An Under-examined category: Clock faces

A friend recently tipped me off to the fact that this clock was on sale (he had purchased the electric version), and I snapped it up. We both made the purchase thinking it was the work of the multi-talented Donald Deskey, due to a newspaper article stating specifically he had been designing clocks in 1933 (and this example appeared in Seth Thomas’s 1935 catalogue). However, upon receipt, I have become more and more convinced that it is the work of Henry Dreyfuss (1904-1972), who was the designer of four versions of the Westclox Big Ben between 1931 and 1947–and he does indeed list Seth Thomas as a client in the early 1930s.

There are classic clock faces out there (I think immediately of Max Bill’s clocks, the Mondial “Railway” clock face, Gilbert Rohde’s great clocks done for Herman Miller Clock Co. for the 1933-34 Chicago World’s Fair), but in fact there are a bewildering number of choices. It seems one of the first things Modernism did was remove numerals from clock faces. This is not inherently bad, as Dreyfuss himself pointed out we are really looking at the position of the hands rather than “telling time” in most cases. Digital clockfaces create a sense of greater precision, but I find the time hard to recollect with a digital readout and found when I wore digital wristwatches I was glancing at them constantly.

In this case, we’ve got a piece of styling that crept up on me. Notice that the fine vertical lines that appear in the “12/3/6/9” positions mirror the appearance of the “legs” in a frontal view of the clock (from the side, they are “sled legs,” making the clock more stable). A golden “bezel” surrounds the flat face behind the protective glass, adding a sense of warmth versus the very emphatic black hands.

We lump clocks like this into “decorative arts” or “industrial design” bins rather quickly, but what differentiates most of them are their faces. I wonder what Donald Norman would have to say about their individuality. A survey of the clocks of Hunt & D.H. Hill Libraries indicates the same proliferation of designs we’ve seen historically. What does it say about us culturally that this category of design remains so resistant to standardization, and doesn’t that place it more in the camp of graphic design, with its own stable of “classics” and endless variation?

Discussion — One Response

  • Lauren Malynowsky 03/20/2020 on 2:28 PM

    This reminds me of a documentary I watched a few weeks back in a typography course. It was the Typeface episode of “Abstract: The Art of Design” on Netflix. Throughout this episode, it goes into the process of typeface designer Jonathan Hoefler. One of the typefaces he designs is called Decimal and it is based on vintage watch faces. The fascinating part of this was that no two watches had the same typeface, but they did have similar features. One of the standouts was a flattened top of the number 4 instead of a more typical pointed one. Another interesting characteristic of these faces is that there are inconsistencies within each face. Repeated letters had different shapes so it was hard to determine an exact style for a single watch face. I highly recommend the Netflix series if you are interested in typeface design.
    https://www.typography.com/blog/introducing-decimal

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