The name sounds distinguished. George Nelson (1908-1986) was a modernist 'god', up there with Eliot Noyes. What was modernism, exactly? A 20th-century movement that hinged on the departure from tradition and innovative forms of expression. In design, that usually meant stark. A classic example was the cantilevered metal chairs, inspired by bicycle handlebars, designed by the likes of Mies van der Rohe in the 1920s. So how was Nelson different? His innovations usually had a whimsical streak. He was responsible for the bubble lamp, the starburst clock, the L-shaped desk, the coconut chair and the marshmallow sofa, among other curios. He also created expansive designs ranging from the storage wall - the prototype for the room dividers of the 1950s - to the open-plan office system and the shopping mall. How did he dream all that up? He was a natural. At school in Connecticut, he routinely won Pencil Points magazine's US$25 prize for drawing. The regularity of his success became such an embarrassment the magazine hired him for $50 to write an article about how to win the prize. He then did a degree in architecture at Yale and after graduating in 1928, earned a degree there in fine arts in 1931. A year later, he won the Rome Prize in architecture and headed to Italy for two years to attend the American Academy in Rome. To make ends meet, he wrote for magazines such as Fortune, interviewing Le Corbusier among other luminaries. The success of his profiles earned him a job as associate editor for Architectural Forum, which he joined in 1935. 'Writing is easier than designing anyway,' he said. So how did Nelson make the transition from writer to maker? He was headhunted. The trigger: his 1945 book Tomorrow's House: How To Plan Your Post War Home Now, in which he introduced the storage wall. The idea caught the eye of D.J. De Pree, boss of design firm Herman Miller. In 1945, De Pree asked him to become the design director. What were his core principles? He said designers should make it new - there was no point in trying to beat the ancients at their own game. Attacking what he termed 'industrial design', he argued for more humanity in the workplace. 'Offices are beginning to resemble factories,' he complained. No longer should staff be viewed as 'things' - each should be allowed the desk space for a picture and a high-school sporting trophy, he said. What inspired him? A force he called 'zaps': sudden bursts of clarity and creativity. He stuck with Miller for a quarter of a century, designing a series of office furniture. Under his guidance, the company became an international force. According to a company spokesman, 'He brought to Herman Miller a new perspective - that good design was necessary in our furniture, in our architecture, in our facilities, in our literature and our graphics, even in the events we staged.' Any other claims to fame? Nelson attracted a swathe of other great designers to Miller. They ranged from Charles and Ray Eames to Isamu Noguchi and Alexander Girard. Where can I buy Nelson's work? Frontier Workspace Solutions, 11/F, Luk Kwok Centre, 72 Gloucester Road, Wan Chai, tel: 2865 0377; www.frontierworkspace.com .