The son and daughter-in-law of modernist architect and furniture designer George Nelson have sued a collection of lawyers, who they said took advantage of the failing health of Nelson’s widow to transfer the rights to Nelson’s iconic designs, including the Bubble Lamp, to a foundation headed by a Michigan furniture maker, allowing the foundation to claim the proceeds from a settlement with a rival furniture maker accused of making and selling bubble lamps under the Nelson name without permission.
On Aug. 10, plaintiffs Patrice and Georges Mico Nelson filed suit in Cook County Circuit Court on behalf of themselves and Georges’ mother, Jacqueline Nelson, against attorney William Dorsey and his firm, Katten Muchin Rosenman LLP, of Chicago, and attorney Robert Giordanella, and his firm, Cowan Liebowitz & Latman P.C., of New York. The complaint also named as defendants the Michigan-based The Nelson Foundation.
The complaint asks the court to order Dorsey and the Katten defendants to repay at least $800,000 in “wrongfully assessed” legal fees, as well as unspecified “exemplary or punitive damages” for their alleged roles in orchestrating the transfer of the rights to Nelson’s intellectual property from Jacqueline Nelson to The Nelson Foundation. They are asking for less specific additional damages from the other defendants.
The complaint centers on the events surrounding the 2015 settlement of a trademark infringement lawsuit brought by The Nelson Foundation against Modernica, a Los Angeles-based company that had made so-called Bubble Lamps under the Nelson name since 1999.
Under that settlement, the Foundation acquired the rights to the Bubble Lamp design, a kind of lighting that has remained rather popular since George Nelson first unveiled the design in 1952. According to published reports, Modernica had annually sold 25,000 such lamps per year, with each lamp selling for $269-$1,395, depending on shape and size.
According to the recently filed complaint, however, the Nelson family contends the foundation would not have had the right to pursue the lawsuit or settle that lawsuit without Nelson’s widow, but for the alleged missteps of the lawyers involved.
George Nelson had died in 1986, leaving his estate, including the rights to his designs and other intellectual property, to his wife.
However, beginning in 2009, a group the complaint said was “interested in acquiring or enforcing the Nelson IP” began talking with Jacqueline Nelson about “forming a nonprofit foundation to educate, exhibit and advance the legacy of George Nelson’s contributions to American Modernism.”
At the forefront of that group was Michigan furniture maker Herman Miller, who made and sold Nelson-designed furniture under a licensing agreement with the Nelson estate.
The complaint said Jacqueline was skeptical of the need for such a foundation, but allegedly agreed to its creation on the stipulation that “it cannot touch royalties which are due” to either Jacqueline or Nelson’s son, Georges Mico Nelson.
Accordingly, the complaint alleges, the prospective foundation organizers agreed “it ‘would not be necessary to make any legal transfer of rights,’” securing Jacqueline’s approval. The Foundation was incorporated in 2011.
The Foundation then brought on Dorsey to serve as their attorney on a pro bono basis.
However, in 2012, Jacqueline’s health began to fail as she battled bladder cancer, and later broke a bone in her neck in a fall at her home.
Later that year, the complaint alleges, the Foundation sought to revise its relationship with the Nelson family, drafting an agreement to transfer the rights to the Nelson intellectual property to the Foundation and “diverting some of the Nelson family’s interests in royalties from Herman Miller.”
The complaint asserted Dorsey never advised Jacqueline he was only representing the Foundation in the matter, nor advised her to seek legal counsel on her own. The complaint claims Jacqueline, then 93 years old, “very ill” with “diminishing mental capacity” and in a nursing home, signed over full rights, but believed she was only making a much more limited assignment to protect her late-husband’s designs from infringement.
Following that assignment, the complaint said, the Foundation moved ahead with its lawsuit and settlement against Modernica. And in 2014, the complaint asserted, Dorsey informed Jacqueline’s children for the first time that “he was no longer working on a pro bono basis for the Nelson Foundation and that Jacqueline was responsible for his fees for the Modernica suit.”
In response, Georges Mico and Patrice Nelson hired Giordanello to represent them. However, the complaint said Giordanello did not do enough to press their rights, allowing “Miller, which was not a party to the Modernica lawsuit, to obtain intellectual property and other rights and/or interests related to the valuable Bubble Lamps and other Nelson IP.”
The Nelson family is represented in the action by attorneys with the firm of Konicek & Dillon P.C., in suburban Geneva.