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George Nelson discusses industrial design and the effects on people; part 2

BROADCAST: Jan. 16, 1962 | DURATION: 00:31:20


George Nelson discusses consumerism, business in war and peacetime, destruction leading to creation, and what culture looks like.


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George Nelson They look on technology as a way of establishing a power position. We look on this thing as a kind of end in itself. And we're getting poisoned by it because, not because of the technology, which is dandy, but because of this curious notion we have of technology. We we've romanticized this thing and there's some notion that if your next car has a six-inch higher tail fin that something will happen to your soul, you know, that this will be like a dispensation of some kind. And.

Studs Terkel As well as the status aspects

George Nelson Well, the status aspects have always existed but they've never existed to the extent they do now. Because of this idiotic perversion of democracy we practice. We've arrived at the point where we say we believe that everybody is just as good as everybody else, which has never been true and never will be true. And as a result, we have elevated the second-class, third-class citizen to something he never should have been elevated to. When you sell this joker an electric shaver, for instance, you don't merely sell him this shaver, which incidentally is streamlined to look like the latest Jupiter missile or something. Not streamlined but styled. This shaver, which is maybe three inches long, comes in a box that's nine inches long that's all full of crests and armorial shields and all of this stuff as if this box were really meant to contain, you know, a priceless necklace that Louis the Fourteenth would have given to his wife or his mistress. So that we've elevated this undeserving joker to a point where maybe he actually thinks he is somebody. And as a result, the whole society is being polluted by second and third-class-

Studs Terkel So the low common denominator, the lowest then, and takes over and becomes the dominant factor-

George Nelson Yeah.

Studs Terkel -in aesthetics and everything.

George Nelson You know we pretend that we are the inheritors of the tradition of Tom Paine and Thomas Jefferson and all of these great lively guys. And this isn't this isn't true at all. We've actually perverted this thing into something they never expected it to be. In the days of Jefferson, who was a real Democrat, I think, because he was essentially an aristocrat, at least of the spirit. The elite was expected to provide a certain kind of leadership for the masses and the masses accepted that they were either stupider or more unlucky or less well-educated or less energetic or had a lower IQ, you know, whatever the thing might have been. And the elites set the tone for the society and, in effect, created the styles that were adopted by the society as a whole. Today you have a complete reversal in the in any of the mass media. For instance, take television because it's so terribly visible. You might imagine if you were naive that there was an elite that was creating stuff for these massive audiences. But you and I and almost everybody else know that this isn't the case at all. That the elite is actually a bunch of guys with ulcers who are waiting anxiously for the results of the last survey of what the masses think about, you know, this or that and which Western you do do you like or should there be more blood or less blood. Or do we need more togetherness in our soap operas-

Studs Terkel Isn't it true that the so-called elite that choose a dominant form, has the same taste as Joe Palooka basically?

George Nelson Not necessarily. It would be it would be. You know more about this business than I do. But I don't think that they necessarily have the same taste. The point

Studs Terkel They wanna sell.

George Nelson Like any good floozie, you know, these guys will dish out-

Studs Terkel Have something to sell.

George Nelson -whatever is wanted by the customer, you know. And if the customer wants it this way that's the way they get it, and they make more money than the average floozie but the philosophy is

Studs Terkel This leads to another facet of some more of your comments, George Nelson. The matter of what the objective of society is: is to sell. Earlier before we went on the air you were explaining what the objective of a manufacturer with all the good designs and everything is to do. It's to, not to have the consumer actually use it. He's not thinking of the actual human being who will buy it, but, what was the phrase you used? The retail and eventually of the of the ultimate of the ultimate destination: the junkyard.

George Nelson Well, the-

Studs Terkel Would you mind would you mind expanding on that?

