In 1953 Hilda Longinotti, a twenty-something from Queens, stumbled upon a job ad in The New York Times. It read: Receptionist Wanted for World Famous Architect. "I did not know what an architect was," Longinotti, now 80, says in a new four-part animated interview series produced by furniture giant Herman Miller. "But it sounded very chichi, so I went to the personnel agency." Unsophisticated she may have been, but she was a beast at the helm of a manual typewriter, breezing through the employment test at breakneck 100-words-a-minute. Shortly thereafter she showed up at the New York atelier of George Nelson, big-league designer and architect best known for his clocks, lamps, sofas, and office cubicles. Longinotti, who later would describer herself as a "very young, unsophisticated high school drop out," was wearing a hat, gloves, and pumps, her stocking seams straight. "I knocked on that door," she tells Herman Miller, a major peddler of Nelson's designs, "and I walked into a world of wonders."
Upon arriving, Longinotti and Nelson's long-time secretary "hit it off beautifully" and the Queens girl, daughter to Italian immigrants, was "hired on the spot for $55 a week." Longinotti spent the next few decades watching the greats of the Mad Men design era create things like Herman Miller's iconic Marshmallow Sofa, pavilions for the 1964 World's Fair, and the bubble lamps and clocks that came to define an era.
Ultimately, after 21 years working with Nelson and his design team—a suite of Herman Miller-entrenched masters that included furniture designers like Irving Harper and George Mulhauser, scenic designers like Robert Brownjohn (he did Goldfinger), and graphic designers like George Tscherney, (he drafted Herman Miller ads)—Longinotti left her role as Nelson's "aide-de-camp." She stayed in the business, though, eventually becoming a salesperson for Herman Miller and, in 1979, the company's Manager of Design Community Programs.
Unsurprisingly, Longinotti brims with enthusiasm and anecdotes about the evolution and workflow of the midcentury industrial masters. More importantly, however, she is a crackerjack storyteller. Below, eight anecdotes gleaned from Herman Miller's interview, including the story on how she became Nelson's unofficial model and muse, the case of the missing Warhol drawings, and why the Marshmallow Sofa is her favorite midcentury design:
On her welcome wagon:
[From video, below] "They were so excited about having a receptionist in this new loft that they designed the space for me. They talked to me about my thoughts, my interests, my colors, whatever. I didn't have very much to say at that time, but suddenly they developed this amazing reception area. You walked in the door and you walked into this very small room, and right before me was a Herman Miller desk, designed by George Nelson, behind me was a purple felt wall on which was a Howard Miller clock, orange and white, designed by George Nelson. Opposite me, was a purple day bed, designed by Herman Miller By George Nelson, and to the left of me was the switchboard, and of course, a typewriter."
On figuring out the job:
"The one thing I remember when I started working for George was that he loved ballsy women. And when I started with him I had no balls. But over the twenty years, I grew them and grew them and grew them. So I think he'd be very proud of the ballsy woman I've become today."
On becoming 'The Woman on the Marshmallow Sofa':
Hugh Dupree [Herman Miller's CEO and president beginning in 1952] happened to come in one day and he loved the Nelson office. Anything George wanted to do, George did. So he came in, looked at this sofa and George said 'We were just playing with that.' And he said, "You know? I think that's a good idea. Why don't we put it in the line?' Whenever they needed a model, there I was. I was young, I was pretty, I was photogenic, and I was free. I became Nelson's muse...mostly because I was free but it was one of the highlights of my career."
On losing the original Warhol drawings:
[From video, below] "So one day in walks Andy Warhol, didn't have his white wig, was not famous at all. George gave him the concept. So, a week or so later, in walks Andy, with renderings in pastel colors of the most beautiful butterflies signed 'Andy Warhol.' Just beautiful, beautiful stuff …The third time we moved, by this time Warhol was through the roof. I still wasn't making much money, I decided I was going to find those renderings and quit. No woman wore pants, but that day I donned a pair of pants, went into the basement, and spent the day, going through the files. Ernest threw them out."
On the most important project for the Nelson office:
[Answering: "Was there a particularly memorable project or era for you at the Nelson Office?"] "The time leading up to and during the 1964 World's Fair in New York. 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 also 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 and engaging and interesting. One never knew who was going to walk in that door."
On leaving George:
"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 vacation. I had no 401K, 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."
On re-creating herself:
"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, and furniture, and getting the order. I found that I was very good at doing exactly what Herman Miller wanted me to do."
On the most valuable takeaway from the atelier:
"Going into that office—very young, unsophisticated, a high school dropout—I think the major lesson I learned is how to see. When you learn how to see, you learn to appreciate all that goes on around you—from the time you get 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."
Herman Miller commissioned four illustrated videos for this interview. See them all, right this way.