George Nelson, the designer and writer, thinks some offices may have too much peace and quiet.
"Not so long ago, I was trying to write an introduction to a Cooper Hewitt Museum's catalogue. I finally got fed up with it and went down to the Player's Club. People were playing Backgammon which brings out the beast in everybody. The pool players, as a matter of course, were insulting each other. And the usual cast of actors were pitching their voice to the mid - balcony.I sat there at a table, with nobody paying any attention to me, but where I could scan things for 15 seconds while I remembered the point I wanted to make. And I got the writing done in half the time.
"A window would have worked just as well for distraction I've discovered that concentrated work won't work. You get itchy and restless. You need some excuse to change pace. Distraction is an essential ingredient in work. Such questions of how people work are deliciously complex."
On the other hand, Nelson worries about people being trapped into listening to other people's phone conversations - "it's almost impossible not to listen if you're in the same business. It matters much less if the conversations are strangers." And he worries about people listening to your call when you have to yell at your husband or the credit department.
"With all this hardware that people are moving into offices - especially computers - the whole system of office furniture and design must change. Offices are beginning to resemble factories - we have to move all those tools around. We can't have fixed walls anymore because the technology changes too fast.
"The problem is that so few people think about how human needs fit into all this. People need to have place on their desk to put a picture of their dog and their high school athletic cup."
In a letter he wrote: "The office is well on the way to becoming the No. 1 work place in the society. My concern with the office is both as a designer of furniture and as a space planner, and the exciting problem is presents is that of creating humane working environments. The present solutions, like everything else we do, reflect our inability to see people as anything but things - the universal ailment of technological societies."
He is the first to admit, however, that "design cannot transform a dark brown little life into a large, brightly colored one."
His own office (where he welcomed visitors the other day with tea, served on a Japanese red lacquer tray by a draftsman) is not the sleek Impress-the-Clients place you might expect of his international reputation. But it is very comfortable and efficient. The building is old and handsome with ceilings 12 feet high and windows that actually open. His desk is low - almost a coffee table - with a marble ash tray and a marble cylinder for pencils. His guests sat on a long black leather sofa. He sits in a chrome and leather chair, one leg thrown over the arm. His waste basket is straw. On a wall is a plywood cutout of a church. A swing arm lamp lights the desk.
Behind a cork board divider is his hideaway, with a typewriter (he types his own letters - letter perfect) and a drawing board. One wall is covered with pole bookshelves - a Nelson invention. An industrial metal lamp-shade hangs over it. The drafting room, around the corner, has the best location with its south light and the plants left over from a draftsman with a green thumb.
Nelson himself looks a bit like a Japanese kokeshi doll (which he collects).He has a rather round face, black hair and wears large dark glasses. The other day he had on a scarf knotted at the neck of a striped shirt. He walks a bit slower now after a bad illness. He was 70 in May, no matter how spry and young his ideas. He still jets around the country lecturing and consulting.
As he moves to working largely as a consultant, he's spending a great deal of time thinking about offices - one of his biggest recent projects was one to hold 900 people for the Aid Association for Lutherans in Appleton, Wis. He'd rather think about the cosmic problems of cities, but at the moment nobody is paying him to think about that.
His "Grass on Main Street" -a concept that ran during World War II as a public service advertisement of Revere Copper Company and later as a chapter in his indispensable book, "Problems of Design" - paved the way (you'll excuse) for the pedestrian shopping mall.
Nelson's suggested remodeling existing town centers, by closing the ends of streets and adding pedestrian arcades, restaurants, theaters, flowers, plantings and parking and even merchant-subsidized baby sitting. The concept is just now beginning to catch on in such projects as Arthur Cotton Moore's Baltimore downtown plan.
He still worries about cities. "I wonder how the young people are going to be able to afford houses anymore even on two salaries. We're running out of land. We may have to become a nation of renters. Everything seems less permanent. Marriage is looser.
"On the other hand, it's great the way a lot of young people have been willing to take on remodeling derelict structures themselves. Across the street from my office, there's an old industrial building being remodeled for housing." Nelson points out that his own apartment has been a better investment than stocks or bonds.
On modern design, Nelson feels with architect Philip Johnson and his controversial predimented AT&T building in New York City that it's "high time things got dinguses on top. If you walk around cities you can see wonderful things on the tops of old buildings: pyramids, gothic spires, pikes.
"But for a long time we have been building topless towers wall-less plazas with abstract sculptures in the front. Without walls, plazas look like parking lots. They also cause turbulence - strong gusts of wind that even keep the pigeons away. And abstract sculpture, supposed to show culture, often has no direct involvement with people."
Nelson's ideas for the city reminds him of the time he visited a friend in Paris a man who made automatas - mechanical figures. Nelson thought the friend's apartment was rather small - no real living room. And he wondered how he got along.
"Then his wife had to go to the bakery and asked me if I'd like to come along. It took us almost two hours to go around the square. We bumped into neighbors and talked. Every so often someone would pull a child out of the street and back on to the sidewalk. The old people in the park took care of children playing there. Everyone was safe. We stopped in a cafe and had a coffee. And then in struck me. The streets, the cafe, the park and the sidewalk, they were the living room."
