Design Story: The Nelson Swag Leg Collection
50 years ago, in a meeting at Herman Miller, history was made. Folks were talking about furniture, about design, and about how to make something new and beautiful for their customers to put to use. An energetic man, an architect, an author, a journalist, a teacher and a designer, had an idea. "Wouldn't it be beautiful to have some kind of sculptured leg on a piece of furniture?" At the time, this had really never been done; sculpting metal in an industrial sense was somewhat beyond the pale. But the man, George Nelson, Director of Design at Herman Miller and one of the giants of the American design industry that got its big-bang start in the 40s and 50s, stayed with the idea. He wanted to use it to make a desk; a desk that was efficient, that was cost-effective, and that the buyers could put together themselves with little direction or difficulty when it was shipped in flat boxes. He succeeded, and the result is a bit of design history.
The look of the desk is iconic. The thin but sturdy legs, which taper elegantly to the floor, support a clean, crisp desk surface. The plane of the desk, where the work would be done, extends outward from a kind of porch on the back end; a porch meant to serve as both storage space and display; as a shelf. Built 50 years ago, before the advent of the cubicle and the modern "workstation" with an L shaped desk and plenty of shelving and storage, this was a major feature, and a major innovation. Today, though it's no longer revolutionary, it is classic and lovely. The surface of the desk is white, offset by the oiled walnut tones of the sides and supports, and the contrast is never less than perfectly matched, elegant, and somehow visually arresting. This is the Nelson Swag Leg Desk.
The Nelson Swag Leg Desk, and the entire Nelson Swag Leg Collection, have endured as major pieces of design for many years. George Nelson, who created the collection, was one of Herman Miller's earliest major designers, and one of their most important contributors and administrators. It was Nelson who brought in Charles and Ray Eames to build furniture, and it was Nelson who had a great hand in creating the Herman Miller brand we all know today; a brand that carries with it a deserved reputation as the most esteemed, classic and fine furniture maker in America.
The Nelson Swag Leg Desk and the Nelson Swag Leg Collection carry that reputation as well, and for good reason. They are beautiful pieces of furniture with elegant and innovative designs; they are decades old modern furniture that still looks fresh and timeless, still looks great in your office, dining room or bedroom. They sport some of the first machine-tooled sculpted metal legs ever distributed in this country. They show off an impressive walnut joining system that keeps the desk and tables together, while never betraying the calm and classic look. They fit almost anywhere, from the home and corporate office to the home, and they're extremely efficient pieces of design, accommodating just what a worker needs and little more. They have shown an impressive ability to change along with the world; their measurements are just right for laptops, books and CDs, MP3 docks, and all sorts of small scale electronic developments. It's hard to believe that a desk and a series of tables built over 50 years ago could have all of those attributes and more, but the Nelson Swag Leg Desk was as radical and inspiring during its heyday as it is classic and in-sync in the present.
Almost as impressive was the finishing touch Nelson gave to the collection; The Nelson Swag Leg Chair, a seat that took the amazing technical strides that Charles and Ray Eames were making with their molded plastic furniture, and married them to the bold technical genius of the Herman Miller engineers and George Nelson himself. The Nelson Swag Leg Chair is a remarkable piece of design. The chair itself is two pieces of molded plastic, manufactured using techniques invented by Charles and Ray Eames (the designers gave their full permission and blessing to Nelson, a close friend who was responsible for bringing them into the Herman Miller fold in the first place).
However, unlike the egg-shaped molded plastic chairs the Eames' made, the Nelson Swag Leg Chair was split into two separate parts, seat and seat back, that were glued together at the juncture of the armrest. This was excellent design, for several reasons, not least of which were increased flexibility, less heat buildup, and a more modern, contemporary look that wouldn't be out of place in any home or office in the 21st century, though it was built in the 20th. The Nelson Swag Leg Chair is an original piece of art created form the melding of two previously explored, but still new, technologies. It fits in perfectly with the rest of the group, its height and lightweight structure making it the right partner for your dining room table, your desk, or your work table. It's remarkable that a set of design pieces this advanced, this beautiful and contemporary, could have been built 50 years ago. But it was, and this re-issue is a prime opportunity to give yourself (or your home or office) something new and old, something borrowed and something ... well, not blue, but very pretty in any case.
So how did they do it?
