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Friday Focus - Herman Miller Nelson Bubble Lamp

How the European avant garde inspired one of the world’s most famous lighting designs

It was while travelling across Europe in the 1930s, already besotted by European design and the avant garde, that George Nelson first encountered an idea for clusters of lamps that was to inspire one of his most famous designs. Nelson had long been an evangelist for European design back in his own land of the US, usually in the form of extended missives in American design journals. It was one such article that was to change his life and the direction of the manufacturer Herman Miller; an association that was to literally reshape the world around us.
In 1945, Life magazine published an article on Nelson’s revolutionary concept for the Storage Wall, the first modular storage system and a forerunner of systems furniture. Herman Miller founder D.J. De Pree saw the article and was impressed with Nelson. He convinced him to join the company as Director of Design, a post he held from 1947 to 1972. A series of mid-century modern classics came from this collaboration, like the playful Marshmallow Sofa, the Thin Edge Storage series, and the first L-shaped desk, a precursor of today's workstation.

During this time, he also curated the first Herman Miller Collection, a comprehensive set of products that related to each other, their surroundings, and had a minimal, functional aesthetic. Nelson explained, "total design is nothing more or less than a process of relating everything to everything." One of the best known products from this period, the Bubble Lamp, was inspired by a set of hanging lamps the designer had seen in Sweden. “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.

Nelson located the manufacturer of a white plastic spray that was used by the US military after WW2 to “mothball” military warships and airplanes for future use. It was used as temporary protective packaging of engine, machinery, and other articles. Nelson acquired the rights to this resinous plastic solution and used it in the making of the Nelson Bubble Lamps.

Nelson created the 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, translucent skin.

Favoured by interior designers working on commercial, residential or hospitality projects, the lamps are typically hung in dramatic clusters to bring impact and make a statement in any space, while casting a soft and consistent light. The lamps are available in a range of styles and sizes including Ball, Pear, Saucer, Cigar and Propeller pendants and offer a timeless reminder of the value of great design and its ability to work across different cultures. 

To find out more about the Herman Miller Nelson Bubble Lamp please click here.
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