The Hilda Stories
George Nelson’s longtime aide-de-camp, Hilda Longinotti, recounts some of the greatest anecdotes from her 21-year run at the legendary New York City design atelier.
Written by: Amber Bravo
Video by: Damien Florebert Cuypers
Looking very ‘au courant’ in head-to-toe black, a shaggy caftan-length vest and an oversized strand of Tahitian pearls, Hilda Longinotti cuts a formidable figure in the reception area of Herman Miller’s New York City showroom, her old stomping ground. At 80 years old she looks great, but it isn’t really until she opens her mouth that her true stylistic gifts come to the fore. A natural storyteller, Longinotti has turned her 21-year run as executive secretary (à la Joan Holloway) at George Nelson’s renowned design studio into a string of speaking engagements the world over. She was even tapped for Seth Cohen’s popular blog-to-book, Advanced Style, which is dedicated to creative older folk who prove “that personal style advances with age”.
It’s Longinotti’s inherent panache that led Herman Miller to hire her to work in showroom sales after she left the Nelson Office in 1974. Her strong knowledge of design and extensive network in the architectural and design communities enabled her to develop a pilot programme for strengthening communication between Herman Miller and the New York design community. The success of this programme led to her appointment as Manager of Design Community Programmes in 1979, which became the foundation for Herman Miller’s A+D efforts today.
To celebrate the silver-tongued Longinotti, WHY created a series of short animated films based on her best-loved stories from the Nelson Office, which paint a piquant portrait not only of the Nelson Office in its heyday, but also of a certain era in New York City, when it still felt possible for a school dropout from Queens to find her calling in the world of design and in turn go on to teach countless others how to see.
Each story in this animated series represents a “best of” anecdote from your time at the Nelson Office. But if you were to take your 21 years there as a whole, what do you feel was the greatest takeaway?
Listening to George Nelson dictate his writings, letters and editorials taught me how to listen, how to speak and how to write properly. In the beginning, he would have to add punctuation; he would have to spell many of the words. He also advised me to buy a copy of Strunk and White’s Elements of Style. But going into that office – very young, unsophisticated and a school dropout – I think that the major lesson I learnt is: how to see. When you learn how to see, you learn to appreciate all that goes on around you, from the time you wake up in the morning to the time you go to bed at night. It was a question of seeing what good design is all about. For me it was an incredible education.
Were you immediately aware of what you were learning at the Nelson Office, or did that realisation come later?
No. When I first walked into that studio, I was in a totally different world. Immediately I needed to adjust to my surroundings and to the wonderful people that worked there. All of them had many quirks. It took me a while before I really got it – what they were doing, how they were doing it and how the world around them was appreciating what they were doing. Especially Herman Miller, who was our biggest client. And because of Herman Miller, many wonderful new clients walked through the door.
Was there a particularly memorable project or era for you at the Nelson Office?
In terms of importance, I would have to say the time leading up to and during the 1964 New York World’s Fair. We had more designers then for a year than we had ever had before, because of the scope of the commission. We were asked to do the Chrysler Pavilion. We were asked to do the Irish Pavilion. We were also asked to work on the Hall of Presidents in the Federal Pavilion. This was a huge undertaking for the Nelson office. But there were many smaller projects that were fun, engaging and interesting. One never knew who was going to walk in that door.
We did a wonderful project for Barney’s. At the time, Barney’s was a very inexpensive boys department store on 7th Avenue and 17th Street. Very low-end clothing. When Barney died, his son took over and decided he wanted to do more. He found George and said, ‘This is what I envision’, and George made his vision come true by doing a series of boutiques of internationally famous clothing designers; it had never been done before. So into our brownstone walked the most famous European designers that are so well known today. We then created the first boutique in the city, and it made Barney’s famous. From there Barney’s went to Madison and 60th Street and then all over the world.
