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Three geniuses, a few too many drinks – this is the story behind George Nelson’s ball clock from 1949.
A Bay Stater, a New Yorker, and a Californian walked into a bar – or, actually, the New York office of industrial designer George Nelson, one of the fathers of mid-century modern design.
And, as was often the case in postwar offices, the beverages on offer that 1947 evening were as good as what you'd find at any bar.
Soon Nelson, architect and futurist Buckminster Fuller (a good friend), industrial designer Irving Harper, and artist Isamu Noguchi were taking turns at the drawing table scribbling out potential wall clocks.
These sketches were to fulfill a commission from the Howard Miller Clock Company. This company was originally an offshoot of the furniture company Herman Miller, for which independent Nelson had just been upgraded from furniture designer to design director.
Pencils scratched the roll of the translucent drafting paper, accompanied by laughter, banter, and the popping of corks. These men were not only about to go down in design history; they were also good party people.
Getting the ball rolling
Playing around with simple ball shapes and whatever words roll off your tongue goes way back in horology. The first portable watches from the early 1500s tended to be spherical.
Ball Watches, the originally American but now Swiss watchmaker have long played around with the expression "to be on the Ball," referring to their timepieces' precision. Swiss jewelers such as Carl F. Bucherer and Omega referred to spherically bulging pendant watches as ball watches.
But for design buffs, there is only one ball to rule them all: the Ball Clock, which came to market in 1949.
The Ball Clock is really a child of its time. It plays with the starburst and the asterisk symbols – frequent motifs in the 1950s. It could also be the atomic age love child of the model atoms illustrated by physicists Niels Bohr and Ernest Rutherford, first published three decades before.
Nine years later, the Atomium building showed off rounded balls and metal rods for Expo 58 in Brussels. And though Nelson gave a lot of the credit for this clock to Noguchi in a 1981 interview, I can also see the clock as a kind of flattened-out tensegrity structure, like the geodesic dome that would be integral to Fuller’s future career.
The night before the morning after...
In Stanley Abercrombie’s biography George Nelson: The Design of Modern Design, Nelson reminisced about that 1947 evening in his office.
"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."
"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."
The piece fit perfectly in Nelson's thorough analysis of clock usage, which had two main points: That people read the time by the positions of the hands, which made numbers obsolete, and that most people wore wristwatches, thus transforming wall clocks into decorative elements rather than precision-driven time-tellers.
So, at the same time European kitchens were adorned with the minimalist Junghans Max Bill clock, with its built-in precision egg timer, the U.S. went with symbolic stylings instead. I haven't been able to substantiate Nelson’s last assertion about kitchens in advertising, but it is astonishing that the man credited as the designer of the Ball Clock is only certain about one thing: it wasn't his work.
I personally have two favorites among the many versions of the clock available at 13-inch diameters: the version with blue, grey-blue, green, and orange balls and the au naturel version in lacquered cherrywood.
The balls have a diameter of 1.38 inches, minus a cutout where the metal rods attach. These extend 3.03 inches from the 4.21-inch central body housing the quartz movement. The movement is, by the way, driven by a single AA battery – oh, the irony of a product developed from a drunken draft.
Over the following 35 years of collaboration with Howard Miller, the designers at George Nelson Associates created more than 100 clocks: wall clocks, floor clocks, portable table clocks, and built-in clocks.
His office is also behind several of the most famous American designs, including the Sherman Fairchild House, one of the first modern town houses in New York (1941), the Bubble Lamp (1952), the Coconut Chair (1955), and the Marshmallow Sofa (1956).
Following the 1986 death of the multitalented creator who was also a photographer, architect, lecturer, designer, critic, and editor-in-chief of Design Journal, his estate went to Vitra, which reinstated the Ball Clock and put it into production again in the 1990s.