lighting the way: george nelson's iconic bubble lamp 03/2016

Photo Source:Flavin Architects, Photo by Nat Rea


Practicality, function and beauty go hand-in-hand when it comes to Mid-century Modern design. Whether looking at the work of architects like Richard Neutra or Henry Hoover, or designers like George Nelson, it is evident that their work is tied together by this common thread. And it makes sense. During the post-war era, when commercialism was booming and the country was recovering from war-time austerity, modernists were not only introduced to an abundance of new, highly developed materials. They also had to consider affordability and restraint in their work and designs to appeal to the growing middle class. Because of this, it was typical of the time to see military materials incorporated into domestic products. There was a lot of it, and it was affordable. 


We recently saw an example of this in a client’s home. Our clients chose to use a George Nelson “Saucer” Bubble Lamp to hang over their dining room table. The lamps rich history made it a perfect fit with the history of their own home, which was originally designed by architect Henry Hoover. This house, which was updated to better fit the client’s needs (for the full story, see our blog post Sculpted to the Land: Restoring a Henry Hoover Masterpiece), is also a typical example of the design intrinsic to the post-war era.  The home features the use of raw aluminum, a material that was popularized after World War II. As a nod to the original design, our clients decided to use raw aluminum for all of the updated finishes. Like Nelson’s Bubble Lamp, this home represents a 20th century design movement that still speaks to today.


Photo Sources: (Left), Studio Pepe for Spotti; (Right) 


George Nelson is known as one of the founding fathers of American Modernism. His Bubble Lamp, originally designed in 1947, was inspired by a Swedish hanging lamp made of hand sewn silk that he thought would be perfect for his office space. “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.” wrote Nelson in his book, On Design, published in 1979 ( Enamored by the style, but dissuaded by the steep cost, he set out to create his own. After seeing a photo in the New York Times of a Liberty Ship being “mothballed” with netting and then sprayed with a self-webbing plastic created for military use, Nelson tracked down the manufacturer and the original George Nelson Bubble Lamp was born. What Nelson created was a beautiful sculpture with a true function-to illuminate the spaces one occupies.


One of the wonderful things about Nelson’s work, as well as that of other architects, landscape, and furniture designers of his era, is the timeless simplicity of his designs. It’s an aesthetic that never goes out of style. Elegant, understated, whimsical and fun, there is something about Nelson’s design that really brings a space—whether traditional or contemporary—to life.


Text by Alejandra Bennett, Studio Manager
Flavin Architects