In 1953, Hilda Longinotti, a high school dropout from Queens, saw an ad in the New York Times that read "Wanted: Receptionist for a World Famous Architect." "I didn’t know what an architect was," Longinotti, now a lively 80, says, "but it sounded shi shi." So she applied. Little did she know that said architect was George Nelson, design director of modernist furniture giant Herman Miller. The New York atelier hired the witty, impeccably styled (and fast-typing) Longinotti on the spot—for $55 a week—and thus began her 21-year career as Nelson’s aide-de-campe.
Now, Longinotti’s silver-tongued stories of her time at Herman Miller have been turned into a delightful new cartoon series: The Hilda Stories, animated by Damien Florébert Cuypers for Herman Miller's WHY. It's a first-hand account of working in New York during the age of real Mad Men, when the straightness of a woman’s stocking seams could make or break her career. But, as Longinotti puts it, George Nelson "loved ballsy women."
"When I started with him, I had no balls. But over the 20 years, I grew them and grew them and grew them. So I think he’d be very proud of the ballsy woman I have become today," Longinotti says.
Despite the time's claustrophobically low glass ceiling, Longinotti developed a huge network in the design community and piloted a program to strengthen communication between Herman Miller and New York designers. This led to her appointment in 1979 as manager of design community programs, the offshoot of which is Herman Miller’s current A+D efforts.
A nostalgic Longinotti describes the firm in the ‘50s as "a world of wonders," with a seemingly magical staff of eight doing furniture design, product design, interior design, graphic design, and architecture. The lucky Longinotti got a bespoke Herman Miller-designed reception area just for her: A purple felt wall, an orange-and-white clock by George Miller, and a purple daybed made the switchboard and typewriter seem like glamorous accessories.
"I think the major lesson I learned in my 21 years [at the Nelson Office] is: how to see," she says. "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."
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