Clothing for the time
Plenty of work in the tenths of millimeters: three NOMOS designers talk about their enjoyment of and problems with beautiful watches
The industrial designer Karin Sieber has worked for NOMOS Glashütte for several years. Axel Kufus Professor for Product Design in Berlin, consults the company on new design developments. And Simon Husslein, one of the three business managers at the Studio Hannes Wettstein in Zurich, designs watches on commission from NOMOS Glashütte. These three people are not all alike. But that doesn’t stop them from consuming a total of eight pieces of apple cake and a large chocolate bar while talking over coffee.
Frau Sieber, it’s come out beautifully! Who were you thinking of when you designed the dial of the Tangomat GMT?
Karin Sieber (KS): Primarily of friends who live abroad. And of a friend whose husband is currently supervising a project in China; of people, that is, who are emotionally tied to a different time. Everyone knows someone like that.
Watches should show the time. How important is it to you that they also be beautiful?
Prof. Axel Kufus (AK): Having time is the most wonderful thing in the world—and is increasingly a rarity. The watch that shows me my time can hardly be beautiful enough.
Do you see things similarly?
KS: Yes, time is of great value, and with a beautiful watch I give it meaning. A watch is not a purely utilitarian object.
Simon Husslein (SH): For me, a watch also has an aesthetic side effect: it can even become a sign of distinction for its wearer. Surrounding yourself with beautiful objects quite simply enhances your quality of life. How does a beautiful watch work, how do you manage it?
AK: First, I think it’s wonderful that there are so many kinds of watches. And that new ones are constantly being added! Has anyone ever counted them? As they count species of beetles? To add an unmistakable watch to this diversity, one that gives to time tranquility and the space for one’s own gaze, instead of seeking distraction in rivalry with torrents of complications or by driving away boredom with glittering luxury: I think that’s how a beautiful watch works …
KS: Yes. But it’s a long process before you have a finished watch. You need a certain penchant for perfection, patience, love of detail, and also a bit of curiosity.
Can you be a little more precise?
SH: It begins with the search for the right answers: What is an archetypical form for the movement, how big is it? What precise technical specifications do I have to fulfill? What history and culture does the manufacturer have, and how can I as designer harmonize with that? We first develop a causal basis. Then we try to give life to it with individuality.
I understand that. But nonetheless: round, a few numbers on it, a little metal around it—most people have trouble imagining that it is be so complicated.
SH: What makes designing watches very special is that there are already so many watches, which means an awful lot of derivations. Axel Kufus just mentioned that. All these many designs that already exist ultimately confront the same ergonomic givens: the watch must be worn on the wrist. It isn’t simple to define an independent watch that fits the trademark. In addition, the demand for precision in detail is immense, perhaps greater than for any other product.
KS: The effort shouldn’t be seen as proportional to the surface to be designed—often it’s exactly the reverse. You should see a microtypographer at work when he draws the numerals for the minute scale, and …
SH: … the same with the case: with watches, a tenth of a millimeter can make all the difference. Our eye has an incredibly high level of expectation when it comes to a watch.
KS: A tiny detail suffices to make the whole watch seem disharmonious.
What would you say is the most difficult aspect of watches?
KS: That you have to think in terms of units you can’t grasp. A tenth or even twentieth of a millimeter, that’s just so abstract! You often don’t initially know what it will look like when implemented. And there are also limits to what can be done.
Is it more complicated to work for NOMOS than for other labels?
AK: There is this expectation that everything about a watch from NOMOS Glashütte will be attractively reduced. And word has long since gotten around that less can be more. But that doesn’t always have to be the case. Because precisely when designing simple things, you can easily slip into banality. What is extremely reduced may look cool at first sight, but often it doesn’t hold up even to the second glance, and yearning and desire may not be inspired if things are all too plain. It’s a balancing act!
SH: But these considerations are what make clothing NOMOS time so interesting. NOMOS Glashütte is a company that really lives its company culture. You find humanity, discretion, and an incredible passion for what you do. Plus a likeable dash of irony. Very few companies cultivate all of that on such a high level. And that leads to a depth that you can feel in the products. When you work on watches, you often forget the time and are in danger of getting lost in the work process.
AK: You can say that again! If people knew how wonderful it is, they’d all want to do nothing but make watches! For me, every watch has a face. It returns my gaze. This face has to be found and invented when working on the watch; it’s a great challenge.
KS: And sometimes this thing is even loved! I like working for NOMOS, the trademark is close to me—and that’s already a great good fortune. I can concentrate fully on what’s essential, designing—and hardly have to think about target groups at all.
Despite your enthusiasm for watches, you also design furniture. Are there parallels?
SH: The process is comparable. Ultimately, our interest at the Studio Hannes Wettstein is always the kind of solutions that maintain their validity over the long term. We want the customer to be able to identify as lastingly as possible with the product and that it represent the label sustainably. The bent leg of a wooden chair here, the twisted watchband connection there: it is similar, yes.
And to stick with watches: What distinguishes NOMOS world timer watches from other timepieces with a second time zone?
KS: The world timers from NOMOS Glashütte are easy to understand and easy to deal with. Local time can be read as usual from the hands, the time in the other zone by means of a 24-hour scale. So there is no additional day or night indicator, no additional hour hand with a 24-hour scale, which make it almost impossible to read the time at a glance. To remain in the language of watches, we could speak of an uncomplicated complication. By the way, it’s also possible to reverse the display of local time and home time zone.
SH: For me, these watches are simply a declaration of love for the arm.
That’s a good concluding sentence. But still, one more question: What timepiece would you like to produce next for NOMOS?
AK: A clock for the kitchen wall! A pleasant contrast to the hectically blinking kitchen machines displays, which are always set to winter time. In the summer, I always tilt my kitchen clock five minutes off ...
SH: For me it would be a flat, fine, hand-wound watch with a timeless melancholy, but a present-day watch, a design from the 21st century for the 21st century.Or a robust archetype with a self-winding movement. And I would also like to design a watch with a mechanical alarm for NOMOS.
KS: What I’d most like to draw next would be an elegant, flat chronograph. And if a manufactory watch weren’t too absurd a luxury in this case, because things like this sometimes get lost, I would say: a beautiful child’s watch for Glashütte; that would be the thing, if I had my wish.