Timeless Tales of Nelson Clocks: A Vitra Original

During the 1940s, clock designs in the USA commonly consisted of dark wood, intricate decorations, and numerals encircling the dial, especially in floor and wall models. The Howard Miller Company, which specialized in crafting these types of clocks, gave particular attention to mantel clocks, available with or without chimes, as a prominent part of their product range. Howard C. Miller, the son of Herman Miller, who lent his name to the renowned furniture company located in Zeeland, Michigan, was at the helm of this clock-making enterprise.

In 1945, George Nelson assumed the role of design director at Herman Miller. Just two years later, he established his own design firm, known as George Nelson Associates. In 1947, he also took on a commission to create a new range of electric clocks for Howard Miller. One of the primary objectives was to streamline the production process in contrast to the intricate mantel clocks produced by the company.Nelson conducted a thorough analysis of how individuals interacted with clocks and applied his findings to the design task. His initial observation was that people typically gauged the time by interpreting the relative positions of the clock hands, rendering the use of numbers unnecessary. Furthermore, he posited that wall clocks had evolved beyond their primary function of timekeeping, given that most individuals now wore wristwatches. Instead, wall clocks had become decorative elements within a room’s overall decor.

George Nelson’s innovative concepts laid the groundwork for the inaugural collection of 14 timepieces, featuring entirely unique wall clocks and compact table clocks, which were introduced to the market in 1949. While all the models shared the characteristic of forgoing numerical hour markers, their imaginative designs, inspired by basic geometric shapes, displayed remarkable diversity.

Among the initial wall clocks, the Ball Clock would go on to become an enduring symbol of American mid-century modernism in the ensuing decades. In a 1981 interview, George Nelson recounted the amusing story of its creation: “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.”

George Nelson (left) and Charles Eames during preparations for the American National Exhibition, which opened in Moscow in July 1959. © Vitra Design Museum

“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 the 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. So we did the ball clock, which was, in its piddling way, a sort of all-time best-seller for Howard [Miller, because] suddenly it was decided by Mrs. America that this was the clock to put in your kitchen. Why [the] kitchen, I don’t know. But every ad that showed a kitchen for years after that had a ball clock in it.”

During their 35-year partnership with Howard Miller, the designers at George Nelson Associates crafted over a hundred clocks, including wall clocks, floor clocks, portable table clocks, and built-in clocks.

‘The objective should be to keep improving one’s basic product’, George Nelson

In his role as design director at Herman Miller, a position he held until 1972, George Nelson emerged as a pivotal figure in American design. He not only conceived innovative furniture designs but also brought esteemed figures like Charles & Ray Eames, Isamu Noguchi, and Alexander Girard to collaborate with Herman Miller. In 1957, Vitra founder Willi Fehlbaum forged the initial licensing agreement with Herman Miller to manufacture furniture for the European market. Throughout the subsequent decades of their partnership with Vitra, a deep friendship blossomed between George Nelson and Rolf Fehlbaum, the founder’s son. Rolf once expressed, ‘No other prominent designer ever spoke as intelligently or wrote as coherently about design as George Nelson.’

Following George Nelson’s passing in 1986, his extensive archival estate, comprising approximately 7400 documents including manuscripts, plans, drawings, photographs, and slides spanning from 1924 to 1984, was left to the Vitra Design Museum. Vitra initiated the reissue of Nelson Clocks in 1999. At present, there are 24 models in active production, and certain designs are offered in various versions. Additionally, new pieces are periodically introduced to expand the collection.

Images: Florian Böhm, Marc Eggiman, Jacqueline Nelson, Kuvatoimisto Kuvio Oy, Vitra Design Museum

By vitra.com

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