George Nelson Yeah. You know, this is a terrible kind of two-bit drama in which there are no villains, which makes it sort of dull in a way. You get a nice bunch of guys who have a business and they're making something. There's something they've got to sell so that they can pay their workmen and get a new Cadillac every year and pay off the bank loans. You know, all the problems that businesses have. And when they're small they actually can think about the customer and some of them some of them do. But whether they want to or not as they get bigger and they get into these immense distribution networks pretty soon they're thinking about the retail dealer who may also be a very nice man and a fine upstanding citizen. But the retail dealer has his problems, which is to get the stuff out of there just as fast as he possibly can. And he isn't necessarily a greedy or a selfish man because [match strikes] the competitive situation in his town, which is any town, they're all alike, means that his margins of profit are not excessive, and therefore, he's got to move this stuff at a very rapid rate of speed. Well, at some point in this dealer's life he will finally become a man who doesn't care anything about the intrinsic value of the product because all the pressures on this poor devil, you know, which have to do with his getting along and putting his kids through school and all this stuff. Tell him that the product that sells is the good product. Well, the people who buy these products include an awful lot of morons, illiterates, and normally intelligent people who have been misled by advertising or other propaganda, or by status battles in their own little neighborhoods. You know, I have to get a bigger television aerial or power lawnmower than my rival next door. So that you begin to get this crazy circle that's going around where, in the end, nobody's making anything for anybody, and it all turns into a series of abstractions. In fact, in most businesses today I think it is, it would be possible to say that that nobody really cares very much what they are making. There are always exceptions to this. You know, there may be a guy in the automobile business who's nuts about automobiles. But generally speaking, I think that a man on an automobile production line will bang away at some part of a car. And if you transplant him to Oak Ridge, as happened during the war, he will bang away at something up a chunk of plutonium or whatever they used. And in this case, he was perfectly happy, although he'd been forbidden to know in that case what the end product was. You know, when that first bomb was made, you know, like in an automobile factory the work, by and large, is apparently so boring that nobody cares what they're making. At the accounting end of the business, nobody cares what they're making as long as the number comes out black. Well, when they finally got to the atom bomb factory they were forbidden to know what they were making and it didn't make any difference. The bomb came out and it worked just the way the car comes out and it works. In this case, we never got a consumer survey on how the customers felt about the bomb. Most of them were dead, and I suppose or the ones who weren't dead had other things to think about. But, you know, it's all the same really.

Studs Terkel It's parallel then of of industry in war too, the point you're making that it doesn't matter what is made so long as it's disposed

George Nelson As long as it's disposed of sure-

Studs Terkel I suppose the best example of this would be war itself, the making of something it's disposed of. You brought up this point before we went on the air.

George Nelson Oh no war from from this insane and anti-human point of view that it doesn't matter what you're making as long as the wheels keep turning, which is really a kind of description of a sort of mechanized lunatic asylum, which sometimes is an image that suggests itself. The only difference between war and peace. Well, there's several differences. One is that war is less boring than peace. Most people are pretty bored by peace. And the second thing.

Studs Terkel By a peace that is death in a sense, you mean. A peace that is deadly.

George Nelson Well, peace and war have gotten both to be rather deadly, you know. And the other difference is that war uses up the stuff faster. Now, war has recently undergone a very peculiar change. I mean war has suddenly developed a kind of kickback which really isn't cricket. You know, in the old days you could send the kids out and they could get killed and everybody could stay home and celebrate Armistice Day or something. This doesn't seem to be possible anymore so that war is becoming ineligible as a substitute for peace or good business or something. It's gotten a little dangerous, maybe, for the first time, but peace is also getting dangerous. I ride in the subways in New York on occasion and for a long time there they had car cards which said 'Did you know that there are 10 million people in the United States who are in need of mental treatment of some kind?' Well, I don't recall the name of the sponsoring agency that put up this card, but it was a kind of interesting figure because we've got 185 million people. 10 million or about what six percent of this population. But in this population, you have people over 60 or 65 who don't really count. You know, they're sort of out of the swim, and you have kids up to 15 or 16 or 18 who don't count because they aren't showing all the signs of mental. So you get this image of maybe 15 or 20 percent of the population that's being told it has some form of mental illness or other. Well, I can't vouch for the accuracy of any of these figures. And, you know, the subway maybe isn't the best place in the world to get all your facts together. But I was nevertheless struck by this number because, if there's any truth in this, even if they've doubled the actual number of mentally ill people in the United States, I would say that peace was getting quite dangerous. So that you really look at a rather curious spot that you're standing on. You know, war has gotten very dangerous. Peace is getting more dangerous. What should we look for? I think these are these ailments that we're enjoying are all, they belong in the geriatrics area. I think our period is coming to an end. And I think all of these upsets are part of the dying of a very great culture that's about exhausted itself.