His own style is much like his Paris friend's. He walks the two or three blocks past Gramercy Park to a splendid old Beaux Arts building. Nelson and his wife Jacqueline have an enormous apartment by New York standards in the building overlooking the park. A long hall runs the length of the apartment, giving all the major rooms south sun.
The furnishings are not at all like the story he wrote (in Interiors magazine) about an architect who was able to get his houses published in the slick "shelter magazines" by fitting out his station wagon with a photographer, cameras and lights, a large rubber plant, two Alvar Aalto stools, two butterfly (Hardoy) chairs, a kidney-shaped coffee table and a "few pieces of prehistoric pottery," and taking them around from job to job to replace his client's mundane, old-fashioned stuff.
Nelson himself is a great collector of everything: artifacts, posters, a mahogany bust of the Haitian Napoleon Jeane Christophe, gadgets (a mini-cassette recorder, many cameras), and pilot designs of furniture that were too expensive to produce. On the other hand, there's nothing cliche-modern about his own apartment. "Everything that's nice about it would be considered wrong today" he said as he opened the door to his visitors, after a pleasant stroll by the park from his office.
In the living room, with its bays and odd corners, is a wonderful conglomeration of things: stained glass; a Mexican figure; drawers in a metal frame to hold prints flat; Le Corbusier chairs; sofas he calls "antique Herman Miller - there was a time when the fashion was to have sofas that looked as though they were made of concrete; the big pillows today make them more comfortable;" cactus plants, a Buddha, a little chest made to look like a Swiss Village. He designed the shelf storage system that covers a whole wall.
One of his three sons (18 through 34) who served in the Peace Corps in Africa now has an import-export business, with his father as one of his best customers. On one side of the room safely out of the sitting pattern, is a Victorian sofa. "We beggered ourselves to buy and repair it." Nelson said "Modern sofas are all right to sit on, but who wants to look at them?"
Fireplaces here and in the dining room work, but the flues are leaky, Nelson said. All the walls are white. There are "three or four bedrooms" one equipped with a desk where he types most of his articles and letters.Several arches add grace to the space - "They came with the mortgage," he said. All through the house simple shades are used instead of heavy drapery. "Blinds would have cost twice the price of the apartment," Nelson said. He doesn't like curtains.
The dining room is charming. A great storage cabinet was one of the projects that proved to be too expensive. On one wall is a pitch penny wheel, brightly colored, which he and his wife persuaded the owner to sell him during carnival in Trinidad. A Polish movie poster is on another wall. The table is a classic butcher's "unbeatable design," said Nelson.
Most of the changes in the house were made in the kitchen, to Nelson's design. (The bathrooms are original, with the big bathtubs.) The kitchen is very efficient and neat with glass-fronted cabinets, butcher-block counters and a wall of storage with the refrigerator tucked in.
Nelson himself is not just a theoretical designer. He has a screwdriver and knows how to use it. He and his wife remodeled a house in the country - "I repaired cracked plaster, planted dahlias. The other day I bought Time/Life's book on plumbing."
As the most literate - and funniest - writer on design in the country (to a number of us) he has also presented us with the Theory of the Dead End Room. That's the one that says everybody, at a party will sift into the room that has only one door, no matter how small or cramped.
Nelson is probably the only magazine editor and writer to also practice design in our century - as a writer and editor for Architectural Forum and Time, Inc. for 14 years. He also wrote three books and edited four. His first book, "Tomorrow's House" (with Henry Wright), was a major influence on housing design for the 1950s.
Nelson graduated from Yale (he was a freshman at 16 and lonesome) in 1928 and from its School of Fine Arts in 1931. While he was in school, he regularly won Pencil Point's prize for drawing ($25 - "It would buy you the best meal in town." Finally, it got to be so embarrassing, Pencil Points hired him (for $50) to do an article about how to win the prize.
"Nelson won the Rome Prize in Architecture in 1932 and then a year at the American Academy in Rome. In between, he supported himself in Europe by interviewing leading European architects of the day, introducing them to the United States, many for the first time. The Depression was on then, with little building going up, so Nelson was fortunate to be able to write about architecture. The success of his profiles brought him the job as associate editor for Architectural Forum. "Writing is easier than designing anyway," he said.
Nelson is credited (or blamed) by many for inventing the technique of all those audio-visual shows- the ones with the tape-recorded lecture with background music; three projectors with lap dissolve effects; slides of close-ups of leaves and shells, and cross-eyed viewers. He organized the highly regarded mutli-media exhibition at the American National Exhibition in Moscow (1959) with the movie that ended with people all over the United States kissing each other goodnight.
He started it all when Lester Dodd at the University of Georgia asked him to think how art education could be disseminated fast and without pain. Nelson enlisted Charles Eames - and perhaps that's how Eames and his wife Ray switched from designing chairs to communication.
Nelson's most recent book (another will come out this fall) is published by Little, Brown and Co.: "How to See - Visual Adventures in a World God Never Made." Since it was published, he has received some grants to devise ways to train people to see design - in kindergartens or corporations.
In the book he rages that "an overwhelming majority of adults, way over 90 percent, cannot see except in the most primitive sense, such as identifying a neighbor's dog or a traffic light. . . ."