A Mid-century icon: The story of George Nelson’s bubble lamps
Icons of mid-century design, we discover the story behind the bubble lamp.
With their timeless silhouettes and diffused glow - it was a moment of inspiration that bought us one of George Nelson’s most enduring designs.
Who was George Nelson?
One of the most influential figures in American design during the 20th Century, George Nelson is often referred to as one of the founding fathers of modernism. An architect, designer, writer, teacher and passionate photographer – Nelson gained his architectural degree at Yale before studying at the American Academy in Rome where he met Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe and Walter Gropius.
Attracting the attention of the head of furniture brand Herman Miller early in his career, Nelson was asked to design a number of products for the brand before becoming its Design Director – a position he held alongside establishing his own office. Producing designs including the coconut chair, home desk, Nelson bench, ball clock and of course, the bubble lamps – George Nelson spent his career designing items which are now regarded as icons of mid-century modernism.
Inspired by practicality
In 1947, George Nelson became obsessed with a spherical white lamp, desperately wanting one for his new design office. Made in Sweden and covered in stretched silk, at $125 these designs were too expensive for Nelson to buy and too tedious to reproduce – so he decided to design his own.
Inspired by a newspaper photograph showing sailing ships being sprayed with a resinous lacquer for protection in storage - Nelson had an epiphany, and within a number of days he had tracked down the manufacturer of the “spiderwebby spray” and created his first prototype.
“We had a modest office and I felt that if I had one of those big hanging spheres from Sweden it would show that I was really with it, a pillar of contemporary design.” – George Nelson
Created using a spherical metal cage that held its shape under tension, required minimum tools and no welding costs – the original bubble lamp was born. Covered by the military grade resinous spray lacquer and coated in a thin layer of plastic, these lights had a smooth translucent skin that gave off a soft glow. With their efficient construction process, Nelson had turned an expensive idea into a beautiful, mass-producible design that could be sold at a modest price.
In his book, ‘On Design’ Nelson reflected on the epiphany: “By the next night we had a plastic-covered lamp, and when you put a light in it, it glowed, and it did not cost $125.”
Becoming an icon
By 1952, with a streamlined design – the bubble lamps were being produced by Howard Miller Clock Co. and soon gained the attention of fellow modernist designers. Impressed by the design, it wasn’t long before Charles and Ray Eames had hung one of the original lamps in the living room of their Californian home.
Over the next two decades, the bubble lamps continued to gain popularity for their affordable, simple and impactful design before going out of production in 1972. The original designs are now part of the permanent collection at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
The Bubble Lamps today
Taking over the production rights for the bubble lamp collection in 2016, Herman Miller are now the official producers of these iconic lamps. True to Nelson’s original production process, the lights have been re-issued to the original specifications with a few slight updates to extend their durability.
Giving off a subtle diffused glow, the bubble lamps add a touch of softness and luminosity to interiors, sitting as perfectly in contemporary spaces as they do in mid-century inspired homes.
From the cigar to the saucer, the apple to the bubble ball, the bubble lights come in a series of iconic silhouettes. Whether you are after a pendant, wall or floor standing light, shop the full collection of George Nelson lighting designs at Nest.
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