Clock design was heavily influenced in the 1920s and ’30s by Art Deco, a machine-like aesthetic for a fast-paced industrial age. No object escaped the streamline touch of Art Deco, including clocks, whose cases often echoed the geometric architecture of the day.
In Europe, the French and Swiss were leading producers of Art Deco clocks. The French excelled in clocks for the mantel made of marble, onyx, brass, glass, and chrome. Many of these clocks sported columns on their sides and Roman numerals on their faces. Other clocks were designed for desks. These would frequently sit on bases of marble, below which were nickel feet, with the clock flanked by a pair of inkwells, which most contemporary collectors today use for paper clips and other dry office items.
Some French clocks were paired with bronze figurines of, for example, Diana the Huntress, complete with ivory bow and green onyx shield. Animals were also common, with bronze, fantail doves, lovebirds, and gazelles being particularly popular choices. Beyond the desktop and mantel, the French also produced large grandfather clocks in the Art Deco style, some of which were made of rosewood with silver-finished faces and clear glass on the clocks’ pendulum doors...
French Art Deco clock designers included Edgar Brandt, whose hand-wrought, forged iron clocks typically sat on marble bases. Cartier made all sorts of clocks, including square travel clocks with gold hands and black enameled handles. Compagnie Industrielle de Macanique Horelogere, which sold clocks under its JAZ brand, introduced a line of Art Deco clocks in 1934. These were usually geometric (round faces in horizontal cases), colorful (think blues, greens, and gold), and often incorporated mirrors into their designs.
The Swiss were also Art Deco clock masters. Arthur ImHof produced clocks featuring amber glass and chromed bronze; other ImHof clocks paired black Bakelite and patinated bronze with shiny chrome to provide contrast and accentuate the airplane-wing-like design of the clock’s base. LeCoultre also got into the Art Deco act, producing clocks made of Lucite and copper, among other materials.
In the United States, venerable clockmakers such as Ingraham, Seth Thomas, Waltham, and Telechron produced a large number of Art Deco clocks for the home. The SK141 electric kitchen wall clock by Ingraham had a black painted wood case with chrome trim. Seth Thomas made a green, faux-marble Catalin (a transparent cousin to Bakelite) alarm clock, as well as a mantel clock formed from a block of clear, gold-bubble-infused Lucite.
Waltham clocks were often framed in successive bands of marble or jade—some had silver numbers and hands. Telechron, a subsidiary of General Electric, was another company to make good use of Catalin, which it dyed in butterscotch hues (look for the Imp or mustache clock, so named for the top of its case). In the late 1920s, Telechron hired designer Paul Frankl to create the Modernique, which became known, derisively, as the $50 clock after the stock market crash of 1929.
Another prominent designer of Art Deco clocks for G.E. was Walter Darwin Teague, who created, among other things, a brown Bakelite clock. Raymond Loewy chose to do his clock-design work for Westinghouse—his slender, 54-inch tall Columaire Jr. housed both a clock and a radio, and spurred a slew of so-called Skyscraper clock-radio imitators.
In the world of high design, the Herman Miller Clock Company of Zeeland, Michigan contracted with Gilbert Rohde to design a clock for the 1934 Worlds Fair. It was made of beautifully grained ebony, with chrome accents, a brass second hand, and black enamel minute and hour hands. Rohde designed a lot of clocks for Miller in the 1930s, including cylindrical clocks cased in Bakelite. Some were made of veneered burlwood or rosewood, usually with chrome accents, while others were made only of black glass on a chrome base.
Out in Pasadena, California, Kem Weber designed a number of clocks for Lawson Electric Clock. Most of these resembled the sorts of architectural details one might find in an Art Deco train station. His Zephyr Clock had a curving, asymmetrical copper body with brass trim. Model 206 was a blocky clock incorporating a brass body, columns on the sides, and a digital readout in the center. Model P40 was also digital, but its case was made of silver and glass, all of which sat on a white alabaster base.
Lest you get the impression that all clocks made during the Art Deco era were somber examples of serious design, the period also saw a huge number of charming novelty clocks. Airplane clocks made out of Bakelite and nickel were very popular, as were the Bakelite Vistascope clocks that had a recessed compartment above the clock’s dial to house an illuminated diorama of a three-dimensional object, such as a boat or a ship.
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