Studs Terkel Would you mind expanding on this a bit? There's so many questions that you raised, and we'll come to those questions. Alienation. Man separated from the end product whether it's the, whether it's the young physicist involved the making of a bomb, a young brilliant young good-natured physicist who's good to his wife and kids and plays chess and he has Mozart. That's one aspect of it. [George Nelson coughs] Think of the nature of war itself and the impersonal aspects. Before I ask you about the way out, the affirmative aspects that you're involved with very much as a man and as a designer, as a thinker. There was a Camera 3 program that you conducted about a year ago, was called "How to Kill People." And you spoke of the development of war from a personal, man to man into the most impersonal of all aspects, and you said 'wars are won by designers and not by generals.'

George Nelson Well, this was in a way a joke. Unless by designer you mean these marvelously inventive engineers who do design these instruments. You certainly don't mean designers in my sense, you know, we don't have the kind of technical know-how that's needed to produce these instruments. But if you use designer in the general sense of a creative technician who's being, you know, who is really solving some very interesting problems, then you could say wars are won by designers. Maybe.

Studs Terkel But the the program itself. This is, involves little photographs here, reproductions of the nature of war and our society in the world today. How we value, how each society today value. No, there's no, no such thing as too much expense when it comes to putting out something that will destroy, but the human being is never considered in any of these matters.

George Nelson Well, 'course this is all changing, I mean war is getting to be like any other form of business. You have big staffs and you have conferences all day long and you have secret files just the way they do in the private corporations. And it it has gotten to be a very complex game and now the people are getting sort of superfluous and they're they're pumping in the computers. And the memory banks and all of these devices because people obviously can't cope with these problems. And some of the science fiction writers have had fun with this because they've carried this one to one of its logical conclusions which, is the people stay home playing tiddlywinks in their fallout shelters while the machines outside are banging away at each other and just having a ball. But you don't have to carry it that far. But it was very funny the way that program came about. They wanted some talk [match strikes] about design on this program. And so I sat down with a producer and I said I was a little tired of design talk that didn't interest anybody. That if you talk about whether this chair is more beautiful than that chair because the aluminum castings or the pipe legs or the carved legs are more handsomely proportioned you can put an audience to sleep real fast. And this is specialist talk or whether you talk about whether my living room is better in better taste than her living room, you know. But so I said I would be delighted to try a design show if we could pick a real [match striking] big common denominator subject, one that everybody was interested in. And one of the things that occurred to me was that this isn't the only subject everybody is interested in, but certainly, you know, people murdering people has been one of the most popular activities all the way through human history. There's I don't I know of very few periods when this wasn't a major sport. And, you know, tremendously interesting to people. You start by knifing your associate, you know, because you want to get the job he wants to get and you end up with Hiroshima or Birkenfeld or what or the circuses in Rome, you know, whatever it is. And, no people adore killing people. This is I mean you can't even argue about this. All the history they gave us in school tells you this very clearly.

Studs Terkel And yet despite what you say. I mean again, I am not contradicting you, I merely wanted to add, despite what you say. Now you you yourself George Nelson are not a cyn-you are, seem to be a cynic about the current state of affairs-

George Nelson I'm

Studs Terkel -and some of the suggestions you've made. You're not a cynic you say?

George Nelson No, a cynic is a kind of disappointed guy isn't he really? And one who tends to have lost his base and he doesn't believe in anything, or whatever, so he makes nasty cracks. I think this is quite different from observing a situation and evaluating it. You know, I think-

Studs Terkel The truth has to be pointed out

George Nelson Well, look. You know, a lot of people who saw this program were were shocked and they wrote in letters that indicated they had been deeply hurt by this by this crass point of view that I took, you know, and it seems to me that that there's no need to get terribly emotional about it. The proposition that people have always enjoyed killing people is either true or false. And if anybody wants to argue about that, that's fine. But if it happens to be true then it's a valid subject to talk about. And I took it: designers have been occupied in the design of weapons since the fir-first stone axe was made. It's a very interesting subject.