Nelson and Herman Miller, through experimentation and engineering brilliance, finally figured out a way to sculpt the metal using a system of intense pressure applied to metal tubes. They called it swaging, and the name of the desk and table series was quickly and serendipitously given. Swaging was a complicated process, but they quickly were able to master it and begin mass-producing the the desks. At the beginning, desks were the only objects that Nelson had planned on making. But the process of creating the swag leg design had been so inspiring and creative that he immediately began to work on more pieces. He made a dining room table (rectangular and round) and a work table to complement the desk. The Nelson Swag Leg Table and the Nelson Swag Leg Work Table had been born — not out of necessity, but out of creative energy and a desire to create something beautiful and lasting. The collection was successful in its day, and Herman Miller has decided to re-issue it now because its efficiency, ability to manage technological equipment, and classic style are as necessary now as they ever were.
There are five major variations in the Nelson Swag Leg Collection. They are the desk, the rectangular dining table, the round dining table, the work table and the Nelson Swag Leg Chair. This next section will detail the design work, the ideas and mechanical processes, that went into each version of this lasting collection. Whether you're looking for a desk, an extra workspace or a dining room table that's light on its feet, this collection is an excellent place to start.
The Nelson Swag Leg Desk was the piece that started it all. It tipped of a whole new era of design at Herman Miller and in American design firms at large, because it was the inspiration for the creation of swaging (sculpting and tapering metal using high pressure systems). The design world would never again have to rely on expensive techniques, nor on making all of their tapered or sculpted legs out of wood or plastic.
With swaging, a whole new world of design possiblities was unlocked. So the value of the desk isn't only in its inimitable style and precision design, it's also in its historical merit and standing. Owning the desk is owning a piece of art and design history — a piece of art and design history that you can do some work on, or display pictures and flowers, or, you know, do your taxes on. It's living history.
The advantages of the desk are numerous and varied. The biggest reason for the Herman Miller re-issue of the product is efficiency. In a world more and more driven by getting things done fast, and getting multiple task accomplished in a single forum (like a blackberry or online meeting), the compact form and multi-purposed design of the desk is perfect. The desk expresses its efficiency in several ways.
For one, it's very light and compact. This desk can be easily moved to any part of your home or office, and constant changes to your environment will never limit your ability to be flexible with your workspace. The tapering metal legs and the relatively thin plane of desk and shelf are the reason for the lightweight feel of the desk. As far as size, while there is plenty of room on the desk to do work, to set up a laptop or an in and out box, to place a stereo or a filing system, this is a desk that's going to fit in almost any setting, and almost any room. It's compact and slight, with nothing sticking out. The legs, for instance, won't get in your way; they're just there to support the desk in the most elegant possible fashion. There are no rough edges or difficult design flourishes to contend with. This desk will fit in corners and crannies, it will fit against walls without taking up too much space for foot traffic or other office implements. In a go-go office environment, there are few things more valuable that a compact, flexible, and easy-to-move workspace.
If that reminds you of a more modern invention, that's natural; laptops are another reason that people at Herman Miller thought it would be a great time to bring back the Nelson Swag Leg Desk. The surface area of the desk is perfect for laptops, as well as perfect for many other modern technological work implements. That includes an MP3 dock, an extra monitor (on top shelf), extra hard drives, and even speakers and sound systems. There's room for a lamp, flowers, picture, pencils and pens, or anything else you'd want to either store (underneath the shelf) or display (on top of the shelf). In short, this is an exemplary desk for the modern office worker, with all kinds of features that mirror the efficiency and flexible speed of present day technology. There are several different versions of the Nelson Swag Leg Desk, including a work table and two dining room tables, but none have the compartmentalized structure and first-of-its-kind luster the desk has in spades. Smart Furniture is very proud to offer our customers this desk from Herman Miller; a classic that deserves its reputation, deserves its praise, and deserves this re-issue.
The work table in the collection retains the beauty of the desk, but loses the compartments and the shelf. It makes up for that loss with increased space. This is a true companion piece to the desk, as the work table is an extension of the work space. A place to lay down drawings or plans, or to hold papers, or to store materials for later use. It's even a place to keep a copier, a scanner or printer. It's an elegant and worthy companion for the desk, and it complements it in every way.
Nelson created this table as a way to extend the workspace into other areas of the office, and to create what would become the blueprint for other workspace creations like the L shaped desk and the cubicle. Prior to the introduction of the Nelson group of furniture, there were few options for large desk spaces or flexible, multi-platform working surfaces. This was part of the office furniture revolution that would carry us into the current century of rounded desks, three sided desks, and workstations with multiple levels and cupboard-style filing and shelving options.
