Style / World of Watches (WOW)

Timely Designs: Complicated Relationship Between Watchmaking and Its Designs

Watchmaking has a difficult relationship with design. All too often good wristwatch design ideas make for unworkable creations but others become icons.

Jul 03, 2022 | By Joshua Sims
Image: Rado

“I think what works about a collaboration like this is that it allows the watch brand to really go officially off-piste with its design,” says Tej Chauhan, the industrial designer behind everything from cutlery to hair-dryers, and one of five selected to produce their take on Rado’s True Square watch. “And I wanted a design that made people say ‘f*** me, what’s that?!’, to pay attention and get talking. There wasn’t any point if the resulting watch wasn’t different. It would just be another watch otherwise.”

That certainly cannot be said for Chauhan’s design, with its 1960s sci-fi inflections and, most strikingly of all, the fact that the case and padded leather strap are in a brighter shade of yellow. That almost did not come off — up to the wire it looked as though Rado’s engineers just could not make that bold shade without imperfections. But the result? The brand’s ecomm best-seller in the US — it is also reportedly the most popular of this series in Singapore. “Maybe that makes for room for Rado to do other watches in a similar vein,” says Chauhan.

It is the kind of collaborative success that — measured in excitement, if nothing else — has echoes back through watchmaking history over the second half of the 20th century and beyond. Many of the most innovative and/or memorable watches have been the result of work not by watch designers who have only ever designed watches — sometimes having worked their way up through the echelons of a single company — but of industrial designers versed in applying processes of ideation and a broad appreciation of materials and function turning their consideration to what a watch could be, aesthetically and functionally. Many of their new ideas would be borrowed by the more conventional, historical industry at large. Many of the watches would be called icons.

For example, Movado’s Museum Watch, with its single golden “sun” at the 12 o’clock position, was designed by the Russian-American designer Nathan George Horwitt (initially for Vacheron Constantin), and Hamilton’s Ventura by the space-age industrial designer Richard Arbib. Max Bill, the Swiss architect and artist, began a long relationship with Junghans which started in 1956 — the German company is still making his minimalistic designs, the likes of the Chronoscope, today. And the French watch manufacturer LIP effectively established its signature look — asymmetric cases and big, colourful pushers — through its work with the industrial designer Roger Tallon, who also designed projectors for Kodak and TGV high-speed trains for France. His Mach 2000 gave the mechanical watch a pop aesthetic that rescued it from high seriousness.

Movado Museum Watch
A recent iteration of the iconic Movado Museum Watch. Image: Movado

There are many more examples too. Giorgetto Giugiaro, the car designer behind the Maserati Ghibli, the VW Golf and the DeLorean of “Back to the Future” fame, as well as cameras for Nikon and firearms for Beretta, also designed a number of distinctively asymmetrical Speedmasters for Seiko, considered so futuristic it is what Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley wears in “Alien”. Post-modernist architect Michael Graves designed a number of watches for, tellingly, the likes of Pierre Junod — a company that has made a speciality of collaborating with young designers — and Alessi, which is not known for watches at all. Think too of Pierre Cardin, Dieter Rams or Jacob Jensen.

Indeed, each decade seems to have its industrial designer watch moment. In 1994, multi-disciplinary designer Marc Newson — who learned how to design watches hands-on, coming up with his first watch aged 23 and then making 100 of them himself — co-founded the Ikepod brand, which led to the likes of the Hemipode, with its pebble-like case and integrated strap. Meanwhile in 2010 Hermès commissioned the architect Marc Berthier – best known for his rubber-wrapped Tykho radio for Lexon — to create the limited edition Carre H, with its rounded square titanium case.

And all with good reason. “Watch brands often say their focus is on making extraordinary movements — and they are amazing — but often it can seem that nobody outside of their industry is showing them what else might be possible [with their designs],” says Vincent Fourdrinier, one-time designer of cars for the likes of Peugeot and Mitsubishi, and latterly of watches for the likes of Guy Ellia and Christophe Claret, including of pioneering uses of carbon fibre and sapphire crystal. He is just about to launch an exercise machine for sedentary desk jockeys.

