Quick History: George Nelson's Bubble Lamp

Retrospect

George Nelson's Bubble lamps are familiar icons of Modernism. Somehow evocative of both paper lanterns and the space race, they have a warm simplicity that is always in style. The story behind their creation is best told in the words of George Nelson himself.

Nelson designed the first bubble lamp in 1947, incorporating a self-webbing plastic that was developed for military use. It was typical in the postwar era to incorporate these sorts of military materials in domestic products — even familiar materials like plywood had been greatly improved through military necessity. The result for Nelson was a lamp that was safer to produce and more durable than a paper lantern, cheaper and easier to produce than a silk lantern he had been inspired by, and which above all was incredibly versatile and created an warm glow when illuminated. Here's how he described it, and note how self-deprecating he was:

It was important to me to have certain status symbols around, and one of the symbols was a spherical hanging lamp made in Sweden. It had 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.

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. One day Bonniers, a Swedish import store in New York, announced a sale of these lamps. I rushed down with one of the guys in the office and found one shopworn sample with thumbmarks on it and a price of $125.

It is hard to remember what $125 meant in the late 'forties … I was furious and was stalking angrily down the stairs when suddenly an image popped into my mind which seemed to have nothing to do with anything. 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 … Whammo! We rushed back to the office and made a roughly spherical frame; we called various places until we located the manufacturer of the spiderwebby spray. 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."

It is worth mentioning that Nelson always described his career in these kinds of terms, as if he were just a naive guy who kept bumping into good ideas. For example, he claimed that he had no intention of studying architecture until one day as a student at Yale he ducked into the architecture building during a rainstorm, and stumbled upon his calling. He described his career-making job at Herman Miller in similar terms, insisting that as an architect he was was barely qualified to design furniture. All this may be true, but it all somehow lead to one of the most prominent design careers of the 20th century.


Source: Stanley Abercrombie, George Nelson: The Design of Modern Design, MIT Press (2000).

Shopping: Nelson Bubble Lamps are available in a bunch of different shapes, sizes at DWR, Modernica, Room & Board and Hive, among other retailers. Unlike in 1947, it costs more than $125.

Images: 1 Nelson "bubble" lamps via Hive Modern; 2 Rodney Walker's Case Study House #16 via the Modernica blog; 3 Photo by Simon Upton for the April 2010 Elle Decor; 4 Dining room designed by Aaron Hom, photographed by Julian Wass for House Beautiful; 5 George Nelson, ca. 1955, via Kaufmann Mercantile.