The “Marshmallow Sofa” a unique piece of 20th century design

It is unique, considered by design aficionados to be not only an original piece of furniture but a work of art in its own right. More than 60 years after its creation, the Marshmallow Sofa continues to captivate design lovers.

Created in 1954 by designer Irving Harper, this “funny” seat is inseparable from three great names in post-war design: its creator, of course, the company Georges Nelson Associates, named after the famous American designer, and the publisher Herman Miller. Its existence gave rise to a controversy over its authorship, which it is worth re-establishing the truth about.


Irving Harper, 1916-2015 ©

Literally referred to as the “sofa-©Chamallow” in reference to the famous marshmallow that has become an international trademark for the Haribo brand, this 100% American sofa lives up to its name. Creative, playful and colourful, it dresses up even the most austere of interiors, such as company lobbies, with a strong personality. An opportunity to look back at an unusual story for a resolutely timeless piece of furniture.

In 1947, 31-year-old designer Irving Harper designed the famous M in the logo of the American furniture company Herman Miller. Harper was already familiar with George Nelson, one of the fathers of post-war American design along with Charles and Ray Eames. Two years earlier, Nelson, a teacher, designer and author, had designed the first modular wall storage system and the precursor to system furniture. Impressed by the designer’s avant-garde vision, Herman Miller’s founder, D.J. De Pree, convinced Nelson to become his design director, which prompted Nelson to found his first design firm, George Nelson & Associates.


Irving Harper, creating the Herman Miller logo in 1946. The famous M is adopted.


The Herman Miller logo designed by Irving Harper used in a 1948 advertisement.©

George Nelson was not only talented, but also a personable figure. After his honorary appointment at Herman Miller, he convinced other prominent design personalities to develop their projects at the American manufacturer. Among the most famous were Isamu Noguchi (Japanese-American, 1904-1988), Charles and Ray Eames, Alexander Girard (American, 1907-1993) and Irving Harper. In 1947, Irving Harper joined George Nelson’s team, initially as head of the brand’s advertising design – for which Herman Miler owes his famous M – and later as an interior design specialist.

One day in 1954, at Herman Miller’s offices, Nelson’s team received boxes containing foam of different shapes and sizes. The foam manufacturers used to send samples to the furniture manufacturer. A box of round white foam cushions caught Irving Harper’s eye. Looking like white marshmallows, Irving Harper began to play with them when George Nelson, who was present at the time, suggested that he think of a structure to support these strange white cushions. The legend is born..

Irving Harper, motivated, conceived in one weekend a sofa composed of the famous white foam cushions, supported and linked together by a metal structure. The small circular cushions are placed at regular intervals on a metal frame that is intended to be discreet. In the end, Harper and Nelson decided to attach 18 of the foam cushions to the frame.

D.J. De Pree approved the idea and the Herman Miller company began producing and marketing the famous sofa in 1956. Because foam rounds were still expensive at the time, and assembly took time, the furniture manufacturer positioned the Marshmallow Sofa as a luxury product. Unfortunately, between 1956 and 1961, Herman Miler produced only 186 models of the sofa. The commercial failure is obvious. Herman Miller waited until the 1980s to reissue the historic sofa, with a 52-inch model, in its “Herman Miller Classics” range.


Nelson Marshmallow Sofa, Lounge seat. This is the model on sale today in the Herman Miller catalogue, also available in red. Herman Miller, Inc.

The Marshmallow sofa was originally designed with uniformly coloured cushions, but Herman Miller soon realised the value of combining cushions in different colours. This gives it an unmistakable look. The cushions are cleverly detachable for easy washing and you can play with the colours by changing them. Another trick: the possibility of adding a connector consisting of 6 cushions between two sofas. If you follow the instructions, the new configuration offers a sofa with a total of 42 cushions as the original sofa has 18 cushions! A detail that is important to detect an original piece from a counterfeit!


The official dimensions of the Marshmallow Sofa. Below the connector made of 6 cushions ©

In terms of design, the seat borrows from the “atomic” style, recalling the symbolic representation of the components of an atom. For the record, Swiss design furniture manufacturer Vitra designed a unique Marshmallow Sofa for the Atomium in Brussels, the city’s famous landmark building, whose architecture consists of a steel frame supporting nine interconnected spheres originally clad in aluminium.


Marshmallow Sofa, Vitra special edition for the Atomium ©

The Marshmallow Sofa is a piece that revolutionised the history of design. Or how to transform a sofa into a three-dimensional object. It was innovative because it prefigured, in its own way, the “Pop-Art” movement, which is why some consider it a work of art in its own right. Its creators used new technologies, in particular the use of fibreglass – glass-reinforced plastic – which makes it possible to construct and assemble original shapes.

Irving Harper and Georges Nelson also took up the concern for purity dear to the spirit of the Bauhaus. However, beyond its peculiar appearance, which would lead one to believe that it is uncomfortable, this is not the case; the sofa is very comfortable. Finally, the famous rounds seem to float in weightlessness, which makes the charm of this exceptional piece.

The Marshmallow Sofa has a particular style, the assembly of independent parts, coloured elements, in this case multicoloured cushions. It is the witness of an era, the 1950s, where a great diversity in the use of materials and sculptural forms reigns. The Marshmallow Sofa is a reference to an earlier creation by Georges Nelson: his series of domestic clocks started in the late 1940s. Charles and Ray Eames, also designers employed by the Herman Miller firm, developed this colourful and “bursting” style with their famous Hang-It-All coat rack, also in the 1950s. As with the Marshmallow Sofa, separate elements, in this case brightly coloured wooden balls on a metal frame, playfully replace the classic coat hook.


Ball clocks, George Nelson, 1948-1960 ©

Hang It All multi-coloured coat rack, Charles & Ray Eames, 1953 © vitra .com[/caption]While the Marshmallow Sofa consistently names George Nelson as its designer, there is no doubt that its creator is Irving Harper. John Pile, a designer who worked for Georges Nelson & Associates, sheds light on this point. While it was Georges Nelson’s policy to attribute the name of the designer who actually designed a piece of furniture in official publications, it was the name of Georges Nelson and his company that systematically appeared on the copies marketed. As a result, Nelson is too often mistakenly associated with the sole designer of the famous seat.

Irving Harper left Georges Nelson Associates in 1963 to found Harper+Georges with designer Philip Georges. Philip Georges is best known for designing the interiors of prestigious American restaurants. Together, Harper and Georges were the resident designers of the now defunct Braniff International airline. Retired in 1983, Irving Harper died last year at the venerable age of 99.

design-avion Various devices from Braniff International. Irving Harper and Philipp Georges worked with the company to design an original colour code.

Written by François Boutard