Ingenuity, innovation, and Swedish inspiration

Over seven decades ago, George Nelson – an influential designer of mid-century modernism in America – came across a set of hanging lamps from Sweden and loved everything about their aesthetic. One standout feature: a complex silk covering sewn onto a spherical wire frame. Defined by the beauty in their details, these delightful fixtures were a true status symbol.

“It was important to me to have certain status symbols around,” Nelson admits. “One of the symbols was a spherical hanging lamp made in Sweden. 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.”

Originally envisioning the charming fixtures in his workspace, Nelson was taken aback when he visited a Swedish import store that announced a sale of these lights. He wanted one badly, but the cost was extravagant. Disappointed, Nelson had left empty-handed. The hanging lamp he had desired was simply too expensive. Yet still, the light lingered in his mind. Somehow, the thought of this unattainable luminaire sparked the memory of an image that the designer had noticed many days prior.

Herman Miller George Nelson LightForm Blog

“It was hard to remember what $125 USD meant in the late forties… I was furious and was stalking angrily down the stairs when suddenly an image popped into my mind,” explains Nelson. “It was a picture in the New York Times some weeks before which showed Liberty ships being mothballed by having the deck covered with netting and then being sprayed with a self-webbing plastic.”

In an attempt to preserve military warships for future use, they were “mothballed” by the US military in the late 1940s. 

With the post-WW2 mothballing technique in mind, Nelson visualized the material being used – its fabric-like quality providing durability. Then, the designer immediately made a connection between the protective plastic material and the silk-covered set of Swedish lamps he had wished to purchase earlier.

Herman Miller George Nelson Bubble LightForm Blog

“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 we put a light in it, it glowed, and it did not cost $125 USD.

Nelson created a spherical frame with perforated rings that were inserted with steel wires, a construction that retained its shape under tension. It was a method that required minimum tools and had 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 and translucent skin.

In the next few years, Nelson refined the design – officially releasing it in 1952. More than 60 years later, the Nelson® Bubble® collection continues to stand the test of time. Its innovative composition provides a fantastic example of modern design – helping an idea come to life through the use of previously unconsidered materials.

With their soft brightness and airy spherical shapes, these lamps bring warmth and personality to any setting. Despite their sturdy steel frames, they have a very “light” feel to them, and these characteristics are maintained in each of its variations available today – whether short, tall, big, or small.

Available in several suspensionwalltable, and floor lamp configurations, these lamps are incredibly unique. Today, the vast selection of Bubble exterior patterns continues to expand – now including the sleek “Roll“, “Orbit“, and “Angled Sphere” pendant models that were originally produced in 1952, and were recently rediscovered in the George Nelson Foundation archives.

New Nelson Bubble pendants, pictured left to right: Roll, Orbit, and Angled Sphere.

The strong texture of the lightweight steel frame housed within the translucent shade of each Nelson Bubble lamp always makes an impactful statement, regardless of the setting.

The versatile Nelson Bubble collection from Herman Miller offers an assortment of lighting solutions fit to meet the needs of any project. Browse our website, connect with us, or visit one of our showrooms for more information about this collection of iconic luminaires.