“The fact is that the watch industry can be afraid of change — newness for many makers is just the same model in a new colour,” he chuckles. “So it sometimes turns to industrial designers to help it embrace genuinely new ideas, to help move everything forward. But it’s a slow process. Just look at how the industry laughed at the idea of the Apple watch. And how that now sells in numbers greater than the entire Swiss industry put together…”

Acclaimed British product designer Ross Lovegrove agrees. He is the man behind the HU “anatomical” watch for Issey Miyake and who was, for six years, the chief design officer of TAG Heuer, for which he designed the flippable analogue/digital Monaco 69, and a super-light, clasp-less golf watch (which he first declined to do on the basis that a golf watch “is the last thing you actually need when playing golf — it actually just gets in the way”)

Porsche 911
Classics in watchmaking function like the Porsche 911, evolving rather than shifting gears dramatically. Image: Porsche

“When I first started working with TAG Heuer they looked at my concepts and told me that ‘you clearly have no idea how to design watches’,” he laughs — Lovegrove instead designed award-winning pens and eyewear for the brand. “So suddenly they said ‘why don’t you design our watches?’… As with chairs and lamps, I think most industrial designers want to have a go at mechanical watches too. It’s just that there are so many contradictions in their designs, something ludicrous about the ambition towards precision and performance. In the end all that calibration is about an excellence in jewellery really, because take that away and you have a Swatch. Yet it’s because I’m not a nerdy watch guy that I felt I could respond to that.”

Not that industrial designers do not often find attempting to design a watch challenging — considering how its look and function need to be in synch, how it has to be comfortable to wear and easy to use, and so on. Indeed, over recent decades other design superstars, from Phillipe Starck to Frank Gehry and Zaha Hadid, have all taken a crack at designing watches, not all of which have made it into production, even fewer of which have managed to cross the seeming divide between the worlds of capital D design and of horology.

“When you look at the history of watchmaking not many people from outside of the industry have had an influence on watch design, and, in fact, not many designers outside of the industry have been particularly successful with a design either,” argues Christian-Louis Col, Ikepod’s owner. “You really need to appreciate the fine technical issues, the construction, and a vast majority of designs by non-watch designers tend to be unfeasible.”

Image: Rado

It is why Xavier Perrenoud, founder of the watch design studio XJC, describes watches as — atypically for most products “a mixture of technology and ancient culture — a talismanic object that is worn close to the body. [And that] requires a great knowledge of proportions and ergonomics.” Each time he designs a watch he is working, he says, with “the different craftsmanship processes of another brand culture”.

Certainly Eric Giroud agrees that, because of this unusual mix of material and mythology, watch design can be harder than it looks. Giroud — the man behind many watches, from the avantgarde for MB&F, to more traditional looks for the likes of Vacheron Constantin and Tissot, among others — started out designing everything from lamps to mobile phones before the design agency at which he worked was tasked with designing a watch. He took the project on because nobody else wanted to.

A Maurice De Mauriac dive watch designed by Fabian Schwaerzler.

“Dealing with a watch that’s already regarded as an icon is particularly difficult,” he explains. “Of course, some brands are lucky to have such a great design to start with — like Porsche does with the 911, for example — but that also makes them very much more mindful of the matter of legacy over the design work. These designs become stuck in evolution, rather than revolution. And it’s a fascinating nightmare to find the right way of moving such designs on. But you have to remember that the watch industry is very particular about its ways and the meaning of its products. It takes a long time to really appreciate that.”

“All the same, it’s not just a coincidence that many of the most striking watch designs [of recent times] have come from industrial designers, I think because they necessarily have a more open mind to design possibilities,” suggests Giroud, who contends that the shyness with which major brands employ designers from other disciplines — there is often a reluctance to even publicly admit that they do — is “to close themselves off from another point of view, one which can result in some very cool products. The fact is that [external] designers or artists haven’t been stuck in the culture of one brand for years.”

“The vast majority of watch companies have internal design teams — occasionally asking externally for ideas — and so inevitably they’re influenced by the world in which they work. And that can be limiting, with regards to considerations regarding construction or costs for instance,” agrees Col. “In the end it’s creativity that suffers.”

And there lies a debate in itself — is understanding the process of watch creation what makes for a successful commercial watch, or is not being so intimate with them, as industrial designers typically find themselves, what allows them to be readier to break the rules and drive watch design in new directions?

A Charles Zuber Perfos Classic designed by Eric Giroud.

