The other day, as I was surveying a building in the lower north section of Philadelphia, I stumbled upon a treasure that had been hidden in the basement of a former Jesuit convent for over 50 years: An original George Nelson Clock.
This mid-century-modern treasure was hanging on for dear life by its original Chronopak as if it had plunged through the acoustical tile ceiling that had been retrofitted in the mid 70’s then left to rot after the convent was abandoned. This design was the first of over 150 clock designs created by George Nelson Associates for Howard Miller (Herman Millers’ son) in 1947. This particular clock is known as the Ball or Atomic Clock and is identified by the number sequence “4755”.
George Nelson often collaborated with other designers, and in the case of the Ball Clock, the story goes that Nelson was at a dinner party with Isamu Noguchi, Irving Harper and Bucky Fuller. They were all sketching and “had a little bit too much to drink,” said Nelson. The morning after, a drawing of the Ball Clock lay innocently on a roll of drafting paper… “I don’t know to this day who cooked it up,” said Nelson. “I know it wasn’t me. It might have been Irving, but he didn’t think so. [We] both guessed that Isamu had probably done it because [he] has a genius for doing two stupid things and making something extraordinary out of the combination. It could have been an additive thing, but we never knew.”
After Howard Miller discontinued the line in the 1980’s, Vitra picked it up in the 1990’s. The Ball Clock was originally available in six color variations. The one I found featured multi-colored wooden balls, brass spindles, solid black clock hands, and a white metal casing. Older Nelson Ball Clocks feature a wooden plate instead of a metal plate on the back of the clock. Reproductions tend to have colors on the tips of the two clock hands, where the originals had solid black or metal hands.
As an architect and designer, I feel privileged to be the current owner of this little piece of modern history. I plan on cherishing it until I die, at which point, I will hand it down to my children, and hopefully they will hand it down to their children, and so on.