“I think the major lesson I learnt in my 21 years [at the Nelson Office] is: how to see. When you learn how to see, you learn to appreciate all that goes on around you, from the time you wake up in the morning to the time you go to bed at night.”
You said that just working with Nelson was an education. How did you see the designers that he employed grow during their time there?
We had those six or eight people, the initial group, who were incredibly talented. As the years went by, George with all of his intelligence did not do the one thing he should have done, and that is make the most talented designers partners in the firm. He gave them titles, but he didn’t give them a piece of the business. As the years went by, they left to form their own offices, and some of them became pretty well known. Irving Harper and Phillip George went on to open their own firm, Harper+George. Charles Pollock, who designed the Pollock chair for Knoll that was actually designed for Herman Miller. It was turned down, so when he left he took it to Knoll and it was the best-selling chair in the world before Ergon. Michael Graves was with us for a year as a young architect. He left, and of course he is now world famous. I could go on and on.
Since you began working at the Nelson Office up until today, your life has been tied intrinsically to design. Did you ever consider becoming a designer yourself?
I think I realised very early on that while I was assimilated to good design, there was not the creative spirit in me that needed to be there to do this kind of work. But over the many years I did recreate myself, and I encourage all young women and even middle-age women: if you are not happy with your life, you can recreate yourself – and you should!
What do you mean, exactly?
When I worked for Nelson, I was really doing secretarial work and was happy doing that. He called me his aide-de-camp; I was sort of the Girl Friday. When I left Nelson and was asked to go to Miller, I thought that is what I would be doing, but no! When the New York City showroom manager heard that I had left George he immediately called and said he wanted me to work there. I said, ‘Do you need a secretary?’ He said, ‘No, no, no, I have something entirely different in mind.’ He outlined the sales position and I said, ‘I am not sure I can do this.’ He said, ‘You are better than any salesperson here, you know the product and you just have to learn how to deal with it.’ So I reconfigured my life. I was 43 years old. I wasn’t sure what talents I had. I had been out of the market for 21 years and I was put into another world, a world of sales, furniture and getting the order. I found that I was very good at doing exactly what Herman Miller wanted me to do.
“Over the many years, including 21 with George and 40+ with Miller, I did recreate myself, and I encourage all young women and even middle-age women: if you are not happy with your life, you can recreate yourself – and you should”!
Why did you decide to leave the Nelson Office?
Well, it’s a long story, but the short of it is that at the end of 20-odd years it just wasn’t the same. One hot July morning, while the Nelsons were on holiday, I decided I was going to leave. That decision was the third hardest decision I have ever made in my whole life. The first was marrying my dear husband, the second was buying our little gatehouse in Whitestone, Queens, and the third was leaving George. I sat down, I wrote him a “Dear George” letter, I took my three weeks of holiday. I had no pension plan, I had no health insurance and I left. Then I pondered on what was I going to do for the rest of my life. Three months later, Herman Miller called.
You have lived in New York your entire life, right?
I was raised in Corona, Queens, right by the World’s Fair, and I still am a Queens girl. Never moved very far ‘from the bridge and tunnel’, as they say. My parents were born in Italy, and I didn’t speak English until I went to primary school. They emigrated separately in the 1920s because there was nothing for them in Italy. My mother worked on a farm. My father was raised in a city, but there was no way for him to build a life there. When they came here, they both worked at the Plaza Hotel. My father wanted to be a cook and my mother was a vegetable girl, and they fell in love and got married and had me and my brother. What they wanted more than anything for their children was for us to have an education, and I think I disappointed them along those lines until many years later.
When do you think your parents finally realised how successful you really are?
I think when I told my mama and papa that I was taking a client to lunch at the Plaza, they realised. They said, ‘Oh, can you imagine our daughter, we were in the kitchen and she is in the restaurant.’
“[Leaving the Nelson Office] was the third hardest decision I have ever made in my whole life. The first was marrying my dear husband, the second was buying our little gatehouse in Whitestone, Queens, and the third was leaving George.”