From the October/November 2017 Issue

Modern Times

Writer Ren Miller
  • This Ball Clock, dated 1949, was a gift from the Mel Byars Collection to the Cooper Hewitt museum in New York City. It represents a move away from the severe functionalism and traditionalism of prewar design. Courtesy of Vitra

The end of World War II unleashed playful yet sophisticated designs for the home, including wall clocks.

In some cases the best way to describe something is to say what it’s not. Take the “George Nelson Atomic Clock,” a symbol of midcentury modern timekeeping. It wasn’t designed by George Nelson, it’s not an atomic clock and it doesn’t even have numbers that tell you the time.

Yet when it was introduced in 1949, the clock quickly became a sensation because it represented the new post-World War II philosophy that good design doesn’t have to be based on historical design. That philosophy affected every aspect of design: waistlines on women’s apparel narrowed, automobiles took on streamlined shapes and architecture turned to simple, sturdy ranches and Cape Cods for returning World War II veterans. These new homes called for equally simple—sometimes stunningly simple—furnishings.

It was against this backdrop that midcentury modern design took shape, largely thanks to several groups of designers who fine-tuned the difference between the so-so and the sophisticated.

One of those groups, George Nelson Associates, was hired to develop a line of clocks for the Howard Miller Clock Co. Irving Harper, a celebrated industrial designer and artist with George Nelson Associates, is credited with many of the clocks designed for Howard Miller, including the Ball Clock, introduced in 1949. The Ball Clock features wood spheres attached to metal rods radiating from its face. A stylized triangle tops the hour hand and a slim oval tops the minute hand, both in black, with a red seconds hand.

Advertisement

Advertisement

The clock reminded many people of an atomic model (the Atomic Era was still new following detonation of the first nuclear bomb in 1945), so it picked up the unofficial nickname of the Atomic Clock. (A true atomic clock is a much more involved timepiece used, among other things, to control the wave frequency of television broadcasts and in global navigation satellite systems such as GPS.) As for the Howard Miller Clock Co., it was known simply as Clock 4755.

Originally electric (with a traditional cord and plug or with a “Chronopak” that mounted in a standard outlet), the Ball Clock now runs on one battery. Howard Miller discontinued the clock in the 1980s as tastes changed and excess overtook simplicity in design. An economic downturn in the early 1990s and a renewed interest in what was by then being called midcentury modern design led Vitra, a Swiss design company, to reintroduce the clock, now called the Nelson™ Ball Clock. The spheres come in a cherry or natural finish, painted in multiple colors or in all black, orange or red. It’s available through Design Within Reach in Paramus (dwr.com) and at vitra.com for $395 to $460.