrote the modern world, you know. And we've been following his script, you know, very carefully. But, so he counts, you know, and again he's in building number 3 and the wife and kiddies are in apartment number X on floor number y. [coughs] And suddenly, while you are admiring the work done by these very very good architects, you realize that consciously or unconsciously they've made a very funny statement, which is that modern man isn't really a man anymore but a kind of comedy or tragedy thing depending on how you feel that day. And what he does is get up in a numbered thing and he feels his way out through all these numbers and he gets into a machine, whether it's a bus or his own car. Then he goes to another place and he feels his way into this with numbers and then a clock strikes and he feels his way out again. And you find it very hard to imagine what the difference is getting to be between a man and an ant or a bee. The only difference, I think, is the bees and the ants like it, and the men periodically rebel against this. But this was the main impression I got from Brasilia.

Studs Terkel And yet, the the moral of Brasilia, the reason I had raised it is, this would almost be the the archetype would it not? Of what can be of the new city or the new area urban renewalized?

George Nelson Yeah physically in all sorts of ways. Brasilia will be a better city in a sanitary sense than most of the older capital cities. It will have room for cars. I doubt if it'll have traffic jams, and I must say these superblocks where the people are housed do have a certain decency to them and so on. But it's what happens to the spirit in in this kind of archit-

Studs Terkel To the un-to the uniqueness of the individual.

George Nelson -but actually, I think what happened in Brasilia was that these guys told the truth better than equally good architects in other countries because they had a whole city in which to tell it. And the truth they tell is that modern man is really in some aspects a sort of pathetic character. And what's more, he seems to not mind it. He goes to these things and he adds up his retirement pay as soon as he leaves college, as I said, and apparently seems to think that this is living. Well, I think America has gone farther than the other countries in this direction of letting people turn themselves into mice or ants or bees or something but o-not because we're American only because we've we've had this whole modern technology industry thing harder and longer than the other countries. I have a horrible feeling that Europe is going to go down the same-

Studs Terkel It's imitating us.

George Nelson -dreary path. I I don't think it's imitation. I think it's the, I think it's the whole background of modern existence that always creates the same responses. For instance, you go to Russia and in spite of the fact there's supposed to be these tremendous differences between America and Russia it's not that different. Ownership patterns are somewhat-

Studs Terkel I think we should point out parenthetically that you were the chief designer of the American exhibition in the pavilion in Moscow. It was 1959 was it not?

George Nelson Yeah, that was-

Studs Terkel The Buckminster Fuller Dome and the umbrella ceilings.

George Nelson Yeah.

Studs Terkel Would you mind-

George Nelson That was really a ball that that time. We went there terribly excited and feeling terribly responsible because this was the first time that the United States had been given the opportunity to say its peace directly to the Russian people on Soviet soil. So that all of us involved in this project, which was a rather big one, were acutely aware of what was going to be said. And I don't mean just the designers. There were three government departments the State Department and U.S.I.A. and so on that were very deeply involved. And the president himself was very concerned that we should make a proper statement. And the thing got put together in a kind of panic. And there were all these endless snafus with the Russians who in one way were terribly friendly and helpful. But in other ways were constantly tripping us up. Maybe not maliciously, but maybe jealously, maybe just out of bureaucratic procedures. It was very hard to tell. But we had a wonderfully interesting time in this place and the Russians have always been known as very warm and outgoing people. And as far as anyone can see the Soviet type of organization hasn't changed their character in any way. Very agreeable folk.

Studs Terkel Yeah I didn't mean to interrupt you you. You were speaking of the similarities in in outlook toward this technological age we live in between the Americans and and the Russians the rest of the world.

