How George Nelson Came Up With the Design for His Iconic Bubble Lamp

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Chances are, you've probably seen a George Nelson Bubble Lamp at some point in your life, whether at a restaurant, a hotel, or perhaps even a design museum. However, you may not know the history behind the ubiquitous light fixture. How did one of the most famous modernist designs come to be? Well, it all started with a silk light from Sweden.

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Who is George Nelson?

Jewish American industrial designer George Nelson is largely considered one of the founding figures of American modernism, alongside such names as Charles and Ray Eames and Isamu Noguchi.

Born in Hartford, Connecticut, in 1908, Nelson attended Yale University, where he studied architecture, followed by graduate studies at Catholic University in Rome. The pivotal moment in the young designer's career, however, came when he was given the opportunity to study at the American Academy in Rome from 1932 through 1934, according to Vitra. There, he was introduced to some of the greats — Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe, and Walter Gropius, among them.

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Returning to the United States, Nelson served as an editor at ‌Architectural Forum,‌ a critic at the Columbia University School of Architecture, and a published author of ‌Tomorrow's House‌, which he co-wrote with Henry Wright, per the George Nelson Foundation.

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As a designer, he was hired by Herman Miller in 1945, working his way up to design director. Between his role at the company and his private practice, Nelson became one of the most lauded American designers of the mid-century.

What is the bubble lamp?

The bubble lamp is not just a single lamp, but a series of lamps in different geometric shapes with delicate ridging — they're all reminiscent of paper lanterns. Nelson designed the light fixtures through the late 1940s, largely inspired by organic shapes like apples, pears, and lotus flowers, according to Herman Miller, and they went into production with the company in 1952.

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How did Nelson come up with the bubble lamp?

In 1947, Nelson spotted silk hanging lamps in Sweden that he absolutely adored. "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," he once wrote, according to the book George Nelson: The Design of Modern Design by Stanley Abercrombie.

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However, the lamp cost $125 — or more than $1,600 in today's dollars. So, Nelson decided to make his own version. He created metal forms and used a sprayable "spiderweb" plastic developed by the military to cover old ships retired from World War II.

Where can I buy a bubble lamp today?

Vintage versions of the bubble lamps are available in secondhand marketplaces, but today, they're still produced by Herman Miller, albeit in a slightly modernized way. Plus, they're still cheaper than the original $1,600 Swedish silk lamp that inspired Nelson — the lamps start at $395.

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