George Nelson: Retro Clock Designer

George Nelson

Retro, also known as American Modernism or Mid Century Modern, is one of the most popular styles these days and elements of retro design can be found in everything from kitchen appliances to cars. Although “retro” design doesn’t have a firm definition, many people consider the 1940s through the 1960s the core of the retro era. Although there were many designers during that period, one of the most famous and innovative was George Nelson.

Nelson graduated from Yale with degrees in Architecture and Fine Arts. After that he traveled throughout Europe and met many of the European modernist designers of his day. Upon his return to the United States he wrote “Tomorrow’s House: A Complete Guide for the Home Builder” and wrote articles for a number of magazines describing his ideas on design. One of his earliest designs was the “Storagewall” a wall that also served as a storage unit. Because of his writings and creative designs he became well known throughout the design world.

In 1946 the Howard Miller Company hired George Nelson to be the company’s design director. This was the start of a long and fruitful partnership that produced many iconic pieces of “retro” furniture (of course, they weren’t known as retro at the time). This included over 300 clocks, including the famous Ball Clock, Starburst Clock, Asterisk Clock, Sunflower Clock, Eye Clock and Turbine Clock. Original clocks in good condition can cost thousands, but fortunately there are a variety of reproductions available. Some are exact reproductions that can cost hundreds of dollars and others are “in the style” reproductions that aren’t exact, but are very similar to the original (and much less expensive).

The Ball Clock

One of the most famous clocks that George Nelson designed was the Ball Clock. This clock used the simple geometric designs that were popular during the period along with the “space / atom” look that was also popular. The most accurate (and expensive) reproduction is the Vitra Ball Clock that was designed from the original specifications. The Vitra Ball Clock is available in White, Red, Orange, Natural and Multi-Colored. Fortunately, for those who like the design, but don’t want to spend hundreds of dollars for a wall clock, there are a number of clocks that are made “in the style” of George Nelson’s Ball Clock, but cost far less.

The Starburst Clock

The Starburst clock was another of George Nelson’s famous clock designs. The Starburst clocks also uses simple geometric designs, with pointed rays extending out from the circular center and simple hour and minute hands. As with many of his clock designs, the Starburst Clock is available as an exact reproduction that is manufactured from his original design specifications. As with the other exact reproductions, these clocks come at a premium. Less expensive “in the style” Starburst Clocks are also available, and these can range from fairly close reproductions to clocks that are significantly different from the original design (although some of these can be quite nice too).

The Asterisk Clock

The Asterisk Clock is one of Nelson’s simplest, yet most striking designs. It features a twelve “pointed” (the ends are flat) asterisk shaped base with simple, yet bold minute and hour hands. Like the Ball Clock and the Starburst Clock, Vitra produces an authentic, but expensive model that is available with both a black “asterisk” with white hands and a white “asterisk” with black hands. Unfortunately, there are few if any less expensive clocks with a similar style, although some companies sell variants of the Asterisk clock design that, although they would not be confused with the original design, are interesting in their own right.

The Turbine Clock

Somewhat similar to the Starburst Clock, the Turbine Clock includes a similar circular center and simple geometric hands. The rays that extend out from the center are arranged in more of an overlapping design, reminiscent of a turbine or aircraft propeller. The clock also has a more industrial brass color and is larger than many of the clocks with a diameter of over thirty inches. One of Nelson’s less well known designs, an authentic model is available from Vitra, but it is difficult (or impossible) to find a clock “in the style” of this design from other manufacturers.

A prolific designer, George Nelson designed a vast number of retro clocks, along with many other everyday items that are now considered collectors’ items. If you’re looking to decorate a room in the retro style, or just add a touch of retro to an office or living room, you can’t really go wrong with one of his clocks. If you’re looking for more retro appliances, including toasters, mixers, milkshake makers, percolators and more, visit The Retro Toaster for a selection of retro style items. If you’re interested in reading more about George Nelson and his designs, there are a number of good books available.


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