George Nelson Well, the thing that we don't like about the Russians, and we make a great to do about this in our paper, papers, is that this is a totalitarian state. Which means that the state, whatever this is, it's very important and that the individual members of the state are not very important. They damn well better do what they're told or you know what. Well, this is indeed true as far as you can make out about Russia and the Russians. The people are not completely at ease. They're full of anxieties. And if you touch the wrong buttons they get very scared. And incidentally they've been this way for hundreds of years. The Czars I gather used to have secret police under every bed of any consequence taking everything down in shorthand. And I gather that when the Bolsheviks got in they didn't change things much. And the people can't read outside things very freely and you have to have all kinds of gilt-edged credit cards to get into the libraries to see the New York Times and all of that. So you have a totalitarian state. And the people are really pushed around. But then you look a little harder and you realize that all of Russia, as far as you can see, is set up like a large American or European corporation. You know, there is a holding company. And then there are a lot of subsidiary groups and then there are assembly plants and manufacturing plants. The whole thing seems to be organized in that way. And it's as if a modern industrial state can only organize on corporate lines no matter what it claims its id-

Studs Terkel No matter what its ideology

George Nelson Yeah. So then you come back here and you look into the smaller corporations where well in our case we sometimes work for some of these. Smaller only in the sense that they're smaller than all of Russia. [Studs laughing] And you find the same thing, you know, a guy will get fired for wearing a blue shirt in one company because he should be wearing a white shirt or he will be sent to Siberia, so to speak, because he's had the temerity to buy a big Buick instead of a small Pontiac, which is the proper car for his level in the company. And you run into this same kind of civil service thing. You even wonder what would happen in the United States if some of these corporations were socialized overnight. In other words, taken over in some magic way by the government. You get the feeling that none of the hundreds of thousands of employees would know or feel a difference. Or if in Russia suddenly the stock in their corporations were put on the market and they got bought up by private people. You have a feeling that none of this matters anymore. That the people who are working in these giant organizations A: don't know what they're doing and B: don't care and C: they don't care who owns them. Well, I'm as usual, oversimplifying, but we found lots of similarities.

Studs Terkel Within the the parable. Everything you say is kind of a parable, a parable that is true. Of Brazilia really applies to what you said your observations in Russia and your observations here.

George Nelson I would think so.

Studs Terkel Companies and

George Nelson And, you know, four five years ago Khrushchev made a little visit to Finland [coughs]. And he came back and delivered a big blast to the Russian Institute of Architects or whatever they call themselves. And he said 'look stop doing this Stalin gothic. Stop doing this crazy expensive Renaissance stuff. We have to put chains on the cornices on these buildings because they freeze in the winter and they fall down and kill people and so on. Why don't you go modern? You know like they're doing in Finland or New York or Chicago.' And before we left we saw some of the first Russian modern buildings which, if you saw them in a magazine, you couldn't tell them from a modern building in Australia or Rhodesia or Illinois or Switzerland. You know, a lot of glass, a lot of metal, not much fun. And all these buildings look much better if there are no people anywhere near them.

Studs Terkel So this a matter of similarities. It's not so much heartening as disheartening in a sense. And yet, you yourself are are far from a Cassandra. Though you are pointing out some of the illnesses in in our world, our society today. You're pretty affirmative in a lot of your writings. I mean the Grass on Main Street, this is your concept. Would you mind explaining this a bit? This was laughed at or shunned was it not some thirteen fourteen years ago?

