In the 1980s, as giant technology companies competed to create electronics that arrived in the most compact, grey boxes possible, a young designer named Daniel Weil was doing the exact opposite: eviscerating the electronic guts of gadgets, from radios to clocks, exposing them to the consumer the most elegant way imaginable. And 35 years later, he's still at it.
Weil, who was born in Argentina and moved to London as a young architect in the late '70s, is the subject of a sprawling exhibit at London's Design Museum this summer. The show has taken a year and a half to plan and stage, parsed from more thousands of sketches and hundreds of objects. It looks at almost four decades of Weil's work as a partner at Pentagram, including album art for the Pet Shop Boys, cabin design for United Airlines, to the chess set design for the World Chess Championship.
Bag Radio. Image: Design Museum.
But the clear highlight of Time Machines: Daniel Weil and the Art of Design is a personal project: clockmaking. Weil began designing clocks in 1979, when a client brought him a quartz movement and asked him to create a clock around it. But since then, Weil has designed dozens of timepieces, each realised in a completely unique way. "Time can be seen as this very flexible tool to communicate ideas," Weil recently told me. "That's why I'm fascinated by clocks: every time I make a clock, it has a different meaning of time."
Weil's clocks look like sculptures, but they're really more like diagrams. Each contains a movement, which regulates the time, and a battery, two components that we rarely see separated. In Power Lines, the movement and the battery are suspended between the wires that carry energy from one to the other:
Likewise, the mechanism in this timepiece sits atop thick wires connecting it to the battery:
And in another clock, By George, Weil uses the wires to create a lattice-like drawing:
The distance between the components is what makes these timepieces interesting. By externalising the components and connecting them with copper wiring, Weil is turning an electronic relationship into a spatial one. Suddenly, a clock isn't just a flat circle on a wall. It's a three dimensional diagram that shows you how time is kept in a physical way.
Other clocks incorporate even more visible movement. In Clock for an Architect, Weil houses the face inside a tiny shelter, while a rubber belt connects its hands to a time-setting mechanism. At the end of an ash plank, a single AA battery pushes power through two embedded wires in the wood.
The magical Clock for an Acrobat is even more kinetic: the walnut and brass face is set on a track that it rolls along as the time changes, moving a small glass bearing to indicate the hour.
But Weil isn't a luddite; he isn't pining for a world in which clocks make a triumphant return to prominence. Rather, he sees his sculptures as finding a new use for a mechanism that's been co-opted by modern technology. "We all use phones and computers to tell the time, so we have a display object that needs to find its role," Weil says. "We need to make new ideas for many objects, not just clocks, that are being displaced by the digital world."
In the end, these timepieces aren't just about clockmaking. They're an externalisation of Weil's own design process, a mix of intellectual meditation and creativity that's perfectly mirrored in the clocks themselves. "There's an intellectual pursuit and a practical understanding, and the journey is the meeting of the two," Weil told me.
Time Machines is an exhibit that makes the opaque process of design transparent to the average visitor, but if you want the cliff's notes, look for the clocks (you can also buy three of them here). Check it out until August 25 at the Design Museum.