When clocks are timeless.
The story of a Vitra original
George Nelson was hired as design director at Herman Miller in 1945. Two years later he founded his own design firm, George Nelson Associates, and was also commissioned in 1947 to develop a new collection of electric clocks for Howard Miller. One aim was to simplify the production process in comparison to the company’s elaborate mantel clocks.
Nelson made an analysis of how people used clocks and applied these insights to the design task: his first conclusion was that people read the time by discerning the relative position of the hands, which made the use of numbers unnecessary. Second, he assumed that wall clocks no longer had the primary purpose of showing the time, since most people wore wristwatches, but had become decorative elements in a room’s furnishings.
One of the first wall clocks, which would become an icon of American mid-century modernism over the following decades, was the Ball Clock. In a 1981 interview, George Nelson told this story: ‘We were all involved in cooking up these clocks, and Irving [Harper], in the end, was the one who made them complicated, beautiful, and so on. And there was one night when the ball clock got developed, which was one of the really funny evenings. [Isamu] Noguchi came by, and Bucky Fuller came by. I’d been seeing a lot of Bucky those days, and here was Irving and here was I, and Noguchi, who can’t keep his hands off anything, you know – it is a marvelous, itchy thing he’s got – he saw we were working on clocks and he started making doodles. Then Bucky sort of brushed Isamu aside. He said, “This is a good way to do a clock”, and he made some utterly absurd thing. Everybody was taking a crack at this, … pushing each other aside and making scribbles.
In his position as design director at Herman Miller, which he held until 1972, George Nelson became a key figure in American design. He created furniture and brought such figures as Charles & Ray Eames, Isamu Noguchi and Alexander Girard to work for Herman Miller. In 1957, Vitra founder Willi Fehlbaum signed his first licencing agreement with Herman Miller to produce furniture for the European market. During the ensuing decades of collaboration with Vitra, a close friendship developed between George Nelson and Rolf Fehlbaum, the son of the company’s founder, who once remarked: ‘No other prominent designer ever spoke as intelligently or wrote as coherently about design as George Nelson.’
Production of the Wall Clocks
Publication date: 7.9.2018
Images: Florian Böhm, Marc Eggiman, Jacqueline Nelson, Kuvatoimisto Kuvio Oy, Vitra Design Museum
Vitra originals and their stories in the Vitra Magazine
Invest in an original, for it will always retain its worth. An imitation will never be anything but a copy, a stolen idea. Appreciate the differences – not just the quality and more obvious variances but also the sensory and emotional appeal of the authentic product. An original is a lifelong companion and may well outlive you to be gratefully received by the next generation. But that’s a story for the future.