Tuesday, April 22, 2014

A Clock With Balls

QUESTION: When I was growing up in the 1950s, my parents had a colorful clock hanging on our living room wall. It had colored balls for the hours and stood out against the white wall. I had forgotten about it until recently when I discovered it, covered with dust, in the attic of my parents’ house as I was cleaning it out after my mother died. What can you tell me about this clock, and does it have any value or should I just give it the old heave ho?

ANSWER: Believe it or not, that dusty old clock is an icon of 1950s modern design. Often listed as being designed by George Nelson, the clock is shrouded in controversy. Yes, George Nelson did indeed play a part in its creation, but historians now believe that its actual designer was Irving Harper, who worked for George Nelson in his design studio.

The Ball Clock was the first of more than 150 clocks designed by George Nelson Associates for the Howard Miller Clock Company, which sold them from 1949 into the 1980s. Nelson Associates, first launched as a studio by George Nelson in 1947 in New York City, employed some of the most celebrated designers of the time, including Irving Harper, Don Chadwick and John Pile, all of whom contributed to the clocks.

George Nelson Associates, Inc., a leading home furnishings and accessories design studio, made modernism the most important driving force during the 1950s.  From his start in the mid-1940s until the mid-1980s,  George Nelson partnered with most of the modern designers of the time. His skill as a writer helped legitimize and stimulate the field of industrial design by contributing to the creation of Industrial Design Magazine in 1953.

Nelson became the Director of Design for Herman Miller, a leading industrial design firm, in 1947 and held the position until 1972. He used the money he earned in this position to open his own design studio in New York City. On October 26, 1955 he incorporated it into George Nelson Associates, Inc. and moved to 251 Park Avenue South. The studio brought together many of the top designers of the time, who were soon designing for Herman Miller under the George Nelson label. Among the noted designers who worked for George Nelson Associates were Irving Harper, George Mulhauser, designer of the Coconut Chair, Robert Brownjohn, designer of the sets for the James Bond film Goldfinger, Don Chadwick, Bill Renwick, Suzanne Sekey, John Svezia, Ernest Farmer, Tobias O'Mara, George Tscherney, who designed the Herman Miller advertisements, Lance Wyman, and John Pile.

But controversy was to cloud George Nelson’s success. In recent years, it has come out that many of the designs for which Nelson accepted credit were actually the work of other designers employed at his studios. Examples of this include the Marshmallow sofa, designed by Irving Harper, and the Action Office, the forerunner of the office cubicle and for which Nelson won the prestigious Alcoa Award, neglecting to mention that it was Robert Propst who actually created it.

It seems that Nelson believed that it was okay for individual designers to be given credit in trade publications, but for the consumer world, the credit should always be to the firm, not the individual.

Nelson’s company designed many wall and table clocks for the Howard Miller Clock Company, including the Ball, Kite, Eye, Turbine, Spindle, Petal and Spike clocks, as well as a handful of desk clocks. However, Irving Harper designed most of them. Howard Miller assigned numbers to all the original clock designs. The most famous, the Ball Clock, became Clock 4755. It was available in six color variations.

According to legend, the Ball Clock was designed by George Nelson, Irving Harper, Buckminster Fuller and Isamu Noguchi during a night of drinking in 1947. Its Space Age atomic look supposedly came from the an abstraction of the atom with its nucleus and particles.

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