Pop Before Pop

The Marshmallow Sofa

The icon of post-war design, the Marshmallow sofa epitomizes an optimistic and heroic moment in American history. Designed by Irving Harper and George Nelson in 1954-56, the sofa breaks with upholstered furniture forms in a dramatic way. The seat and back planes are formed solely from upholstered circles rising on small pins from the structure. The tubular frame is curved, further reinforcing the floating aspect of the seat. While clearly echoing the influence of the atomic age, as epitomized in Nelson’s Ball clock from 1949, the Marshmallow is a precursor to the geometric purity and playfulness of Pop.

Herman Miller was a design leader and in 1956 was still willing to market avant-garde furniture to the corporate world.  The original sales literature for the Marshmallow discusses the sofa being used in contract settings for “use in lobbies in public buildings.” This came to pass in the reception area of Commonwealth Edison in New York in 1958, a company not unfamiliar with other uses of atomic design, when the present lot was commissioned in this larger form and custom color.  

Rare, double-sized Marshmallow sofa

Ultimately, the Marshmallow was not a commercial success, a total of 186 sofas were produced prior to its discontinuation in 1961. From this limited production run, a small number of custom-orders were made in a double-sized variation of the standard form. 

You don't think your way to creative work. You work your way to creative thinking.

George Nelson

The very definition of iconic, the Marshmallow sofa, through its color and form, expresses the exuberance and possibility of design in the post-war.

A 1956 Herman Miller advertisement for the Marshmallow sofa

George Nelson & Associates

Born in Hartford, Connecticut in 1908, George Nelson studied architecture at Yale University, teaching for a short time before the Great Depression. In 1932, he won the Rome Prize and spent the next two years studying design in Italy. Returning to the states, Nelson sold his essays to Pencil Points and became an associate editor at Architecture Forum and Fortune magazine. After reading Nelson’s innovative book Tomorrow's House, then president of Herman Miller furniture company D.J. De Pree hired Nelson as design director. Nelson launched his first collection in 1947 and transformed the struggling company into a groundbreaking leader in the field. Nelson remained at Herman Miller until the mid-1960s, and was responsible for bringing Charles and Ray Eames, Alexander Girard and Isamu Noguchi on board.

In 1947, Nelson opened his own design studio, George Nelson Associates, Inc. which at one time employed over seventy people. The company’s work within corporate settings revolutionized the concept of branding and elevated industrial design to new heights. Throughout his career, Nelson continued to write critically about design across multiple planes, teaching and consulting until his death in 1986.

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