Clocks & watches: the representation of movement That represents time.
It's fitting that designers formerly of the Memphis Group and those who shared its zeitgeist would put their energies towards the conception of timepieces. These are designers who effectively disowned time and all the heavy nostalgia it commands on the human mind. But they also embraced its state of constant change. The result of this dual rapport is timepieces that continually speak to the senses of the reader, a conversation programmed by the designers to evolve with time's passing.
Repetitive patterns, colors that jog perception, the use of "high" and "low" materials like the look of marble on industrially made metal and plastics, and designs that required innovation in industrial manufacturing. All characteristics of these postmodern Timepieces.
By accident, we learned when compiling this exhibition, that some of the designers found each other seemingly by chance. Nicolai Canetti, European and living in New York met Shiohei Mihara, Japanese living In Tokyo, while researching and travelling in Japan. They collaborated on clock designs for Canetti Group. Ettore Sottsass, Italian, George Sowden, English, Natalie du Pasquier, French, found each other in Italy. From a variety of perspectives, they have all strongly contributed to our understanding of clocks and watches, these objects that track our universal measure of time.
We revisit many of these timepieces 20 to 30 some years after their original production, offering them to a "now" that eagerly receives them.
First edition, out-of-production SOTTSASS COLLECTION wrist watches designed by Ettore Sottsass, released in Japan by Seiko in 1992. Production of this collection was limited to a small number due to the highly skilled and meticulous manufacturing required to create such a complex yet subtile design.
The multi-layered sapphire crystal bears different graphics at each level, which creates a floating effect inside the thick crystal face. A very subtile and clever design requiring high manufacturing skills and means.
Later, in 1995 and 1996, Seiko modified Ettore Sottsass’s designs for a limited reedition called SOTTSASS SPIRIT (in the spirit of Sottsass) with only 3 chronographs instead of 4 in the original edition.
The Neos series is the fruit of Nathalie du Pasquier's work with George J. Sowden. Their collaboration made them the Memphis Group power couple. These clocks were manufactured and produced by the Italian brand Lorenz, and they are a kind of Memphis Group 2.0: colors clashing pleasingly alongside intricate and bold patterns. A revolution in clock design and industrial manufacturing that demonstrated how the Memphis Group ethos could drive commercial success without making any concessions.
Nathalie du Pasquier is a painter and designer. She was born in Bordeaux, France in 1957 and has lived in Milan since 1979 where she met the designer George Sowden. Two years after moving to Milan, she met Ettore Sottsass who invited her and Sowden to become founding members of the Memphis Group. Her iconic patterns for Memphis are today the group's most recognizable designs. They have become a widely recognized aspect of the Memphis brand and defined the esthetic of the 1980s in general.
In 1987, she dedicated herself to painting after designing furniture and objects. Over the past 10 years her fine art career has had strong recognition and her iconic Memphis work has been re-edited by brands like American Apparel and the Conran Shop, entering the lives of new generations and showing how relevant her early work is today.
George J. Sowden is an architect and designer. He was born in Leeds, UK in 1942. After studying architecture at the Gloucester college of art he moved to Milan in 1970 where he founded his own design and product development studio in 1979. He met Ettore Sottsass while working as a design consultant for Olivetti. Sottsass invited Sowden and his wife Nathalie Du Pasquier to co-found the Memphis Group in 1981. Their contributions to the New Design are now the most emblematic of the movement that changed design and pop culture.
After the Memphis Group disbanded in 1988, Sowden collaborated with world-famous companies like Olivetti, Alessi, Bodum, Guzzini, Lorenz, Rancilio, Steelcase, Swatch, Segis, Memphis, IPM, Moulinex, Telecom Italia, Tefal and Pyrex. Today SOWDEN is his eponymous brand that offers a collection of innovative products for the 21st century.
Lorenz brand was created in 1934 by master watchmaker Tullio Bolletta. In 1960 Lorenz won its first “Compasso d’Oro” design award with the Static Table Clock designed by Richard Sapper.
In the 1980’s Federico Bolletta, son of Tullio Bolletta (who joined the company in the early 60’s), was looking for some new designers who could create a watch/table clock/wall clock collection, with the objective of keeping the connection alive between the Lorenz brand and design. The Memphis Group of designers, which included George Sowden and Nathalie du Pasquier, was located close to via Montenapoleone in Milano, where the Lorenz headquarters is located.
Soon a friendly collaboration started with the two designers who would create the new Neos Collection. Entirely made in Italy, the Neos Collection was anticipating the market with innovative shapes, colors, materials and dial. The wooden frames, ceramic frames and plastic frames, represented something new in the timepiece industry. New production techniques like “cubic printing” for plastic wall clock cases were used to create the Neos Collection. In a way Neos was so anticipatory of the trends that the sales were good in the designer and architect communities worldwide, but were quite poor in the main market of the Lorenz brand, the watch and jewelry market. George Sowden would also design a special chronograph under the Neos Collection, which recalled some of the design guidelines of the collection.
In 2007, Pietro and Anna Bolletta, nephews of Tullio Bolletta and the son and daughter of Federico, created with the Spanish design group Cul De Sac, the new Neos Chronograph, with a very special “sandwich construction”, made of different layers. In 2008, Neos was once again awarded with the Compasso D’oro.
What was your inspiration for Wakita timepieces?
