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A recently filed lawsuit challenges the ownership of the intellectual property of  George Nelson’s Bubble Lamp design. A recently filed lawsuit challenges the ownership of the intellectual property of George Nelson’s Bubble Lamp design. COURTESY PHOTO

Lawsuit claims Herman Miller, foundation fraudulently obtained Nelson designs

BY Sunday, November 07, 2021 06:05pm

ZEELAND — A recent lawsuit alleges Herman Miller Inc. and a foundation with close ties to the contract furniture manufacturer conspired to obtain rights to an iconic mid-century modern lighting furniture design.

The lawsuit, filed in September in the U.S. District Court in the Southern District of New York, claims Herman Miller and the nonprofit George Nelson Foundation fraudulently obtained intellectual property rights of the late designer’s iconic Bubble Lamp. The case was brought by the estate of George Nelson’s wife, Jacqueline Nelson, and his son, Georges Mico Nelson.

The lawsuit involves seven counts, including fraud and conspiracy to commit fraud, unjust enrichment, and trademark infringement and unfair competition. Defendants in the case are Herman Miller, the George Nelson Foundation, foundation Executive Director Karen Stein and Karen D. Stein LLC.

The lawsuit focuses on a pair of previous lawsuits involving Herman Miller and the George Nelson Foundation, as well as the formation of the foundation itself. The lawsuit alleges the defendants “engaged in a long-running, intentional fraudulent scheme to obtain the Nelson (intellectual property) through false pretenses and to divert royalty payments to themselves” that should have gone to the Nelson family. 

The plaintiffs claim Herman Miller “created a sham entity and alter ego” in the George Nelson Foundation to “dupe” Jacqueline Nelson into effectively turning over the intellectual property to the foundation. At the time, Jacqueline Nelson was in her 90s with “severely diminished mental and physical capacity.”

A Herman Miller spokesperson declined to comment, citing a company policy to not comment on pending litigation. Attorneys for the plaintiffs and the defendants did not respond to a request for comment.

Herman Miller and the foundation have until Nov. 22 to file formal responses to the claims.

Design dispute

The dispute dates back to early 2005, when the Nelson family claims Herman Miller employees attempted to obtain George Nelson’s intellectual property rights from the family. The lawsuit claims Herman Miller officials first approached Jacqueline Nelson about forming the foundation in “late 2009 or early 2010,” while stressing to the family that the nonprofit would be independent in nature.

The George Nelson Foundation — whose mission is to “protect, promote and extend the legacy of George Nelson’s work” — was incorporated in Michigan on Feb. 12, 2010. In addition to Stein, the foundation board includes two Herman Miller employees, including Chief Creative Officer Ben Watson. 

According to the foundation’s most recently available tax filings, Herman Miller contributed $117,263 to the nonprofit in 2018, or most of the foundation’s revenue.

The Nelson estate’s lawsuit hinges on these close ties between Herman Miller and the foundation. The Nelson estate cites a 2013 trademark infringement lawsuit that the George Nelson Foundation filed against Los Angeles-based designer and Herman Miller competitor Modernica Inc. over Modernica’s use of Nelson’s design when producing the Bubble Lamp. Modernica manufactured the lamps under trademarks it received in 2010 and 2011.

The Los Angeles Times reported in 2013 that in the suit against Modernica, the foundation had said that Jacqueline Nelson “assigned all rights to Nelson trademarks to the foundation.”

The Modernica lawsuit settled in 2015 and gave the intellectual property rights to the foundation. Meanwhile, Herman Miller brought a separate lawsuit against Modernica in Michigan over Eames designs. The Nelson family now argues that settlements reached in those two cases resulted in Herman Miller improperly obtaining the Bubble Lamp intellectual property.

Terence Linn, an intellectual property attorney and partner at Grand Rapids-based Gardner, Linn, Burkhart and Ondersma LLP who reviewed the Nelsons’ lawsuit for MiBiz, said the claims center on George Nelson’s intellectual property rights but more so in how they were obtained.

“They’re alleging there was an overall fraud being perpetrated here in order to take right,” Linn said.

The case is the latest in an ongoing series of legal disputes over furniture designs that play particularly prominent in West Michigan with major manufacturers, Linn said.

“In this town, commercial designs of physical equipment is a big thing, it’s a big part of what people in this town do,” he said. “Furniture companies in particular are really conscious of that, and have a tendency to protect themselves or their products.”

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