…And Then it Started Raining Nelson Bubble Lamps

This weekend wasn’t such a bad weekend for finds. Not a bad one at all. Tammy dragged me out of my warm bed early Saturday morning to hit a nearby community sale. Although I had protested, her persistence paid off and I was glad she didn’t let me sleep in. What did I find to make it all worth it? Well, let’s see. There was an odorous chair, a dirty kitchen table, a broken record player… It seems like there was something else. What could it have been? Oh yeah, now I remember, it was 12 of these:


That’s right, 12 of George Nelson’s iconic bubble lamps. I should be clear, however, that I didn’t find these at what would have had to have been the most amazing garage sale ever. No, I found them on Craigslist while I was waiting to meet up with Tammy. That’s why I’m so glad she convinced me to go. If I hadn’t, I might not have seen this posting for hours and I would have been very, very upset to have missed it. As it was, the posting had been up for hours, but it was a discreet posting that just said “lamps” and had a picture of a different fixture. I saw that photo, thought it looked kind of vintage and clicked. Then as I scrolled through the pictures I saw what surely had to be Nelson bubble lamps. I began shaking slightly. A frantic email was followed up by a frantic phone call and an appointment was made. Apparently nobody else had noticed the posting either.


It turned out the fixtures were all coming out of a roller skating rink that was being remodeled. They thought these lamps were too “retro” for the youths to enjoy, so eight 17-inch and four 25-inch Nelson saucer lamps as well as some other plastic saucer-shaped globes were all up for grabs. But were they authentic? A few things made me wonder. First the material didn’t look as white or opaque as the originals. Second, the seller told me the building they were in was built in the late 1980s; I wasn’t sure if they were even in production that late. Third, the wire frames were painted white but the real Nelson lamps I’ve seen have unpainted frames.


When I arrived I found the lamps all bearing a “Gossamer Designs in Lighting, LTD” label, not the “Howard Miller Clock Company” label originals would have had. But even for knock-offs the price was right so I bought them and headed home. Later as I researched Gossamer Designs, I discovered that although these aren’t originals, they aren’t really knock-offs either.

Howard Miller produced the lamps from 1952 until sometime in the 1970s or 80s when they discontinued their lighting business. A local company bought the bubble lamp making equipment and began producing them under the Gossamer Designs moniker. Although Gossamer didn’t use Nelson’s name to market them, the lamps were produced to his original specs save for a more environmentally friendly vinyl and a coat of white paint on the frame. Gossamer eventually folded, selling all of the equipment to Los Angeles-based Modernica in 1999. Modernica has since manufactured and sold the lamps again bearing the Nelson name. Interestingly they’re currently tangled in a lawsuit with the Nelson Foundation as well as competitor Herman Miller over rights to the design.


As the story goes, George Nelson was inspired to design the lights after coveting an unattainably priced Danish lamp with a similar shape of hand-sewn silk. His desire for a more affordable stylish option became a possibility when he read an article about ships being stored by having their decks covered with netting and sprayed with self-webbing plastic. A phone call to the plastic manufacturer and a few prototypes later, the bubble lamp was born. Their production is almost as fun as they are. The wire frame is simply spun at a high speed as the vinyl material is sprayed on. You can see how they’re made on Modernica’s blog.

Lamp being made, via Modernica

Lamp being made, via Modernica

After getting them home I discovered that the larger lamps must stay hanging or the weight of the unsupported lamp causes the frame to bow and stretch the vinyl skin. If they sit too long, they wrinkle when you hang them back up. So, I had to make some adjustments in my garage to house them properly.


Real or quasi real, I’m very excited to have these. Not 24 hours before this I was discussing how I wanted some for a home office makeover I’m currently planning. I decided the odds of finding even one affordable one weren’t great. I was kind of right—it was much easier to find 12.

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  1. Carrie McDonald
    Posted April 21, 2016 at 7:15 pm | Permalink

    you don’t still have any do you?

  2. John R Magon
    Posted September 24, 2017 at 9:59 pm | Permalink

    I have the same large bubble lamp thanks for the info.

  3. Thomas Powell
    Posted February 13, 2018 at 2:48 pm | Permalink

    Has anyone ever heard of Cleveland Industrial Supply? I picked up to saucers and a cigar bubble lamps with that name on them.

  4. Kiran
    Posted November 15, 2018 at 9:01 pm | Permalink

    Hi! I was wondering if you have any more information on the coating of the frame? I know it’s been described as a self-webbing plastic but I have to recreate this lamp for a class and have no idea what material I should use for the coating?

  5. Ronit Naudin
    Posted August 18, 2019 at 1:40 pm | Permalink

    I’ve had the Cigar Nelson lamp from Modernica for 4 years now, I love everything about it except it’s smells like plastic. It’s hangs in my powder room and there is no window to open. Any idea how to get rid of the smell?

    Any suggestions will be greatly appreciated.

    • Zach
      Posted October 17, 2020 at 9:58 pm | Permalink

      Never published nor shared??? Ours smells like band aids. Called an electrician because I thought it was old wiring that was about to start a fire. ):

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