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Heralded Designer Loves Comfort


Richard Nelson ’53 has designed interiors for the White House and on both sides of the Atlantic.

Richard A. Nelson ’53 was not yet 30 when he helped select fabrics and furniture for the private quarters and the Red Room at the White House. The renovated interior, which First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy later showed off in a TV interview, was in the Federal style. Nelson knew the period well. He’d grown up in a Federal-style house in Mount Vernon. While living under his parents’ roof across from the Ash Park tennis courts, Nelson imprinted the house with rich reds, blues, and yellows.
“I made all of the decisions. I drove my parents crazy,” says Nelson, whose late father, Roy Nelson, taught physics at Cornell.

Richard attended the School of American Ballet in New York after college, but his heart lay in interior design. His acumen has earned him illustrious clients on both sides of the Atlantic.

Architectural Digest has featured his work on its cover. The New York Times Magazine also has featured him. Home and Garden Television’s “Interiors by Design” has filmed mansions Nelson has renovated in Newport, R.I., where he lives. Nelson’s own home there was the subject of a 1998 article in the British publication House and Garden, and a television show on America’s distinguished designers.

At 67, Nelson has no plans to retire his business, The Red Unicorn. Recent projects include the design of a computer company’s Manhattan office and the interior of a country home in Oxford, England.

Nelson, who majored in art and design, got his professional start at the side of Mrs. Henry Parrish. The Kennedys were among her clients. He worked with Parrish eight years in New York before starting his own business in 1963.

Nelson is a fabrics man who loves opulent treatment of walls and windows, but he also works by the maxim, “Live it all and enjoy it!” That philosophy is designed for families. Children should be welcome. Sofas and chairs should be squashy and inviting.

“I think rooms should look like they are lived in,” says Nelson, who is writing a design book that has as its working title Curtains Up.

Nelson’s style is in line with Iowa homes he knew as a boy. “They were all comfortable houses, houses that sort of did what I like now,” he says.

Nelson’s family is full of Cornellians. Among them: Nelson’s late brother, Harlan Nelson ’45, sister-in-law, Kay Koppelo Nelson Mathias ’45, and her son, Robert Mathias ’72; his sister, Audrey Nelson Adrian ’47, and her husband, Charles Adrian ’47; and his cousin, Jean Trego Smith ’49, and her husband, Virgil Smith ’49.

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