George Nelson's Iconic Ball Clock—and Why I Hated It

The perils of editing a design journal (and famous designers), and a hate/love relationship with a mid-century timepiece

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In the mid-1980s I had lunch with the legendary Modernist industrial and product designer George Nelson near his Gramercy Park home. We discussed him doing a story for a design journal that I edited at the time. It was a pleasant lunch. Animatedly, we discussed many story ideas, until fixing on one. I don't recall the subject, but we were so excited about it—yet neither of us wrote the idea down.

I often left the house without my pocket notebook and pen, but I was so pleased with our brainstorming, I was certain I'd recall the pertinent facts long enough to write Mr. Nelson the requisite confirmation letter. I didn't. What's more, I stalled writing the letter for another two weeks. By that time, the only recollection I had was that Nelson promised he would produce a piece on our theme and file it a month later. I figured—indeed hoped—he remembered, so here's what I wrote him:

Dear George,

It was great meeting you a few weeks ago. I am really looking forward to the 600 word article we agreed you would do for May 5.

If I can be of any help, don't hesitate to contact me.

Very truly,
Steve Heller

Two weeks later, I received the following:

Mr. Heller,

I don't recall having agreed to write an article, nor do I recall the theme. Obviously, you don't either. That you did not take notes and have forgotten what was discussed is the mark of an irresponsible editor.

Cordially,
George Nelson

I guess you might call it a "gotchya" letter. He certainly saw through my subterfuge. Nonetheless I took offense not just because I was "caught," but more significantly, he impugned my character, implying I lied about his agreement to write the piece. He did agree! I was almost certain of that. Or was I?

In any case, since there was no email at the time, I debated whether to write back via return post, telling him I was offended. Or call him on the phone to apologize. Or just leave it alone. I was pretty good toeing the line of least resistance, so I just left it alone. Nelson passed away a few months later. Case closed.

I was reminded of this incident a few months ago when I received George Nelson's Ball Clock—the one he designed with Irving Harper—as a gift. I had coveted it at Conran's since before Christmas. Although I had seen it at Design Within Reach a few years ago, it wasn't until now that I wanted one. Now I have it on my wall, look at it often.

When I was younger, however, I hated it and all the other Nelson furniture that was in vogue.

That was the period when many of my family and friends owned or rented modern ranch summer homes in Long Island with the requisite late modern tables, chairs, and Nelson Ball Clocks that looked like Tootsie Pops and Colorforms. It wasn't that I didn't like Tootsie Pops or Colorforms, but they were not meant to hang on my wall. In fact, by the mid-60s, they looked really old fashioned and bourgeois. It's interesting how design informs our sense of time (and space). Nelson and Eames and others of that era were supposed to evoke a playful futuristic sensibility, but for me, weaned on the psychedlic-flea market-Victorianeque Sixties, it bore the same political connotation of Abstract Expressionism, which for me was without content or gravitas. I was had leftwing Ash Can School leanings with a Social Realist passion.

In other words, I wanted real numbers on my clock, not colorful abstract balls up against the wall!

I'm still not totally committed to Abstract Expressionism (the current MoMA show is fine), but I am totally in love with my George Nelson (or Irving Harper) Ball Clock—especially the shadows it makes on the wall when the morning and afternoon light changes. So, I am also looking for a place to put a George Nelson Sunburst Clock (also on sale at Conran's) and even contemplating an investment in a reproduction of a George Nelson Marshmallow Sofa (more furniture candy), If I can get rid of my Ethan Allan Desk.

By the way:

Dear George, wherever you are.

I'm finally over the pain of your letter. I agree it was irresponsible of me as an editor, and now I write everything down.

I only wish I could remember what we talked about.

Sincerely,
Steve

Image: Preconscious Eye/flickr

Presented by

Steven Heller is a contributing writer for The Atlantic, the co-chair of the MFA Design program at the School of Visual Arts, and the co-founder of its MFA Design Criticism program.

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