George Nelson Oh golly it was-

Studs Terkel Today is accepted. Would you

George Nelson -longer than that. It was-

Studs Terkel Your observations of cities and-

George Nelson Yeah. Well, I forget exactly how this started. But I do know, do remember that I was looking at a lot of air views of the business centers of a number of cities. And what suddenly impressed me was that in each city there was a pattern of decay which you could see from the airplane. And that was that around Main Street there was a ring of what you might call blight. This was where the rich folk, when the town was much smaller, had had their houses, which would then become boarding houses and saloons and filling stations, and finally were just knocked down. And this pattern didn't seem to change from one city to another. And I got terribly interested because I thought this is like something in nature where there's a certain decay pattern and there must be a reason for it. And usually when something decays it's replaced by something else. So I then got out a ruler and began measuring the area that was not blighted. And one of the things that became clear was that outside of giant cities like Chicago or New York you could always walk from one end of this main street area to the other without any trouble. It was five, six, eight blocks. So, then this thought hit me like a ton of bricks. What a marvelous market place Main Street would become if you cleared out this rubbish that was already there, this valueless property. And you put in parking and ring roads and the rest of it. And then you closed off Main Street to automobile traffic because, as everyone knows, this is a disaster to let these cars in these shopping areas anyway. Well, this idea got some [match strike] terribly strong corporate sponsorship and it was published in magazines like The Saturday Evening Post and so on. In other words, you couldn't say that the American public had not been exposed to this thought. Let's say ten million people saw this proposal. I think I got one letter in two years as a result of making what seemed to me a terribly sensible proposal. And I called it Grass on Main Street because shortly before that there had been a a kind of campaign battle between Herbert Hoover and Franklin D. Roosevelt. And I remember that Mr. Hoover said 'if you elect this man Roosevelt grass will grow in Times Square.' And this may have been one of the reasons I voted for Mr. Roosevelt because this struck me as the most attractive idea I had ever heard of. So that, you know, we call this thing Grass on Main Street. Well, nobody paid any attention to it. And again I think nobody paid any attention to it because we've been pretty well brainwashed now to only think about things that have to do with business. We never really think about things that have to do with people. And the core of this Grass on Main Street idea was that the people would have a better time. Now maybe it would be better for business. It certainly wouldn't be worse. But the notion, really, was that it would be a nice place instead of a dreary place. And this, of course, didn't attract anybody who had money to invest because who wastes any money on people? They finally got around to it for a very cute reason which, perhaps you're aware of, as things got worse and worse and worse on Main Street in that whole part of town.

Studs Terkel Because of the outlying shopping centers?

George Nelson Sure. Some smart promoters came along and saw a way to make a real fast buck by buying some farmland on the outskirts near a highway intersection. They put in the parking spaces at which point everybody went out there because they had a place to leave the car. Well, this caused the merchants on Main Street, you know, acute heartburn because now money was involved. Well, the minute money gets involved, of course, they get terribly civic-minded. And now I gather a number of cities are playing this game of closing them to traffic and, if not planting grass on Main Street, at least putting in benches and trees and flower pots and all of that. I had a glimpse of the one in Kalamazoo, which does not have the most beautiful Main Street in the United States. Well, the most beautiful Main Street in the United States isn't very beautiful anyway. But it was quite remarkable to see how much perkier this place looked and how much more agreeable. And I understand it worked out well for business because they seemed to be adding still another block to this closed-off area.

Studs Terkel Well this plan is now being adopted in scores of other cities, isn't it?

George Nelson So I have read yeah. But I made the proposal much too early to cash in on it. And since then got interested in other things anyway.

Studs Terkel This is interesting about you. You made this proposal and it's been accepted now by other cities. It's somewhat, they might call a revolutionary, though you wouldn't. This is almost like the old world, isn't this like the old world galleries? People would-

George Nelson Well yeah sure. There was nothing great about this. Five hundred years ago people were building towns in Europe where you could shop in comfort. You know, this is no great invention. But we talk comfort and we pursue it, but actually, we rarely provide it for ourselves. It's like the great American bathroom which was something we used to be very proud of. And you could hardly see why because because this space was designed to accommodate three fixtures, and then if one or two people could get in to that was all right. You know, the builder didn't object. But no I think we talk.

Studs Terkel What's significant though about this is you went on to the you your your many interests is what intrigues me. You you make a comment more than a comment suggestion. It's accepted and apparently it changes th-lives for the better of a great many people do go on to other things. For example, yours is an education. I noticed you you don't oppose even though you're speaking of the effect of technology upon the human being today. And it's pretty devastating in spots. Yet, you see the tremendous potentiality in it too throughout in all your writings-

George Nelson Well, what's devastating-

Studs Terkel -how it

George Nelson -isn't the effect of technology on people, it's the effect of people on technology. See, technology is a very neutral thing, and it's the attitude people have towards it that's the only thing of any consequence. We look on this technology thing and the money it makes or the war power it creates, and in this we're absolutely neck and neck with the Russians, you know.