Title: Do we get the clock design we deserve?
Pages: 32 - 35
Author: Fiona McCarthy
Text: Do we get the clock design we deserve?
asks Fiona MacCarthy, prompted by the clocks that fill jewellers' windows, swamping progressive designs of the kind shown on the next three pages.
"I recently purchased an eight-day clock. I found the selection available very limited, not because of price and size, but because most were quite useless for time-telling....
This passionate complaint in The Tees-side Consumer- "Am I a voice crying in the wilderness ?" - illustrates a growing public discontent with clocks. Far from being a voice in the wilderness, the citizen of Tees-side has a great deal of support from shoppers, from designers and even from the trade. Eric Bruton, who edits the Retail Jeweller, comes to an expert and very sad conclusion: "I believe that while huge strides have been made in improving the performance of clocks during the last few years, the designs of dials and hands have retreated rather than advanced. They are now thoroughly debased."
End of the craft tradition Horology was once a very specialised and individual craft. In 1631, the Court of the Clockmakers' Company was formed and the rule was made that every master should teach his apprentice "to the end they may, in time, make up their Masterpiece with sufficiency of credit, and truly understand both the beginning and ending of their work."
By 1696, according to John Evelyn, English craftsmen "Paragon, if not Exceed even the most Exquisite of other Countries", and their products, the result of a personal transaction between customer and craftsman, were appreciated highly. The clock as status symbol was established even then.
It was at its absolute best. In another hundred years, with the start of mass-production and the change of selling methods, the excellence of British clocks was thoroughly diluted. Standardised movements were used, the fine principle of one man to one clock was abandoned, and the craftsman no longer met the customers. The retailer took over, to the ultimate destruction of British clock design. The finishes grew careless, the face became less legible, the case was made pretentious and desperately elaborate. People still
I expected a sensation for their money, a centrepiece; and what they got was pseudo-craftsmanship.
This is the situation we inherit. This is basically the trouble with British clocks today. Though office clocks (like contract carpets) are impressive, domestic clocks are on the whole a gimmicky confusion of ostentatious cases, contorted shapes for hands, two- or threetone faces, and flashing-light alarms. The growing predilection for a little dash (or gap) instead of good clear numerals to mark the passing hour confuses the issue. Our Tees-side consumer, for instance, wonders how on earth to teach a child the time.
"Surely the essence of good design", he adds, "is to improve the
article for its primary purpose and function, which, for clocks, is to tell the time." His complaints are borne out by the fact that Design Index recommends only seven free-standing clocks: four by Robert Welch, for Westclox (three) and Columbia, and one each by Image 3 for Design Associates, Anthony Gemmill for Acrylic Products, and Kenneth Grange for Short and Mason.
Manufacturer aims and problems Is there some way out ? Is there any possibility of large-scale improvement in British clock design ? The only means of answering this question is to contemplate the aims and the capacity of clockmakers today. There are three manufacturers who dominate the market: Smiths, Westclox, and (most recently) Metamec.
Smiths' clock and watch division occupies six of the firm's total two dozen factories. Six thousand people work on clocks and watches. They make about a million springs a month; they produce alarm clocks in great quantity: each week, 35,000 hand-wound alarms; they also make wall clocks and mantel clocks, and a comprehensive range of commercial clocks. Smiths sells through a wholesaler, but tries to keep in touch with the retailer, asking him for comments. It has its own design office, run by William Barnes with three assistants plus outside design consultants, who have in the past included George Fejer, Noel Haring, Howard Upjohn and Robert Heritage. For the last two years, Eric Marshall Associates have worked on Smiths' design, liaising with Barnes.
The Westclox factory in Dumbarton' Scotland, with 1,200 employees, produces a domestic clock range parallel to Smiths' (its commercial range is smaller). But Westclox, unlike Smiths, is primarily a manufacturer of movements; it buys in many of its cases from elsewhere. It sells cheap alarm clocks in the largest quantities:morethanquarterofamillionayear.Since1950,outside consultants have come to reinforce the Westclox staff designer. Douglas Scott, David Mellor and Sigvard Bernadotte have, at one time or another, all tried their hand. Robert Welch has had the job for about the last eight years, visiting the factory at frequent intervals.
