It is the mother of all modernist furniture: the marshmallow sofa designed by Irving Harper in 1956. Place this midcentury seat in any room today, and you have a symbol of post-war optimism. Those rows of discs that seem to explode right off the metal frame were influenced by the atomic age. This playful and witty design became a prelude to the pop art movement of the 1960s.
The sofa was a star lot in a recent high-profile sale at Wright auction house in Chicago. The auction highlighted important and influential designs of the 20th century, with some 320 pieces up for bidding. From benches to bureaus, desks to daybeds, the assortment included furniture by Le Corbusier, Paul Evans and Joaquim Tenreiro.
All told, the sale brought in more than $1.4 million, with the marshmallow sofa fetching $10,000. Only 186 of the iconic sofas were produced by Herman Miller before the design was discontinued in 1961, with production resuming again in the 1980s. Wrapped in vintage Alexander Girard upholstery, the piece that sold at auction is one of the originals made between 1956 and 1961. “The marshmallow is an absolute classic and an icon of American midcentury design,” explains CEO Richard Wright.
A seat with a more sober aesthetic, a 1956 office chair designed by architect Frank Lloyd Wright attracted special interest with its industrial, space-age vibe. The piece was made for Price Tower in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, with Wright conceiving both the building and the furniture within to create harmony inside and out. “The Price Tower chair is from Wright’s only realized skyscraper,” notes Richard Wright (no relation). “The chair is one of Wright’s best designs from his late period.”
The most unusual chair features sloping leather-clad arms and a broad base. Its variegated green-striped upholstery reflects the architect’s affinity for nature. Wright’s furniture is famously hard-edged with strict, no-nonsense lines, leading him to admit in his 1954 book, The Natural House, “All my life, my legs have been banged up somewhere by the chairs I have designed.” The singular seat sold for $11,250.
A pair of 1955 teak, cane and upholstered benches by Swiss architect Pierre Jeanneret sold for $31,200, more than twice the auction estimate. They were from the M.L.A. Flats building in Chandigarh, India, a collection of civic structures he helped conceive in the 1950s. With their simple V-shaped legs, the benches were crafted for durability. They perfectly embody Jeanneret’s minimalistic aesthetic, with an emphasis on simple forms.
Finally, there was intense bidding for a very Zen-looking bed designed by George Nakashima. Made of Persian walnut, the 1974 Conoid headboard and platform bed feature an overhang with a natural edge, along with sliding doors to conceal storage. Nakashima believed the tree determined the form his furniture would take. He often highlighted the imperfections of wood, purposely choosing boards with knots and cracks, which he would stabilize with butterfly joints. The bed sold for $27,500 — more than double its auction estimate — making for sweet dreams indeed.