An assortment of lights in various spherical silhouettes, the Nelson Bubble Lamps add a touch of softness and luminosity to interiors. Designed by George Nelson in 1952, these elegant fixtures are fashioned from a sturdy, lightweight steel frame yet have a delicate, floating quality, whether in ceiling-hung, floor, table, or wall-mounted variations.
Nelson was inspired by a set of silk-covered Swedish hanging lamps that he wanted to acquire for his office, but he found the price to be prohibitive. An ingenious and resourceful designer, he went on to create the first set of Nelson Bubble Lamps using a translucent white plastic spray, a technique developed by the U.S. military at the time. Nelson drew from elemental, organic shapes in making variations like the Apple Bubble Pendant, the Pear Wall Sconce, the Lotus Table Lamp, and the Saucer Pendant Lamp, among others.
A tale of ingenuity
An influential designer of mid-century modernism in America, George Nelson came across a set of hanging lamps from Sweden and loved everything about their modern aesthetic, except for their extravagant cost. “The Swedish design was done in a silk covering that was very difficult to make; they had to cut gores and sew them onto a wire frame. But I wanted one badly,” Nelson wrote in his book, On Design, published in 1979.
A seemingly unrelated reference soon led to an intuitive idea. He recalled, “It was a picture in the New York Times some weeks before which showed Liberty ships being mothballed by having the decks covered with netting and then being sprayed with a self webbing plastic.” Nelson located the manufacturer of this resinous plastic and used it in the making of the bubble lamps.
The first prototype of the lamp was designed in a matter of two days. Nelson created the spherical frame with perforated rings that were inserted with steel wires, a construction that retained its shape under tension, required minimum tools, and no welding costs. It was then sprayed with the resinous lacquer to form a fibrous web, and a final coat of plastic was applied, creating a smooth, translucent skin. And hence Nelson had added lighting installations to his expanding portfolio of work and introduced a beautiful, timeless lighting fixture to consumers at modest prices.
“Design is a response to social change.”
- George Nelson
An early zap came in the 1930s, when he was an architectural student in Rome. Before returning home, an idea struck him: He would travel Europe and interview leading modern architects, hoping to get the articles published in the U.S. He succeeded, and in the process introduced the U.S. design community to the European avant-garde. This set in motion a sequence of what he called "lucky" career breaks that were really the inevitable outcomes of his brilliance as a designer, teacher, and author.
The first break was being named an editor of Architectural Forum magazine. Working on a story there in 1942, he was looking at aerial photos of blighted cities when—zap!—he developed the concept of the downtown pedestrian mall, which was unveiled in the Saturday Evening Post.
Soon after, another zap led to the Storagewall, the first modular storage system and a forerunner of systems furniture. The Storagewall was showcased in a 1945 Lifemagazine article, causing a sensation in the furniture industry. Herman Miller founder D.J. De Pree saw the article and was so impressed that he paid a visit to Nelson in New York and convinced him to be his director of design, which spurred Nelson to found his design firm, George Nelson & Associates. The warm, personal, and professional relationship between Nelson and De Pree yielded a stunning range of products, from the playful Marshmallow Sofa to the first L-shaped desk, a precursor of today's workstation.
Nelson once wrote that Herman Miller "is not playing follow-the-leader." That's one reason why George Nelson & Associates worked with Herman Miller for over 25 years as they shepherded design into the modern era.