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Bubble lamp brouhaha: Legal battle over a midcentury icon

George Nelson's 1952 Bubble lamps are icons of Midcentury Modernism, arguably some of the most enduring designs of the era. But now that famed illumination, so soft and diffuse, finds itself in the harsh spotlight of one the year's most interesting design disputes.

The George Nelson Foundation, which in court documents describes itself as a nonprofit "dedicated to preserving the legacy of Mr. Nelson," filed a trademark infringement lawsuit in May against Los Angeles-based Modernica. The company, owned and operated by brothers Frank and Jay Novak, is exclusive manufacturer of the Bubble lamps. At stake: all intellectual property and the original equipment used to produce the lamps.

The legal drama comes with one more character: Modernica competitor Herman Miller. In Modernica's court motion to have the lawsuit dismissed, the company said the principal partner of the George Nelson Foundation is also the general counsel of Herman Miller. The official business address of the foundation, court documents said, is the address of Herman Miller.

The lawsuit is essentially an attempt by Herman Miller to weaken the competition, Modernica said in court documents.

Modernica has proved the Bubble lamp to be big business indeed during the last 15 years. Annual sales of the Bubbles total about 25,000 units, the company said. The lights come in a range of shapes and sizes, each retailing for $269 to $1,395.

Lawyers for the George Nelson Foundation and a representative for Herman Miller declined requests for comment.  But in court documents, the foundation said Jacqueline Nelson, the 93-year-old widow of George Nelson, assigned all rights to Nelson trademarks to the foundation. Modernica is selling "unauthorized" copies of the lamps, the foundation said in court documents.

The lamps originally were produced by the Howard Miller Clock Co. But after Howard Miller sold the lamp business, it eventually became property of Gossamer Designs in Lighting, which went out of business.

Modernica acquired the equipment used to make Bubble lamps through a bankruptcy sale, Frank Novak said, and set out to revive an abandoned product line. Modernica started to manufacture the Bubble lamps in 1999, and the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office granted trademarks including the use of the "George Nelson" and "Nelson" marks for lighting in 2010 and 2011.

Among the potential implications for consumers: Will the manufacturing of the Bubble lamps change, and if so, will the price change too?

One ironic claim emerged during research for this article. In a 1952 issue of Everyday Art Quarterly, an article states Nelson did not design the Bubble lamps. The article credits William Renwick, an associate in Nelson's firm, for the design.

No court date has been set.

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