George Nelson’s Ball Clock


George Nelson
George Nelson

by Sean Jewell ::

In true mid-century Ad-men fashion, George Nelson‘s iconic ball clock came as the result of a wild party. There was a gathering that is the stuff of legend: Isamu Noguchi, Buckminster Fuller, Irving Harper, and Nelson were a bit over served and began sketching clock designs. The next morning the sketch for the ball clock was just there –having risen from the ether– fuming like a hangover. No one remembered who among them had done the sketch, as Nelson recalled. So he went ahead with it.

This is, perhaps, Nelson‘s best and worst quality. A designer with the pedigree second only to the Eameses‘, Nelson was also clever; knowing when, and what, to steal. Later, in his old age, and trying to creep out from under the huge shadow Nelson’s lifetime of achievements in design had cast, Harper would claim that the design for the clock was his, though most of his life he’d told the story that he suspected it was actually Noguchi‘s. Funny thing is, it looks like something Bucky Fuller might doodle.

Any way you cut it, Nelson had the means and authority to push it up the chain at Herman Miller. Nelson had spent years in Europe gleaning knowledge of design from the world’s foremost architects by interviewing them for Architectural Forum. Later he would design the first modular style furniture, something he called the storagewall. His work caught the attention of Herman Miller president D.J. De Pree and the rest is history. Herman Miller and Howard Miller were the brothers (and the money) behind the company, originally Michigan Star Furniture. Howard Miller already ran the clock company, and so the first ball clocks were sold by Howard Miller clock company.

It was during the same years that Herman Miller came to prominence as a furniture company, ushering in the modern age of furniture under George Nelson as design director. Nelson’s right hand man Irving Harper is responsible for the company’s iconic design logo (and, one suspects, many other things), and husband and wife team Charles and Ray Eames rounded out the all star team that brought us most of the sought after mid century modern design furniture.

There were many different ideations of the ball clock. The Sunburst, Sunflower, Spool and Spindle, Asterisk, and even a rare and gorgeous Eye-shaped clock. All sold for around $30 retail in the 1960s. Reproductions can be found at design revival boutiques like Design Within Reach for upwards of $300 today, and the same price can be expected for an original one might find on eBay.

Variations of George Nelson clocks

Herman Miller discontinued the line in the 1980s, as the clocks were simply out of style. The Swiss company Vitra (icons in their own right) had picked up the rights to build Herman Miller designs in Europe in 1957. They resurrected production of the ball clock in the 1990s and still produce them today; models can be purchased for around $500.

As cool as they seem now, Nelson’s ball clocks weren’t always en vogue. They’ve drawn as much ire as adoration, and the opinions on their relevance as objects of great design are as varying as art and design movements themselves. I love them now, but as a child those clocks said one thing to me: Grandma’s house. From a design standpoint the clock represents a futuristic look that Herman Miller, Nelson, The Eameses, et al. brought about as a response to traditional furniture. The bright colors and planetary shapes represent the hopeful, upward mobility of a United States headed into space in the mid-twentieth century. Nelson’s desire to push home decor to be more adaptive to humanity was a revolutionary one for his time, and the ball clock’s superfluous shapes suggest leisure, rather than rigid functionality. The ball clock says that its owner thinks differently about time, and perhaps even plays with it. Nelson’s knowledge of architectural structures are implied, the clock’s shapes suggest bird’s eye views of futuristic public spaces connected for convenience. The oddity of shape, and liberal use of color reflect the influence of the Bauhaus movement, and popular Cubist works, during the 1930s on design and culture.

The fancy free shapes would give way to Nelson and Harper designing the Marshmallow Sofa, a piece of furniture so outrageous that it attracted a young ItalianEttore Sottsass, to the company. Sottsass would later go on to found Memphis design movement in the 80s, but that’s a whole ‘nother story.

Sources and further reading: George Nelson: The Design of Modern Design by Stanley Abercrombie, embedded links, and the Herman Miller website.

 Top Song: Wilson Pickett – “Wait Till The Midnight Hour”

Bottom Song: Bill Haley & His Comets – “(We’re Gonna) Rock Around The Clock”