Studs Terkel Now, obviously, you are interested in people. This is pretty clear to me because even- not on-not only the the the essays you've written here I've read reprinted in this book, but the last sentence of your Camera 3 program. 'But if peace ever does break out we designers needn't worry. We'll find something else to do. Though it may not be so profitable, and personally, I hope it will have to do with people.' And again your comment if I, we wander and yet it's all part of a design. Your thoughts, about a year ago I heard you talk and you were speaking about some of the suburbs. Young suburbia and it was one specific one in the Midwestern area you are pointing out, and you said 'all young people, there were no old people there. There were no childless people there. There were no cemeteries there. In fact, there was just, they weren't really alive. There was no dimension to the community itself.'

George Nelson It's a funny thought that a cemetery can't come to life unless it has a cemetery. But it's true, you know, because then the life goes on more than one generation in the cemetery. It's the reminder that you're not just a sales campaign produced by a couple of excited people once, you know, that you really go back quite a way, and at some point, you'll be there and your children will go on so that maybe cemeteries keep communities young. It's another subject that could be debated I suppose.

Studs Terkel But is this, is this trend changing a bit, this trend that you you pointed out the danger of young suburbia. That is the young couples and the kids all living in small Brasilias. And yet, there was no differentiation between peoples that are the, is this changing? [George Nelson coughs] Is there more

George Nelson Not my knowledge. I think it'll get to be more this way because it's so profitable to put people together this way by classes. You know, you put up a thousand houses or apartments and you toss in a swimming pool or you give the community the ground for a school or a church or something and throw in a playground. And at this point, these desperate couples who have babies, who are living in the cities, will flock out there because this minimum gesture that's made by the promoter happens to be something they need and they can't afford it any other way. And there is so much mobility in these different social groups that the minute anyone can get out of one of these spots he goes into another one. Sometimes, I got through photographing a lot of these housing developments for our show tomorrow night. No, I can't say our show tomorrow night.

Studs Terkel That's all right. We'll cut this part

George Nelson You'll cut that out because it will be some other time.

Studs Terkel Last week.

George Nelson Anyway, I photographed, I took thousands of photographs of these housing tracts. And I began to get the impression as I went around and talked to the people who lived there because they'd always come out and say 'what are you taking these pictures for?' That there were no citizens left in these places, they were all borders. And you had a very funny feeling of no one belonging anywhere. And last of all in these strange desperate places with all these horrible little houses, you know, and that. So naturally, anybody who can get out of these places gets out. And then if they're real lucky in terms of career and money they finally moved to what somebody calls exurbia, which is where you have the one or five-acre houses and you have your own swimming pool and your own Sunday cocktail parties, you know, and your own this and your own that. And so people do get out of these places I gather as as rapidly as they can.

Studs Terkel What impresses me about you George Nelson before we come to your own suggestions, your own suggestion as to weigh out for us in this technological age, is you have the eye of the artist, it's the eye of an artist. I think in one of the other essays you pointed out that people reject some of the modern artist because they are said to deal with too much decay too much excrescence. And yet, you point out that the newspaper does too. That is the daily news we read-

George Nelson Yeah.

Studs Terkel -gives us the same amount of decay as disguised as news. Yet, the artist points it out so truthfully that people turn away, just as you point out certain truths so clearly that I for the moment turned away, do you see?

George Nelson Well, they get very unpleasant. And the notion that we're on the toboggan which is the favorite theme of the Cassandras these days, you know, to the extent that there seems to be any truth in this is always depressing. But it's only depressing depending on your point of view. And this is another thing that I think we could all profit from, perhaps. Realizing that the description of a phenomenon, let's say that we're cracking up. There are plenty of people around saying we're heading for the [bow wows?] or going to hell in a bucket or something or other. Let's say they're right say, well if you if you look at this from the point of view of the guy on the toboggan and you, you know, you see this big rock down there around the curve and you can't get off. You would then describe this as a disaster. And let's say it's the United States now that you're talking about. But Mr. Khrushchev's description of this event would be quite different. You know, assuming that this crackup occurred. He would make a ringing speech about how the whole cause of world progress had been advanced, you see, by this event, and that humanity was now going to march forward with a few more obstacles removed. It would be the same event that was being described and in one case it would be looked on as something really dreadful.

Studs Terkel The movie Roshomon. Remember the-

George Nelson Yes yes-

Studs Terkel -Japanese

George Nelson -where.

