I imagine that some of you, when needing a household item like a vase or a skillet, just go shopping and pick one out. Maybe the Strategist tells you where! (They’re very good!) You do not, unlike some people I know (at least one of whom very closely matches my physical description), feel the need to go on a nearly endless digital expedition through design blogs, collectors’ forums, and eBay searches to find the Thing That Must Be Bought. This may sound like a humblebrag, but it really isn’t. It’s a low-grade affliction, particularly if you don’t live by yourself and your spouse would just like you to settle on a goddamn rug, because the floor is cold and it’s December and for God’s sake, enough already.
The design-history wormhole I found myself down the last few weeks — all right, it was more like three years — involved a blue wall clock I’d stumbled across awhile back. It fit into the broad category of “mid-century modern,” but it didn’t have the bright swoopy quality of most m.c.m. design. Instead, it had a sort of elevated-rustic look, handmade of rough chunky ceramic, like a big platter or an oversize round tile. Was it Mexican? Mediterranean? Unclear at first. All I knew was that I had first thought it was weird and maybe ugly, and then it really grew on me.
It turned out that I had found my way into a curious niche of design history where several mid-century makers of real design significance all crossed paths. These clocks, I gradually discovered, were produced and sold by Howard Miller, the family-run Michigan clockmaker that’s been in business for a century. It’s sometimes mistaken for a subsidiary of Herman Miller, the giant furniture-maker probably best known for the Aeron chair and Charles and Ray Eames’s designs. In fact, the two companies were once a single entity — Herman and Howard were father and son — but Howard’s clock business was spun off in 1937 and is headquartered across the street.
Today, a lot of Howard Miller’s business comes from traditional-looking grandfather and mantel clocks. But for a while, starting in the 1950s, it got into the same cheery modern-design idiom as its parent across the street, working with industrial designers like George Nelson and Arthur Umanoff. Nelson’s Asterisk clock, in particular, has become a modernist icon and can still be bought, new, at the MoMA shop. His clock designs are widely collected and easy to love: bright colors, big goofy hands, versatile enough to fit well in a kid’s room or a sophisticated office.
In 1969, Howard Miller expanded its modern offerings with a couple of new lines. One was the work of Arthur Umanoff Associates, a design firm that produced mostly inexpensive and accessible home furnishings: stools and wine racks often made of iron rod wrapped with wicker or slung with leather, with loops and arches that were just this side of kitschy. That vibe extended to the new Umanoff clocks, some with oversize numbers on the face, others in vaguely Star Trek shapes. The plastic ones were offered in a collection called Swing Timers.
Some of this new product, however, was quite different. These were big ceramic wall clocks, and they almost looked more like art pieces than commercial goods. MERIDIAN CLOCKS / DESIGNED AND MADE BY ITALIAN CRAFTSMEN IN CERAMICS, read a label on the back of each one. List price was about $35 — which roughly equates to $290 today — and some stores advertised them for around $30. They were clearly handmade, in multiple glazes with strong colors and textured surfaces. The ceramic faces were indeed made in Italy, many by a firm called Bitossi Ceramiche. That company, founded in 1871 near Florence, was and is highly regarded, and the Meridian clock that seems to have been sold most often (judging by how many you see today) is one of its own. It came from the hand of Bitossi’s legendary ceramics artist Aldo Londi, who died in 2003. He’s responsible for a whole line of items in that glaze, from platters to vases to ashtrays, known as Rimini Blu. Though the clocks are long out of production, much of the line is still being made. (Even, somewhat surprisingly, the ashtrays. Italians!) The clay surfaces are finely tooled by hand, the glazes are multitoned and complicated, and the final result has a depth that’s even nicer in person than in photographs.
It turned out that Howard Miller sold these clocks in other colors and styles as well. The same model occasionally shows up in a deep red. Another is divided into a dozen orange and yellow pie wedges around the face, with dark square markers for the hours. Still another shows a fish pattern that occasionally crops up in Londi’s work. And, as I found in my hunt, their rarity requires an investment. If you don’t luck into a yard-sale bargain, you can expect to pay about $1,000 to $1,500 at a gallery or dealer, and maybe half that on eBay.
I can’t quite suss out whether all the ceramics came from Bitossi or other suppliers. Stickers on the backs say that they were supplied via Raymor, which was yet another significant company in the mid-century design era. It mostly imported ceramics and other home goods, especially from Italy and Scandinavia, but also commissioned a few of its own. (Raymor and one other firm, Rosenthal-Netter, brought Bitossi to America.)
What I can say with some certainty is that none of the clock hands were designed by Raymor or Londi or any other ceramicists — because Howard Miller simply borrowed them from other models it was already making. You can match them up: The Rimini Blu clock and the fish one have the same hands as George Nelson’s Popsicle Clock. The orange-and-yellow model matches the Spindle Clock, Others, a little more ornate, also come from Umanoff designs that Howard Miller made. They all fit the faces pretty well, too — the mix-and-matchiness perhaps originated from expedience but looks just fine.
I called Howard Miller this week to ask about these designs and had a pleasant chat with Mark Siciliano, the director of marketing there. He told me there’s no plan to reissue them; it sounds as though the company doesn’t have much of an interest in this line. Bitossi ceramics are hardly unknown, mind you, and the enthusiasm for them seems to be growing. You can read brief primers about their history here and here, and apply to join a collectors’ Facebook group here. They’re just the sort of objects that, a half-generation ago, might have been banished to the basement and then the thrift store — irregular-seeming, sometimes kinda brown, too handmade-looking to fit the sharp pastel contours of the dominant Instagram aesthetic — and were ripe for a rediscovery, which appears to be happening now. Or at least it is in my apartment.
Did I eventually bottom out in this rabbit hole and buy one of these clocks? What are you, new here? Of course I did, after a few months of trolling eBay for one that was way underpriced. (Mostly because it needed its clockworks replaced, which I have already done.) It’s blue.