Tag Archives: Motion Notion

Timeless Timepieces: George Nelson’s “Radically Modern Clocks”

“What is a clock, anyway?”

In the late 1940s, George Nelson and fellow designer Irving Harper were sitting around a table with their team at the Howard Miller Clock Company. After someone posed this simple question, they began sketching and came up with a fundamental design of six lines bisecting at a common midpoint. This scaffolding became their elemental blueprint from which a myriad of clocks evolved for the next forty years.

Under the direction of George Nelson (1908-1986), architect, writer, and industrial designer, the Howard Miller Clock Company produced imaginative wall and table clocks that epitomized twentieth-century modern design. When Nelson joined the team at Howard Miller in 1947, he was frustrated with the “Kleenex culture” of “disposable” American consumer products and sought to establish a distinct niche in a market that he saw as producing “things to use and throw away”. The result was a series of “radically modern clocks”.

He believed that people seldom used numbers on a clock to tell time; rather, they approximated the hour based on the position of the hands. He also observed – due to peoples’ preference for wristwatches – that the function of wall clocks had transformed into “decorative elements in the furnishings of rooms.” The chrome Spoke clock (1955) demonstrates this seamless minimal design that functions effectively as a timepiece with large hands that point to twelve number spaces.

Throughout the 1950s and 60s, the company began experimenting with unusual materials and intricate, playful features. The Motion Notion line, designed in 1959, may have been inspired by Nelson’s collection of antique toys. This Motion Notion table clock, rather than traditional hands, incorporates striking geometric forms attached to rotating discs to indicate time. According to a contemporary critic, the clocks in this series transcended their primary function and became “conversation pieces”. Until his death in 1986, Nelson continued to innovate household objects while fulfilling his design objective: “The purpose of good design is to ornament existence, not to substitute for it.”


Contributing Writer, Paul DesMarais

Lot Information:

Lot 13
George Nelson  
Spoke clock  
Howard Miller, designed 1955  
Model no. 2227  
Retains Howard Miller label verso  
Estimate $1,000 – 1,500
June 26, 2011 Modern Art & Design Auction

Lot 21
George Nelson  
Motion Notion table clock  
Howard Miller  designed 1959  
Model no. 2270 C-PB  
Retains Howard Miller label  
6″h x 5.25″diameter  
Estimate $6,000 – 8,000
June 26, 2011 Modern Art & Design Auction


Eisenbrand, Jochen, ed. George Nelson: Architect, Writer, Designer, Teacher. Wel am Rhein: Vitra Design Museum, 2008. Print.