Studs Terkel -one event seen through three, through different eyes, pairs of eyes.

George Nelson Well, there's something and I don't know much about physics but I think there's something in physics these days about, you know, the meaning of an event is relative to the position of the observer and the speed at which he is moving and all the rest of it. And maybe in some vague way, I'm talking a kind of pseudo-science talk without really knowing what I'm saying. But getting to something I'm more familiar with, which is, you know, the everyday description of an event. What's going on at the present time can be interpreted in many many different ways. Sometimes you wonder about guys like, say Michelangelo, who was an early Renaissance type. And very few people had it as good as Michelangelo, although he was a very disagreeable man. He got the best jobs that were handed out. And in this period the people who handed out the jobs were the popes primarily. And in spite of the fact that he was always getting into jams with these popes, you know, Michelangelo had all the business he could handle for an artist. You know, he was in great demand and it must have been very satisfying. Well, you wonder sometimes what would happen if you could go back and interview Michelangelo and say 'dear Michelangelo how do you feel about the collapse of the Middle Ages?' Which it occurred not too much before him. And you could see him rubbing his hands and say 'best thing that ever happened,' you know. If those outworn old so-and-sos hadn't been swept away by the broom of history where would I be? Where would we be? You know, they'd still be making these dreary cathedrals. This would have been his attitude.

Studs Terkel So then to draw a parallel, to apply it to today. You speak of what you sense is the end of a culture. What will replace it? What kind of people shall we say, or, this, assume then the element of decay because you speak continuously of creativity and destruction. And that is they go hand in hand do they not? The farmer uses-

George Nelson Well, this is a very subversive idea. It's very anti-American or at least anti anti-

Studs Terkel Status quo.

George Nelson Well, anti-chamber of commerce or Rotary Club or something. We're always, you always hear these pompous guys say 'evolution is preferable to revolution' you know, big deal phrases like that. Well, any kid who's ever taken biology knows that in biology, in nature, there's no there's no difference between revolution and evolution. I mean, they're absolutely linked as part of one process. Similarly, you can't convert an egg into an omelet without destroying the shell. You know, it's a very destructive act to break an eggshell because eggs are so beautiful. But if you want an omelet you gotta bust it. And we had to get rather destructive around 1776 in relation to a British government, a British king, all of whom must have felt terribly self-righteous about how they were treating us. We were just a bunch of colonists and we had to shoot a lot of these guys and get shot in order to create this marvelous thing called the American way of life or the American standard of living or whatever it is we've got now. And we've forgotten, you know, that we once went out and threw rocks at these people and shot them between the eyes and helped them get frostbite and everything else. So that, you know, anyone who who believes that you can create without some kind of preliminary destructive act is deluding himself. This is one reason I think that in many areas we've become too fearful to create because something does have to be smashed. Modern-

Studs Terkel The destruction in this instance is pretty much self-destruction rather than from an outside force-

George Nelson Well, look if you don't create something somehow. You know, you've had it so that you either destroy the egg to make the omelet or you destroy yourself by never breaking the egg so you don't get the omelet so you starve to death. You know, it's one or the other. And we're very unrealistic in our attitude towards these processes that are very natural processes. And I've been very amused to find that it's almost impossible to suggest that you think maybe this society of ours, I'm talking about the Western world, not, or the modern world, not the United States, may be cracking up or disintegrating because it sounds terribly subversive. And at this moment you have a feeling that a band should start playing and the speaker should be drowned out because nice people don't talk like that. And but the fact is that you should be able to describe this phenomenon objectively and realistically. And it isn't that it's necessarily a bad thing what you're talking about. You see, again, everything depends on the observer's view. And when I talk to myself about our culture I don't mean something that was introduced by the Ford Motor Company in 1908 or by the Baldwin Locomotive Company in 1870 or anything like that. I'm thinking of something that's lasted for five centuries and it looks to me now that we're close to the end of it like one big period. And you could, you, the way I describe it to myself is: I call it the age of materialism. And incidentally, there's nothing very original in what I'm saying. Better men have said the same thing or similar things 20 30 40 years ago. So in a way, these are thoughts that come to one but they're not necessarily, it isn't necessarily the first time they've ever been expressed. I don't want to make any claims in this department but-