The Real Story Behind George Nelson's Iconic Ball Clock

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Bay Stater, a New Yorker, and a Californian walked into a bar – or, actually, the New York office of industrial designer George Nelson, one of the fathers of mid-century modern design. And, as was often the case in postwar offices, the beverages on offer that 1947 evening were as good as what you'd find at any bar. Soon Nelson, architect and futurist Buckminster Fuller (a good friend), industrial designer Irving Harper, and artist Isamu Noguchi were taking turns at the drawing table scribbling out potential wall clocks.

American designer George Nelson.

American designer George Nelson.

These sketches were to fulfill a commission from the Howard Miller Clock Company. This company was originally an offshoot of the furniture company Herman Miller, for which independent Nelson had just been upgraded from furniture designer to design director. Pencils scratched the roll of the translucent drafting paper, accompanied by laughter, banter, and the popping of corks. These men were not only about to go down in design history; they were also good party people. According to an apocryphal tale, "Bucky" Fuller was even expelled from Harvard for his excessive partying. But, I digress.

Playing around with simple ball shapes and whatever words roll off your tongue goes way back in horology. The first portable watches from the early 1500s tended to be spherical. Ball Watches, the originally American but now Swiss watchmaker have long played around with the expression "to be on the Ball," referring to their timepieces' precision. Swiss jewelers such as Carl F. Bucherer and Omega referred to spherically bulging pendant watches as ball watches. But for design buffs, there is only one ball to rule them all: the Ball Clock, which came to market in 1949.