The Best Ideas Come at Night

The Origins of the Ball Clock

The Ball Clock is regarded as an icon of mid-century modern design. The idea evolved over the course of a long night during the late 1940s. The American designer George Nelson was still in the office, along with Irving Harper, when his friends Isamu Noguchi and Richard Buckminster Fuller stopped by. Bottles of wine were opened, and the next morning the host of this spontaneous gathering discovered a very special sketch. In an interview from 1953, George Nelson recalls:

“And there was one night when the Ball Clock got developed, which was one of the really funny evenings. 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 marvellous, 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.

At some point we left – we were suddenly all tired, and we’d had a little bit too much to drink – and the next morning I came back, and here was this roll (of drafting paper), and Irving and I looked at it, and somewhere in this roll there was a ball clock. I don’t know to this day who cooked it up. I know it wasn’t me. It might have been Irving, but he didn’t think so …(we) both guessed that Isamu had probably done it because (he) has a genius for doing two stupid things and making something extraordinary … out of the combination … (or) it could have been an additive thing, but, anyway, we never knew.”


Publication date: 23.11.2017
Author: Vitra; George Nelson’s statement is an excerpt from an interview conducted by Ralph Caplan, January 30, 1981
Images: Nicole Bachmann, Florian Böhm, Marc Eggimann, Vitra Design Museum