Metamec, at Dereham, Norfolk, is the smallest but at present the most thrusting and dynamic of the clock firms. It began soon after the war as a subsidiary of Jentique, the cabinet furniture makers. In
Sfericlock, top, is a round alarm clock made of coloured thermoplastic resin, which sells at Aram for £3 2s 6d. The design, by Rodolfo Bonetto for Borletti, Milan, won the gold medal at the 1964 Milan Trlennale.
The Secticon C1, above left, and T1, above right, are by another Mllanese, Angelo Mangiarotti. They are battery driven, with high precision achieved by a transistorised movement. Distribution here is by Gent and Co.
Disc Clock, top, was designed by Paul Clark for Perspective Designs. The small rotating disc tells the hour, the large one the minutes, and the hand is for seconds; the discs are made of blue and red Perspex. The clock is battery operated with a rewind movement. The new wall- clock above, by Robert Welch, was commissioned by the Ministry of Public Building and Works for Government offices. It has a dark green plastic case, spun aluminium dial, and takes a variety of movements.
those days, the clocks occupied a corner of the furniture factory, but Metamec has now expanded to fill a factory of its own and 500 people are clockmaking there now. The company produces mantel clocks, wall clocks and alarm clocks, in the medium-to-low domestic price range. Its clocks are all designed within the firm, which claims to pay particular attention to current demand: "We offer designs which the public want and not what we feel they ought to have."
Aesthetically, Metamec could not tee termed progressive. In general, its clock designs are grandiose and brash. Yet its products sell and its sales figures discourage other manufacturers from making an all-out effort with design. Mr R. A. Glen, chairman of Westclox, admits that Metamec's success has given him cold feet. Glen is naturally very much concerned with company finances, and he voices his suspicion that "ColD styles just don't sell". The
Merlin alarm clock won Westclox a Design Centre Award in 1964 but, in spite of all the prestige at the time, it is
only now showing signs of commercial appeal.
A lengthy conversation with Mr Glen in Dumbarton, and a talk with his designer Robert Welch in Chipping Campden, clarified a lot I of the reasons for this impasse; they make a disconcerting list. 1 Economics. Tooling is expensive. Clocks which sell less than 35,000 a year are not financially viable. "We simply shouldn't make them," says Glen resignedly. 2 Distribution. Outlets vary hugely, from prosperous goldsmiths and jewellers to small hardware and tobacconists' shops. This discourages experiment; only visual mediocrity seems safe. 3 Public taste. The old tradition of the clock as status symbol, as a monument, the centre of the chimneypiece, dies hard. This prompts 1 the Westclox salesmen, when Robert Welch presents them with a sensible plain clock face, to affix a golden crown.
Is it really true that the public is unwilling to countenance much progress in clock design ? H. Samuel, the retailer with 175 branches all over Britain, can give an authoritative answer to that question. The firm, which was founded in Liverpool in the early 19th century by two clockmaker brothers, Moses and Lewis Samuel, still sells clocks and watches, some foreign, many British, in enormous quantities. The I buyers keep their own computer which gives them information on trends in the various parts of the country. "What the public really wants," they claim, "is what they have always wanted, a pleasing design and a reliable time-piece." But they also note the fact, that: "the public are looking for something different to the old range of strike and chiming clocks".
The public are looking for novelty. The curious and highly emotional attitude to clocks must surely be recognised by any clock designer. It could, with perseverance, be exploited for the good.
Although low-to-medium-price clocks, for complex reasons of finance and selling methods, at the moment seem
doomed, there remains a lot of scope for inventiveness with clocks in a higherprice category, made in smaller
quantities. Westclox is already hard at work on a special range of clocks from about £15 to £20, and Smiths has
plans as well for a very high-class collection. "It is our aim," says Eric Marshall, "to have merchandise of the same
calibre as one would find in Switzerland."
Contemporary quality So far, the most interesting modern clocks in Britain have been produced in very tiny quantities. The clocks which George Sneed makes for Heal's, and the clocks sold by David Phillips in late-lamented Woollands, were all the result of individual enterprise. These ranges resurrected the element of craft, and gave old pompous British clocks a new and jolly image.
