Design StorySo the Nelson Swag Leg Desk really started it all. It was the first piece of the collection that Nelson designed, and the principles involved in the construction and execution of the product would carry over into all the other iterations of the series Nelson would make. The simple and elegant plane of the desk would be matched in the tables, and of course the swag legs would survive in each and every part of the series. But on a deeper level, beyond mere appearance, the desk set the tone for the series by being at once lovely and useful. This wasn't a desk that would sit in the corner of your house and slowly collect mail and detritus because it wasn't really functional. This was a desk you could really use. It had space along the back for storage and display, and plenty of plane along the front for doing serious work. It was smaller than the average desk of the time, and lightweight when compared to the solid wood behemoths of boardrooms and corner offices. This was a flexible and adaptable desk that could fit in almost any space and perform almost any task. And of course look great while doing whatever it is you wanted it to do. Lightweight desks, while not exactly a risk, were not overwhelming popular at the time. Only the work of new design companies like Herman Miller had been changing American attitudes about what the desk could be, what it could look like, and what if could mean for the home and office. Still, a light wood desk with thin, sculpted legs and white, smooth surfaces was not exactly a guaranteed sale in 1958. Handsome as it is and was, it was new and different. Light in both a physical and an aesthetic sense.
This was in real opposition to many of the furniture systems and desks of the time, which were meant to be heavy, ornate, and rich. The Nelson Swag Leg Desk, on the other hand, was handy and light and even playful. The light colors and smooth surfaces were as pleasing to the eye now as they were when they were first released to the general public. It was furniture way ahead of its time, and that's one reason it remains to steadily popular today; it was built for the future. Indeed, many buyers are surprised that the Nelson Swag Leg Desk has been around for half a century; by the looks of it, you could think it rolled off the assembly line the day before. This too was intentional; it had been George Nelson's habit for many years to create things that were newer, better, more easily used and available; it was he, after all, who contributed the plans for the first urban pedestrian mall, and he whose democratic idea of home furnishings and home organization led to the unmistakable voice of the modern Herman Miller company. And all that is just one way of saying the things he made were to advance the present generation, serve the next, and inspire all the rest.
Freshness and a sense of play are integral to much of the Herman Miller stable of furniture, especially the furniture that came out while the Eames Office was in top form. George Nelson was the man who brought Charles and Ray Eames into the Herman Miller fold, and he learned a lot from them (as did every other furniture designer who has worked since the 1950s). In fact, parts of the Nelson Swag Leg Collection are homages to the work of Charles and Ray. The light and playful feel of the series certainly owes the furniture of Charles and Ray a real debt; until they began to work in the industrial design industry, that sense of fun was far from the norm. Sculpting was another work method that the Eames ushered along. Their bent, curvy furniture was an inspiration for designers like Nelson who wanted to create more rounded, tapered and graceful pieces of furniture. The Nelson Swag Leg Desk is only one great example of how the two great designers (if Charles and Ray can be counted as one) benefited from crossing streams in the Herman Miller hallways and catalogues (and in each others homes; they were very good friends).
In the end, the desk was a nearly perfect representation of all the dreams and plans Nelson had for the series. It was useful, it was gorgeous, it was timeless and daring. It was fun and lightweight, but capable of serious business. It was the Nelson Swag Leg Desk, and it has lasted for over half a century as a hallmark of the Herman Miller collections. It speaks to quality, class, timelessness, beauty, and every other positive buzzword associated with the ravishing furniture being made in America at the time. It was also just the beginning; there were many more pieces in the series that were yet to come.With his swag leg group, George Nelson didn't try to design an innovation; the innovation resulted from his criteria for the design. He began with the legs, insisting that they be made of metal, machine formed, and prefinished. He also wanted them to be easy for the consumer to assemble, so the desk and tables could ship knocked down to save on costs.
Swagging--using pressure to taper and curve a metal tube--proved the best way to produce the legs, which are 16-gauge steel and have adjustable glides. Nelson added solid walnut stretchers that bolt to the legs for a stable, durable base common to the desk and tables.