In 1976 the inspiration was simple, modern, and consistency in design. Later it was inspired by avant-garde-like, colorful, and ingenious design.
How did you start designing for Wakita?
Wakita was a company that undertook shipbuilding material mostly in metal. In 1975, my very first work for Wakita was to utilize stainless steel pipes through an unique manufacturing process. The method was selected by the design comity and awarded the Good Design Award. This is how Wakita, a company in Fukuoka, and I, who at that time was working in Tokyo, started our product development together.
During that time there were only a few simple and modern designs, therefore the clocks, calendar, and metallic flooring were all made with simple design intents. In the 1980s the brand MUJI was launched, and about 25 of the makers decided to take a different route, showcasing the importance of personality and character. We wanted to challenge ourselves by bringing in a new era in design.
What were the reactions of the first people to whom you showed the clocks? What did they say?
There were some people in the design community that showed disagreement and disdain. The movement started from 1985 and currently the designs have gained attention in auction houses.
What happened in your life at the time you were working on these clocks?
In the beginning, we visited countless manufacturers to sell the products that were designed. Around 1980, we officially began selling our product. After 1985, OEM production started to manufacture watches, so we were able to have development experts that challenged difficult designs.
What music were you listening to?
I liked to listen to ABBA.
Would you consider the clocks Postmodern?
Many people might think the clock is Post-Modern design, but at the time, Wakita and I did not intend it. However, it did feel like an irony against designs that emphasized morality and functionality, thus it made us feel like peers of the Memphis Group, which we truly respected.
Philolux: In the beginning, were the clocks the only products you were designing with Canetti Design Group ?
Nicolai Canetti: No. Actually, I started with bags. That was the first thing that I designed. I studied product design, but nothing specific. Originally, I developed what is now very popular. I developed an imitation leather material. It turned out to be like everything else I’ve done in my life: too early for its time. I was spending nights and nights in factories in China in the late 1970s trying to create the imitation material. This was before anyone went to China. Now you see imitation ostrich, imitation of any kind of animal. Today everyone does imitation leather for clothes to any kind of product for various reasons, one being animal protection and the other related to the environment today. At the time, I would say I was the first.
I went to Bloomingdale’s, my first meeting. And I showed them the line of bags that I did, and until they bought the bags, the Bloomingdale’s buyers thought it was real leather. They just couldn’t believe it. I didn’t say I was from Italy, but they assumed I was from Italy.
P: When looking at the two clocks we have from you, they are the only ones we see with different hands than other clocks of the period. Was that a challenge in manufacturing?
NC: You hit it on the head because the hands were really the key to everything for me, the design of hands. The fact is that most people used to come and say, “what is this?” and I would say, “it’s a clock.” It was the typical question. Because it was the 1980s. Today, they would not as this question. Because in the 80s, Swatch came. And Swatch changed the way things were done as far as clocks and hands.
I designed the clock that you have now in your collection as a watch. You should have seen the difficulties of making hands like that on watches. I went to the best factories in Switzerland at the time and they thought I was crazy, but we made it in the end. We made watches with those exact hands, which was never done before. And then Swatch came and wanted to buy us out. They came to my showroom on 5th avenue. I spent weeks with them negotiating. At the end, they didn’t buy us out, they went and did their own thing. I was the first to do the watches like we saw commonly after Swatch began. But we were too early. That’s the reality. When we were doing this, there was no internet, no Google.
P: How did you come to know about the Wakita clocks before internet?
NC: There are two things: number one, I love Japan. I was one of the first designers to go there. I used to go there every time I went to Taiwan or China to my factories to see my products. I passed by Japan to get inspiration. Japan was fantastic especially for the materials they were using. Designs, unusual things, colors, it was a very inspiring country to visit. One day in Japan I saw the Mihara Wakita clocks at a store. Then I realized that the Canetti Group can sell other designers, not just my designs. It could be a group of designers from other parts of the world. I chose the Wakita designer, Shohei Mihara, and sold it under the Canetti brand. In many cases we would modify the designs together so it was more in line with my design preferences, a color or other aspect for example. And so we sold their products in my company. There were other designers from other companies.
P: Really? What others? It was an accident that we found the Mihara clock with the Canetti logo. It’s amazing to know that you knew each other. In a pre-internet world, I can see why the only way to do that is to go to Japan to meet him.
NC: Right, and moreover, he only spoke Japanese. I don’t speak Japanese. But I’m an international guy and so we went out, got some sake, and we got the job done.
P: That is excellent.
NC: It was fun. I am very picky. I didn’t have too many [other designers]. Like you said, Mihara’s designs have a similar kind of style to my clocks, similar to the Memphis movement.
P: Do you remember what year you designed the black Artime clock we have, which is the most famous on the American market today?
NC: That was the first one. I want to say 1984. The Artime Collection was the name of the collection, and I made many other clocks under the Artime Collection brand. They were quite expensive for the time, so I made a second collection called the ModernTime Collection, which was a more affordable line. I wanted more people to enjoy the designs and not everyone could enjoy the expensive ones.
P: Thank you so much, Mr. Canetti. It’s very inspiring to talk to you about how you went to China to the factories to do research, and to Japan to meet Shohei Mihara. You’ve done so many things, we're so honored that you do share this with us.
NC: Thank you.