In every regard save the compartmentalization, the work table reflects the aesthetic achievement of the original desk — the smooth surface of the plane, the elegant tapered swag leg on each end, and the overall sense of economy and efficiency, wrapped in a beguiling package of high-end design beauty and intellectual force.
When you purchase the Nelson Swag Leg Desk, there's often every reason to go in for this item as well. They're mates, complementary pieces of furniture; they were quite literally made for each other, and in numerous ways they can improve the look, feel, and working quality of your home or corporate office, no matter what kind of space that may be. They're as flexible and movable as they are beautiful, and they'll last a very long time in any environment you choose for them. It's hard to go wrong with the Nelson Swag Leg Work Table.
George Nelson, ball of creative energy that he was, wasn't satisfied to leave his creations to the realm of work and work only. He decided to keep pushing the aesthetic of the collection, and he decided to extend it even further into the home. Not content with the home office or a wall in the living room, he began to design furniture meant for the kitchen and the dining room; furniture that kept the integrity of the office pieces, but offered their many virtues in a different light — that of the family and not just the individual.
The dining room table is something of a sacred object in most homes, and certainly in the eyes of industrial designers. There have been few major changes to the look and design of the table over more than a century of rigorous industrial design, and that's due in part to the perfection of its form (flat plane on top, legs that support) and part to the hesitancy of human-centered designers to mess with something that has provided as much comfort, fellowship and service to so many families, offices and groups.
The same hesitancy in the face of a sacred and well designed object affected the offices of George Nelson and Herman Miller, and so the Nelson Swag Leg Dining Table is less a new object than a companion to the other designs in the group, and less a pioneering effort than a new twist on an old favorite. Of course, the major change to the traditional dining room table that the Nelson table enacts is to add swag legs. The swag legs not only add a touch of modernity and lightness to the feel of the traditional table, they give it an entirely new look underneath.
The traditional dining room table, if it's large, is four legged. Sometimes even one legged, when the design is round. The Nelson Swag Leg is, in a way, both and neither. It has four distinct legs, but they are held together using the same two legs joined by walnut concept used in the desk and the work table. The difference here is that the table uses two such devices, and arranges them in an X. This accomplishes the traditional form of the dining table while freshening and brightening its facade. It also keeps the legs of the table out of the way of the legs of its users; when you're sitting down to dinner the last thing you want to worry about is bumping your legs against the form of the table. The perfect dining table disappears, ideally leaving only the food and fellowship on and around it. This is the aim and the purpose of the Nelson table, and it's been succeeding from more than 50 years.
Another interesting aspect of this table is that it's round. While that's not truly rare in dining room tables, it's not as common as a rectangular or a square eating surface. The roundness of the table is as option in one sense (because the collection also has a rectangular version) but it's also a statement about what kind of table this could be. The roundness of the table implies seating equality as well as equal radius-es all the way around. No one can sit at the "head" of a round table, and that's the point; friendship, companionship, family, fellowship.
This a table about equality and common sources of pleasure; food and company. Again, there's nothing in the collection that shuns a rectangular version; in fact there is a rectangular version. For many people rectangular literally fits better and serves their needs by being larger. But it's important to note that Nelson was cognizant of the value of the round table, and wanted to make sure it was a principle option in his group of home and office furnishings.
This new era reissue, inspired by the technological revolution of the past few decades and the need for lightweight, transportable and flexible furniture for lightweight, on-the-move and flexible living, is coming at the perfect time for re-discovery and re-appreciation. There's nothing better than a great dining room table, and the Nelson Swag Leg Dining Table tries to fill that need with new technologies and beautiful stylization. Smart Furniture is very proud to offer our customers this re-issue of the famous table, and proud to partner with Herman Miller to offer it in its original form, in re-usable and recyclable packaging. Get yours today.
If you like a rectangular dining room table, or are in need of more "spaces" at the table, there's also a rectangular version that fits those needs. It's featured in the next section, as yet another flexible and adaptable option in the expansive Nelson group of home and office furnishings.
