Design classic: Marshmallow sofa

The Marshmallow sofa is one of the earliest examples of Pop Art in furniture design. Manufactured in 1956 by Herman Miller, it is a simple metal frame covered with 18 discs, which come in a variety of colours. The sofa was so unusual that, when it was launched, the catalogue tried to reassure potential buyers. “Despite its astonishing appearance, this piece is very comfortable,” it read. Attributed to George Nelson, a key figure in the American modernist movement, the Marshmallow sofa may have been the result of a collaborative effort.

In 2001, Irving Harper, who worked on designs for Herman Miller in the 1950s, claimed the Marshmallow was his idea. In an interview with Metropolis magazine he said: “While he was alive I made no demands whatsoever. But now that he’s gone, whenever the Marshmallow sofa is referred to as a ‘George Nelson design’ it sort of gets to me. I don’t go out of my way to set things right, but if anybody asks me who designed it, I’m perfectly happy to tell them.” According to Herman Miller, both Harper and Nelson were approached by a designer who had created a plastic disc that could be made inexpensively. The designers arranged 18 of them on a steel frame to create a sofa. However, the original discs were rejected and cushions were made instead. In the end the sofa was so labour-intensive that only 200 were produced and it was shelved in the 1960s. Reintroduced several times since, the sofa now sells for about $5,800, while originals have fetched up to $30,000 at auction.

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