Rediscovering a Forgotten George Nelson Design
Could an exceedingly rare design from the first Herman Miller collection directed by George Nelson have reappeared on the market? We think so. Read on to learn about the recent rediscovery and identification of a unique table designed in the 1940s.
When George Nelson was hired by Herman Miller as their new director of design in 1945, he set to work designing a collection of modern furniture that, along with designs by Charles and Ray Eames and Isamu Noguchi, took the country by storm. The Collection was hinted at in industry publications such as this one in Interiors, December 1947.
Some of Nelson's designs are iconic, such as his Platform Bench with ebonized legs (below left), and rarer pieces prized by collectors around the world such as his striking Home Office Desk (below center) and the short lived Bronze Group Table (below right).
All images above by Trystcraft
An Unusual Design by George Nelson
While scouring the superb (and endless) magazine archives of USModernist for something completely different, I came across an advertisement for an exhibition of George Nelson's designs at Bloomingdale's in a March 1947 issue of House and Garden. I immediately recognized the ubiquitous platform benches, the BCS (Basic Cabinet Series) cabinet on top of one bench, and the cane-backed side chair. I then noticed an unusually shaped coffee table which I did not recognize. It seemed to be an asymmetrical bow tie shape with the wood grain going in two different directions and a curved base. My initial thought was that's weird.
In the advertisement, the table was described in detail: "A huge coffee table can be divided in half, elongated by placing the halves end to end, or squared off conventionally...table 119.50".
You'll note that Herman Miller isn't even mentioned in the advert, which is surprising.
George Nelson at Bloomingdale's
What we do know is that George Nelson-designed pieces were presented at Macy's and at Bloomingale's in 1947. The following excerpt taken from the George Nelson Foundation website reads:
Exhibitions at Macy's and Bloomingdale's, New York
The Storagewall was first presented at Macy's in the fall of 1947. Shop decorators furnished several rooms to show the many possible uses of the Storagewall. The furniture, designed by Nelson and produced by Herman Miller, was shown for the first time publicly in 1947 at Bloomingdale's in New York.
Although I'd never seen the table before, the table's inclusion in the advert above centering around Nelson's work led me to believe that this was a legitimate Nelson design that had somehow disappeared between this Bloomingdale's feature and the 1948 Herman Miller catalog, meaning it was unlikely that any examples of the table still existed today.
Confirming a George Nelson Attribution
While looking into another piece of unattributed furniture I came across a listing for a table that was sold by Doyle's in 2021 that was attributed to Renzo Rutili for Johnson Furniture. It caught my eye because it shared the contrasting wood grain direction and curved base of the mystery table. Then, things clicked and I realised it was the same table from the advert, just arranged more conventionally with the angled edges facing inwards to tesselate and form a square.
Source: Live Auctioneers
The next images showed the table halves separated and the details became clear. This was the table!
The detailed photos revealed that the wood grain on the two pieces was not actually perpendicular but that an inlay on one half gave that effect - perhaps this feature led to production issues and led it to being dropped from the catalog.
Confirmation of the Herman Miller Lineage
The auction listing photos also revealed a key piece of evidence -- a model number stamp on the underside of one half. As I've handled quite a few early pieces from this first Nelson-shepherded Herman Miller line, I recognized both the typeface and the coding. The numbers read 4651.
The codes used by Nelson refer to the year and number of the design, 46 being the year and 51 being the design number.
Other known Nelson designs are:
4641 Tall record player/radio console cabinet
4644 Secretary desk cabinet
4646 Tilting Headboard
4652 Extension Coffee Table
4656 Gate Leg Table
4658 Home Desk
4662 Coffee Table
4690-4693 Platform bench 48"-102"
4696 Metal Leg Asymmetrical Coffee Table.
I'm sure if anyone has access to Nelson's design drawings and finds sheet 4651, this table will be on it.
The Renzo Rutili Attribution
Next, we look at how this table came to be attributed to Renzo Rutili for Johnson Furniture. There are many potential reasons for a misattribution, and it can happen to even the most careful seller when it comes to rare pieces like this. It might have been in a collection or a lot with pieces from a different designer and linked by association. Often, a customer or a dealer's anecdote links a piece to a name, or somewhere along the way a piece becomes connected to a designer to add cachet.
