Alexandra Lange | Essays

Objects Fall From the Sky

StorageWall, by George Nelson and Henry Wright, published in LIFE Magazine, 1945 (via Oklahoma City Museum, which has a Nelson show this spring)

Ralph Caplan writes:
During a period when some designers who had worked for him were complaining that they got no recognition for work they had done in the George Nelson office, George complained to me, “I understand that some people are saying that some of our products came from their ideas. Well, if they didn’t think they were hired to have good ideas, why did they think they were hired?”
I consulted Caplan when I was writing my review of The Story of Eames Furniture. I was nervous about my negative take on the book, and I thought I would ask someone who was there: Was Ray involved? Did Charles hate furniture? Where should credit lie? Now he has written his own take on the question of credit for AIGA journal Voice, "Where Credit Is Due," which includes the pointed remembrance above.

Caplan says the current kerfuffle over credits (re-run, to some extent, in the comments on my review) is an old story. Every generation, it seems, has to rediscover what working in an office, or being under the umbrella of "and Associates" means. While that doesn't mean that historians shouldn't pursue Harry Bertoia's contributions to both the wire chairs of Herman Miller and Knoll — it would be a shame if future generations failed to realize that the rival products were at one stage or another the work of one man's hand — we shouldn't forget to look at why or how one set is (to my mind) more "Eames" and the other more Bertoia.

It is obvious to anyone with eyes to see that Nelson furniture and accessories are not by the same hand. They have none of the family resemblance of Eames furniture, a topic I wish Neuhart's book had explored. Coconuts, marshmallows, owls and slats were the pet themes of different designers in the Nelson office. We should learn their names, but it doesn't mean Nelson was a bad man to have put the Herman Miller tag, with his signature, on their pieces. (And every time I run across one of Nelson's I.D. articles from the 1950s or 1960s I think the man didn't need to have "designed" anything to be a legend. The history I write retraces so many of his thoughtful steps.)

Consider the StorageWall, pictured above: do Nelson and Wright need to be credited with every wall of built-ins? It is an unanswerable question, like whether Alexander Girard is the father of the conversation pit. Or was it Saarinen?

Pioneers of American Industrial Design, July 2011 (via USPS)

Caplan opens with the upcoming issue of industrial design stamps, which have already generated some controversy for only including one woman — and possibly the wrong one. Along with credit to the USPS's design committee, it would be interesting if they could share their thinking on the selections. As I Tweeted, is Eva Zeisel, the most obvious missing women, considered a U.S, designer? And for the (mostly) 1930s, is one in 12 really under-reppresentation? In the 1950s, should Florence Knoll have made the cut? More to the point, Caplan says you can't fit all the designers of a teapot on a stamp, much less the stamp's designer. Journalists and editors, manufacturers and bloggers, should be better about crediting more than a single mind for an object. Attribution only proliferates as you pursue it. Transparency helps.

Meanwhile, for the general public, the larger battle is simply and continuously to prove that these objects don't, as Caplan quotes Julie Lasky as writing, "f[a]ll from the sky."

Posted in: History, Product Design, Theory + Criticism

Comments [4]

One of my pet peeves: If the NY Times can credit outside designers, why can't they credit their inside designers?
tom morin

Companies who intentionally fail to credit their designers in order to focus more attention on their own brand ultimately deprive the public the opportunity to follow an interest in the work of that designer. Sadly, few designers put their foot down and claim their right in fear of upsetting their client. Although...

An experienced industrial designer I once interviewed confided that his contracts with manufacturers included one clause that reserved the right to be credited. The next clause reserved the right NOT to be credited should the manufacturer fail to develop the product in line with the designer's expectations.
Tim Parsons

When it comes to credit at the Nelson office, there was a general rule, according to some of the old Nelson employees who I've interviewed that it was ok to give individual designers credit for the work they did in the Nelson office when it appeared in the trade press, while George Nelson got credit in consumer publications.

John Pile, who worked in the Nelson office, wrote a good article that appeared in Industrial Design magazine on the issue of attribution, entitled, "Credit, no credit or false credit."

Ernest Farmer is the furniture designer who doesn't get enough credit for his contribution to designing many of the early pieces from the Nelson office.
Paul Makovsky

I do worry that while the single credit simplifies marketing for the design firm and manufacturer it is a part of the asymmetry of the advantages going to employers over employees. I remember a period in the eighties when it was touted as an advantage to no longer be an employee, which was a wedge position for employees to pay for their own health care and (since they were not employees)
laid off with no benefits. At a point in time when wages are stagnating and most material benefits have accrued to a small percentage at the top this is not an entirely abstract issue. I would prefer to see it handled like most architecture offices do now where credit is broken down by the role played by the teams or individuals that worked on a project.
Doug C.

Jobs | April 13