The rectangular dining room table is the predominant version of the table you see in American homes. Especially for large families (families with children) and homes that do a lot of hosting, a rectangular table offers more opportunities for space and large gatherings. The round table can sometimes limit the amount of space available in square or rectangular rooms; it can limit the amount of furniture you can keep in the dining room and the number of guests you can host at one time. So the rectangular table is a fix for that problem, one foreseen by the ever-rigorous George Nelson.
The rectangular dining room table is made up in much the same way that the round dining table is. It's supported by two separate walnut-connected swag leg structures, which are arranged in an X underneath the table, to prevent discomfort and keep guests from bumping their legs on the legs of the table. It's just one more way that the furniture at Herman Miller stays human-centric and comfortable, not just beautiful and accomplished. Of course, the Nelson Swag Leg Rectangular Dining Table is both.
The top of the table is different from the top of the desk, or the top of the work table. There are several finishes available, and that means you aren't ever tied to the idea of a white table top with walnut accents, as lovely a contrast as that is. You can have a major hand in designing your very own Nelson table, and all with a few clicks and choices of color. This is just one more reason that Smart Furniture is so pleased to be working with Herman Miller; we share the idea that the final designer should often be the buyer; they should have choices and options not only for how the furniture is used in their home or office, but in how the furniture looks when it is sent to them. Customization and putting power in the hands of the buyer — these are things that Herman Miller and Smart Furniture both believe in very strongly. The rectangular table is just one more way that Herman Miller and Smart Furniture show it.
Choose between white and walnut finishes, and the Nelson Swag Leg Dining Table, whether it be rectangular or round, is yours for years of enjoyment and flexible, modern living. Smart Furniture is very proud to offer our customers this re-issue of the famous table, and proud to partner with Herman Miller to offer it in its original form, in re-usable and recyclable packaging. Get yours today.
Side note: If you'd prefer a round dining room table, that's another option available to you from the Nelson Swag Leg Group. Herman Miller and George Nelson himself believed very strongly in creating options for furniture and fellowship, and the round table is just one such option. With all the amenities and choices available in the rectangular table also available in the round, you don't have to worry about any change in quality or iconic stature.
The Nelson Swag Leg Chair is one of the most innovative and original pieces in the entire collection. That's because it's the melding of two innovative approaches to design and engineering — the child that has exceeded its brilliant parents in their respective fields. The two parents referred to are the Eames Molded Plastic Chairs and the Nelson Swag Leg Desk. The swag leg procedure and the process of molding plastic into shells that support the human form come together in a single, exemplary chair — a chair that, though it was made half a century ago, looks as fresh and inviting today as it ever did. It's still contemporary; that's how ahead of its time the Nelson Swag Leg Chair really was.
The top of the chair, the seat and the seat back, are descended from the molded plastic chairs. They carry the same engineering technique and carry it to a new level. In the original chairs, the molded plastic chairs, the shell is a single; the top and the bottom are the same, egg shaped creation. They share tension and keep the body upright. But the swag leg version is different because it splits the top into two pieces. The two pieces are a back and seat, and they're melded together at the juncture of the armrests. That gives the chair an attractive, curving empty space between the seat and the seat back, and it also makes it more comfortable. How? By separating the back from the seat, they actually made it a bit springier; it has more give now when you lean back into it. That keeps you comfy. The airy space that's been cut out does the trick of keeping you cool by allowing air to pass through the chair. The former chairs don't have that capacity, and can cause discomfort and heat buildup over long periods of time. But not the Nelson Swag Leg Chair.
The bottom of the chair is the other fascinating part of the piece. It is, of course, descended directly from the swag leg procedures that Nelson perfected for this group of furniture. Tubes of metal (steel) are processed through high pressure to shape and taper them. It produces an elegant, tapered effect that is both attractive and strong. It also happens to make this chair match, in personality and in look, all the rest of the Nelson collection. You won't find a finer chair anywhere from a high-end design office, and you certainly won't find one that's a better companion for the Swag Leg Desk, Work Table, or Dining Table.
Smart Furniture is very proud to offer this chair to our customers through the offices of Herman Miller and George Nelson. There's nothing better than making great, historic design available to our customers for customization and high-value purchase. This is furniture that will improve your home, fit into your life, and be a source of conversation, beauty and functionality for many years to come. Get your Nelson Swag Leg Chair today from Smart Furniture.
The Nelson Swag Collection, in all its glory and classic grace, is available in full in this re-issue from Herman Miller. One of the most celebrated furniture groups in American design history is back on the market; be sure to act now, before the opportunity passes.