The provenance given in the most recent auction listing identifies that the table was from the estate of Jacqueline Loewe Fowler. Interestingly, other pieces from the estate appeared in the 1948 catalog. For example, the lot immediately preceeding the table is a set of Eames chairs produced by the Evans company before Herman Miller started producing molded plywood themselves. Another set of ebonized chairs, also from the same estate, appeared earlier in the auction.
Why Did the George Nelson Table Disappear in the First Place?
So we know the table exists, that it was in an early collection shown at Bloomingdales, and that it ultimately didn't make it to the 1948 Herman Miller catalog. What happened between the ads for Bloomingdale's and the creation of the catalog?
I took another look at Ezra Stoller's collection of photos from the December 1946 photoshoot for Herman Miller and to my surprise the table is actually there, albeit in the background and not featured in any closeups.
Image © Ezra Stoller /Esto
As you can see from the close up, the photo shows two of the tables with their respective halves in the 'compact' arrangement. The curved line between the halves is clear as is the 'striped' inlays.
So they were present for the photoshoot but do not appear in the subsequent catalog, published in 1948. Why? For now, we can only guess at the reasons why. Perhaps they didn't get a strong positive response from the public, didn't fit with the rest of the collection, or proved too costly or complicated to produce.
What we do know is that at least two tables exist because they appear together in the photographs above. I'd argue that because the table in the auction listing has a model number stamped on it, a reasonable test production run was made. That could mean anywhere from 2-100.
Designed by George Nelson*
Attribution of a design from George Nelson's collective of designers (known as George Nelson and Co. until it was formalized as George Nelson Associates in 1955) has become less clear-cut in recent years as gradually, the true designers behind various works are publicly identified.
Designer Ernest Farmer, as one example, worked with Nelson's predecessor at Herman Miller, Gilbert Rohde, and stayed on to help develop the 1946 collection. He is now credited as the designer behind the cane-back dining chair Model 4668 seen in that early Bloomingdale's advert above. It's very possible that the accompanying table was also a Farmer design. Interestingly, the George Nelson foundation website includes a passage on the Bloomingdale show stating that:
"The furniture of George Nelson was shown in a model room of a house designed by Nelson's colleague Irving Harper and also distributed across the entire furniture department."
So it is possible that drawn advertisement is of Farmer's apartment and also possible that he designed the coffee table as a centerpiece around which Nelson's furniture was arranged.
In the case of Irving Harper, designer of the Marshmallow sofa, he made a decision to wait until Nelson's death before clarifying the design was his, explaining:
"...So there always had to be one name associated with the work. We couldn’t just spread it around.” He pauses for a moment. “Well, that’s ﬁne. I’m grateful to George for what he did for me. 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.” (Source: Makovsky, 2015).
Irving Harper also designed the modern Herman Miller logo in 1947. Its swooping lines share a resemblance to the curves of the table. Compared with George Nelson's fondness for grid like structure -- a nod to modularity and modern production in all things -- we might lean toward the 4561 table design being Harper's.
Where are the 4651 Tables Now?
After some searching, I found that the table sold at auction is now owned by Ponce Berga, because the listing used the same Renzo Rutili attribution. I contacted them to share my findings and Mike was really helpful in providing confirmation this was the same table and even shared the high resolution photos you see here. It's refreshing to interact with a furniture dealer who is open to new information and can share in the excitement of a discovery like this!
I was thrilled to see the listing because it meant the table wasn't snatched up at the auction by a private collector, hidden in their trove, never to be seen again! Ponce Berga obviously identified that it was a special design, regardless of the attribution.
While that accounts for one table, we know there is at least one more that was made -- and possibly many more! If you've ever spotted this table online or in person, please reach out to let us know.
Source: Ponce Berga on 1stdibs
Thanks for reading another super niche and exceedingly nerdy furniture attribution discovery blog article thingy- apparently it's my thing. If you'd like to read other things like this, check out the following misatribution furniture discoveries:
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