Born in a poor family of a small village in central Barbagia, in a quite culturally isolated context, Nývola (accent on "i") started as a simple worker, a stonemason, in local building industry. In Sassari, with the painter Mario Delitala, him too from Orani, Nivola had his artistic start, and soon the two worked together for the decoration of some spaces in the local university.
He then moved to the italian mainland, and in 1931 entered the ISIA, the state institute for Artistic Industry in Monza, near Milan. His first official exhibitions are recorded in this period; among many works, notably he produced some xylography, a form of art that would have remained a characteristic expression of Sardinia.
Nivola started then frequenting France (and Paris in particular, where he met Emilio Lussu during his clandestinity), establishing contacts with artists from other countries. Supposedly here he first met his wife, Ruth Guggenheim.
In 1936 he entered the graphics' division of Olivetti, then one of the most important industrial firms in the nation, but in 1939, after Fascism issued racial laws, to protect his wife, he left Italy for France first and the U.S.A. later (Long Island).
Here, in 1940 he became the artistic director for "Interiors" and "Progressive Architecture". In time he became a close friend of Le Corbusier and not without his influences and reflections, Nivola defined his quite surprising technique called "sand-casting". Nivola then provided works for Olivetti showroom in New York (a famous sand-cast relief wall), Mutual Hartford Insurance Company (Connecticut), Harvard University, McCormick Plaza Exposition Center (Chicago) and Yale University.
In 1954 Nivola became a professor and the director of the "Design Workshop" at the University of Harvard, while the American Institute of Graphic Arts assigned him its Certificate of Excellence. His academical work increased with other teachings, like in Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Den Haag, Netherlands.
He died in Long Island (New York), in 1988.
Nivola's sand casting has been briefly described as a bas-relief sculpture in concrete. Landscape architect Michael Gotkin recently said that Nivola had took the traditional mediterranean essence of the ancient graffito and translated it into modern terms. Others suggested that his work expresses a seamless integration of sculpture and architecture.