“Professional watch designers within the watch industry have a much broader horizon of what is possible and feasible in the design process and production of the company. So I would say the really longterm, groundbreaking designs are made by them,” argues the product designer Fabian Schwaerzler, who has designed watches for Maurice De Mauriac. “But this process takes time and it doesn’t always look innovative at first glance. Then there are the career changers — they are actually less professional, but they can think outside the box. This can lead to very interesting new approaches. Mechanical watches are almost perfect instruments, but [for example] technology is progressing and opening up completely new possibilities.”

The watch industry — never one to make stars of its own designers — is, naturally, not always open to having its conventions questioned. “You know, it’s very difficult to knock on the door of a prominent company and say ‘this is what I propose you do’! It’s very pretentious. It’s a delicate situation and you will never be recognised for your talent,” as Gerald Genta, arguably the world’s most acclaimed specialist watch designer once put it. “When he started his work he was going round the different factories with his designs and was even asked ‘yes, but do watches need designers?’,” as his wife Evelyn Genta recalled in 2013.

Jump forward half a century and perhaps not much has changed. Thomas Hohnel, the industrial design-trained senior product designer for Nomos Glashütte, stresses that for many of the more historic names in watchmaking, it is simply that the emphasis remains on calibres and craftsmanship, and on following certain rules that have a solid track record in what is, after all, a specialist market.

“It’s heritage first, design second. And obviously this runs counter to the mentality of industrial designers to research and develop new ideas and push materials technology in ways that are adaptable to all kinds of topics,” he says. But, he adds, there’s space to flip this too: Nomos, which runs its design department out of Berlin — in another city from manufacturing, all the better to tap metropolitan design talent and the spirit of the Deutsche Werkbund — underscores its need to “make a contemporary statement [with its products] and be seen to be relevant to today”.

Eric Giroud

It is why Nomos also looks for inspiration from the likes of design agency Studio Aisslinger — with everything from chairs to restaurant design in its remit; and why it commissioned the likes of architect and furniture designer Hannes Wettstein to design a number of watches, including a deeply intuitive GMT model that, by way of a simple, unobtrusive red indicator, allows the wearer to track the time back home.

Yet, inevitably, this is not a discussion without its controversy. Not everyone is convinced that the watch industry’s occasional recourse to designers from other disciplines is necessarily well intended. Benoit Mintiens has, in his time, designed prams, trains and aircraft cabin interiors, and was inspired to launch his brand Ressence after a dispiriting visit to the Baselworld watch trade fair “at which it seemed everybody was just doing the same thing,” he recalls. He laments that the so-called Quartz crisis of the late 1960s — when the mechanical watch-making industry suddenly found its product outmoded and seemingly out-dated — “saw the importance and relevance of progressive products in the watch industry sidelined in favour of branding”.

The RJ Romain Jerome Spacecraft.

“That’s fine,” he adds, “because most people buy a mechanical watch for the brand, for the reassurance of status — although it must be intensely frustrating for [in-house] watch designers when they’re essentially asked to dress a watch and not get to the core of the physical design, the aesthetic of which is just a result of rethinking how the whole concept. Watch manufacturers don’t have to devise especially original or progressive products because the customer doesn’t typically want that. It’s why watches that do rethink the whole concept tend to stand out as they do throughout watchmaking history.”

Image: Monaco Legend Auctions

“I’m not convinced that many companies’ use of external [industrial] designers demonstrates a change of approach either. To me they seem to use them as they might Brad Pitt or those half naked girls they used to put next to cars at auto shows — to talk up their super boring products,” laughs Mintiens.

Yet might the global reach and customer access of the Internet — and the many independent watch brands that it has afforded over recent years — bring about a new era in more progressive watch design? Might the era of the 1960s and 70s — “ahead of the Quartz crisis, when watchmaking was at the forefront of innovation, of micro-technology, in precision in time-keeping tools,” as Mintiens puts it — be revisited in the 2020s and 2030s? He argues that there is a growing, if niche, number of increasingly design-literate customers who do seek to put the product first — “its ergonomics, its ideas, something that belongs to the present”.

“So what’s key is that if we need new ideas, we keep turning to new designers,” stresses Ikepod’s Col. “And we’re happy to make these designers the stars too because that only encourages creativity. And that’s crucial — a market for ‘strong’ design may seem niche now, but the fact is that increasingly young people don’t want to wear the same watch as their fathers. They want to see something properly new.”

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