Tick tock: the story of George Nelson and his clocks
George Nelson is often referred to as one of the founders of American modernism, and with good reason.
Together with Charles & Ray Eames, Harry Bertoia, Eero Saarinen and the talented designers in his New York studio, he ushered in a new style of design that would change the way we dress our homes forever.
Today we take a closer look at the man who believed design could change the world, and who made it happen.
Who was George Nelson?
George Nelson was an American industrial designer who was active during the Mid-Century Modern era. He studied architecture at Yale and then secured a placement at the American Academy in Rome, where he would meet Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe and Walter Gropius.
In 1946, George was approached by D. J. De Pree, president of US furniture manufacturer Herman Miller, and was asked to create a collection of innovative new products for the brand.
At around the same time, George established his New York studio, George Nelson Associates, and for the next 25 years he and his team, which included Irving Harper and Ettore Sottsass for a short time, designed hundreds of products for Herman Miller, establishing them as one of the most important modern furniture producers in American history.
George’s studio also worked for the Howard Miller Clock Company, which was set up by De Pree's brother-in-law, Howard Miller. Between 1949 and the mid-1980s George and his team would design over 130 clocks for them.
What were his most famous designs?
There are almost too many to name! Nelson’s body of work encompassed furniture, lighting and home accessories, and included such iconic designs as the Coconut Chair, Home Desk, Nelson Bench, Bubble Lamps and Ball Clock.
Interestingly, while nearly all of the designs that came out of George’s studio were attributed to him, many were actually designed by him and his team. Some were even designed solely by someone else working at the studio.
Nelson famously recounted the story of how the Ball Clock came to life in an interview decades after it’s release:
“It was one of the really funny evenings. Noguchi came by, Bucky Fuller came by, and here was Irving, and here was I, and Noguchi - who can’t keep his hands off anything - he saw we were working on clocks and started making doodles. Then Bucky sort of brushed Isamu aside. He said, ‘This is a good way to do a clock’ and 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 paper, and Irving and I looked at it, and somewhere in this roll, there was a ball clock. I don’t know to this day who cooked it up.”
Nevertheless, whoever it was that came up with George Nelson’s designs, it’s almost certain that they would never have come to fruition if it wasn’t for George’s vision and forward-thinking approach.
Can you tell me more about his clocks?
George’s clocks were one of his most impressive bodies of work. In total, he and his team designed over 130 clocks in just three decades.
While it is widely accepted that Irving Harper was the lead designer for the Howard Miller Clock Company at George Nelson Associates, the collection arose after two insightful observations from George: one, that people no longer used the numbers to tell the time; and two, that since most people now used their wristwatch to tell the time, interior clocks were now free to become more decorative in nature.
The clocks were designed and released in batches of 8 and were initially only given numbers for names. The Sunflower Clock was simply ‘Clock 2261’, the Flock of Butterflies Clock was 'Clock 2226’, and so on.
The Ball was the first clock designed by George and his team and it was followed shortly after by the Star, Sunburst, Spindle, Asterisk, Turbine, Flock of Butterflies, Eye and others. The clocks were purposefully abstract and were designed to complement the modernist furniture emerging at the time.
As well as wall clocks, George’s studio also produced a series of desk clocks during that time, most notably the bubble-shaped Night Desk Clock, the brass Tripod Desk Clock, and the Ceramic Ceramic Clock which are still as covetable today.
Why should I invest in a George Nelson clock?
There are so many reasons to invest in a classic George Nelson clock. Not only are they steeped in layers of design history, but they’re also as innovative and interesting today as they were 70 years ago.
George’s clocks were designed to tell the time, yes, but, more importantly than that, they were created to push the boundaries of interior decoration. In the post-war years, colour, shape and pattern were embraced more fervently than ever before and that obsession continues today.
Whether you choose a sophisticated design like the brass-and-silver-spindled Star or a more playful piece like the multicoloured Sunburst, George’s clocks are sure to liven up your walls and bring joy for many years to come.
Where can I buy one?
Both George Nelson’s wall and desk clocks are available from Nest. You can shop them all on our George Nelson designer page. Alternatively, you can pop into our Sheffield Showroom and browse them in person.
Let us know which is your favourite George Nelson design or share a photo on Instagram. Don’t forget to tag us @nest_co_uk.