George Sneed is a woodworker in Suffolk. He supplies Heal's with boards and spice jars, turned in his small workshop. R. D. Falk, manager of Heal's tableware and giftware department, one day asked him if he could supply the cases for an exclusive range of clocks.
Kenneth Grange's battery-driven desk clock, top and centre, is part of his Ranger barometer series for Short and Mason. The outer case is satin-finished nickel, or brass; the glass is slightly concave, to minimise reflection. The clock has a time-correction device, a 24-hour face, and costs £18 18s. The Copal digital clock, above, comes from Japan. The cover is rigid plastic, and it also has a 24-hour system. The clock is marketed in Britain by Fonadek; there is also a desk version of it.
This co-operation has been a great success. The round and rectangular clocks, in elm and pine, sell extremely well and cost about £11.
Woollands' range accumulated in rather the same way. David Phillips wanted clocks for a fortnight's store promotion, Focus on New Britain, in 1965. He collected, or commissioned, a startling, bright array of op clocks, Union Jack clocks, clocks in flowered china. The clocks from Image 3 (Tony Stiff, Ron Mitchell and Michael Harris), in solid square pine cases, have gone from strength to strength. Perspective Designs now distribute them widely, along with Image 3's amazing Clocks in Kilner Jars.
With the Carnaby Street cult, and the yen for grown-up toys, the lunatic fringe in clock design has prospered. Even the director of Sweden's Society for Industrial Design owns an orange clock from Gear. Habitat sells fiery red alarms with great aplomb. Perspective Designs export Paul Clark's far-fetched and arresting horological inventions: his Disc Clock and his Revolutionary Clock, "in which both the hour and minute hand are replaced by discs and one reads the time from an arrow hand at the top". Needless to say, these have not yet reached the conventional clock shops in Britain.
Although boutique clocks, like boutique clothes, are often junk, the impulse behind them in not so ludicrous. They have the spontaneity, the flair and the wholeheartedness which mass production models so far ponderously lack.
Ideas from abroad How do clocks in Britain compare with clocks abroad ? The general view is equally depressing in Italy and Sweden and Switzerland - all countries which one visits with the hope of better things. A survey conducted in Stockholm's large, important, design-conscious department store, NK, revealed that Swedish public taste in clocks is just as overblown as ours. The clocks which won most votes were traditional or schmalzy; plain, bold, modern wall-clocks designed by Sigurd Persson attracted little interest, and have since been shelved.
But although the selection of clocks in the large stores of Stockholm and Milan is as bad as in Leeds and Glasgow, some special developments abroad deserve attention from the clockmakers of Britain - more attention than they get.
If one once accepts the fact that clocks are to be used as exhibition pieces, then one thinks of Mangiarotti and his beautiful, sophisticated Secticon range. He aimed "to create forms expressing a new standard of precision" (the transistorised movement for the clocks, made in Switzerland, is accurate within two seconds a day). He worked for three years to produce his first three models, making special studies of the problems of the clock face. Beyond the purely functional aspects, he was aiming to make a clock shape with "a certain presence". In fact he too was aiming for a monument of sorts. His clocks, in their synthetic resin cases, are expensive and extraordinary.
If, on the other hand, one refuses to allow a clock this "certain presence" - if one only wants a time-piece-the simplest, most straightforward, economic and most modern of solutions is Bonetto's, from Milan. His Sfericlock, a moulded plastic ball, is very cheap: as cheap as the tinniest of British alarms. It is also widely distributed in Italy. It has even been competently copied in Japan.
Who thinks about the future? Where are the British equivalents? What clockmaker tries to compete with the Secticon range? Who (except Aram) sells a Sfericlock? Who thinks about the development of clock design in breadth?
What are the prospects for photoelectric and electronic clocks? For clocks which convert sunlight into running power? For clocks which gather in their energy from changes in air temperature ?
What- nearer home - are the possibilities for digital clocks to replace the normal dial-type? An interesting programme of research has proved already that in certain situations (say, control of transport) digital displays are much more accurately read. A Japanese domestic clock, the Copal, with a system of motorised digits, is now in Britain. Have our native manufacturers been taken by surprise?