The George Nelson Foundation, a nonprofit with close ties to furniture maker Herman Miller, is taking an aggressive legal step to prevent Los Angeles–based Modernica from continuing production of their George Nelson Bubble Lamps. In its lawsuit against Modernica, the Nelson Foundation, established to protect the legacy of the designer’s work, claims the company’s lamps are “unauthorized” and made of inferior quality, thus damaging the Nelson name. The lawsuit also states Modernica’s illegal use of Nelson’s name in the marketing of the lamps.
The bubble lamps, with their soft and diffuse light, were first introduced in 1952 and manufactured by the Howard Miller Clock Company, which also produced an array of Nelson-designed clocks. Today the lamps are widely considered Nelson’s best-known, best-selling work. That was not the situation when Howard Miller sold the bubble lamp business in the early 1980s after sales continued to decline. In 1999, Modernica, using the original tools and equipment from Howard Miller, started manufacturing the bubble lamps. Modernica has since turned sales of the lamp into a multimillion-dollar business, selling more than 25,000 units a year.
Legal documents contend Modernica owns the trademark and use of the Nelson name tied to the bubble lamps, and also owns the use of the shapes of the bubble lamps’ 16 different styles, as specified by Nelson during Howard Miller’s production. For the last 15 years Modernica has openly marketed their lights as George Nelson Bubble Lamps. However, last year Jacqueline Nelson, the 94-year-old widow of George Nelson, signed over her rights to Nelson’s designs to the Nelson Foundation. The extent and validity of those rights is under consideration by the court as both sides prepare their case. Modernica’s attorney Victor Sapphire said, “The Nelson Foundation filed a federal trademark application conceding it has no use, thus no rights, in the ‘George Nelson’ mark in connection with lighting, even while its lawsuit alleges Modernica is infringing on those nonexistent rights.”
One of the most striking aspects of the situation is the Foundation’s relationship to Herman Miller. Two of the Foundation’s four board members are Herman Miller executives. Rolf Fehlbaum of Vitra, Herman Miller’s European design partner, recently retired from his role on the board. The Foundation and Herman Miller also share the same mailing address. Frank Novak, who along with his brother Jay, operates Modernica, sees the Nelson Foundation as a front for Herman Miller. As Frank Novak said, Herman Miller is “a billion dollar business posing as a benevolent company who is trying to steal our company.”
The Novaks believe they are David to Herman Miller’s Goliath. Rather than seek a cease and desist order, the lawsuit seeks all rights, intellectual property, and the equipment used to produce the lamps. Karen Stein, director of the George Nelson Foundation, formed in 2012, counters that viewpoint and says the foundation “is not managed or controlled by any outside entity; and the Nelson family continues to receive the economic benefits of existing licenses. That said, Herman Miller has had a relationship with George Nelson since 1946; it is only natural that we would have common interests. And one primary shared interest is to protect the lawful use of George Nelson’s name.” Nelson was Herman Miller’s longtime design director, and the company briefly offered Modernica-produced bubble lamps through its Home division in the early 2000s.
The Foundation’s pursuit of a legal remedy raises the question of “why now?” since Jacqueline Nelson or anyone acting on her behalf could have chosen to bring action against Modernica over the last 14 years. The Foundation’s Stein explained, “In the course of exploring our options, we learned that Modernica has also unlawfully used the names of other iconic designers like Eames and Noguchi, which further confirms we’re clearly dealing with a recidivist—and activist—infringer.”
When asked about future production of the Bubble Lamp, the Foundation’s attorney chose not to comment.
According to Modernica’s attorney, his client has offered to pay an honorarium or royalty to Jacqueline Nelson, neither of which, he pointed out, Modernica is obligated to pay. Yet the legal friction between the Nelson Foundation and Modernica continues.
Attorneys for both sides are continuing to depose various witnesses in preparation for trial, although a date is not set. The announcement that Jacqueline Nelson is unable to be deposed because of a doctor’s assessment regarding her health adds to the case’s complexity.