Max Bill Tells Time


Max Bill Tells Time


Max Bill was born in 1908 in Winterthur, Switzerland. At 16, he began his training as a silversmith at the School of Applied Arts in Zurich and had two of his student works selected for exhibition at the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes in Paris. His personality as an artist and independent spirit had him expelled after only three years. He took his winnings from a poster contest with the Suchard chocolate manufacturer and moved to Dessau to join up with the work of the Bauhaus school. He studied for two years under the likes of Albers, Kandinsky, Klee, Moholy-Nagy and Schlemmer and carried the theory of minimalist design and principles of ethical art that he maintained throughout his career.

Finding Himself

Max returned to Switzerland in 1929 and began a period of prolific work in which he used his talents across a wide variety of fields. He worked in architecture, painting, sculpting and product design as well as dedicated time to lectures near and far. He joined the Parisian group of artists called “Abstraction-Création” and founded the Allianz publishing house in 1941 for Swiss abstract artists.

In 1950, he put his energy into creating the Ulm School of Design (HfG Ulm), both physically as an architect and intellectually as the first rector of the school from 1951 to 1956. Concurrently, Max also served as the head of the Department of Architecture and Product Form, bringing the design concepts of Bauhaus to a new group of young artists.

In 1950, Max created the Ulm “School of Design” — both physically as an architect and intellectually as the first rector of the school from 1951 to 1956

He brought his talent for education and his passion for good design together at the Ulm School and later to his professorship at the State University of Fine Arts in Hamburg (HFBK) where he chaired the Department of Environment Design from 1967 to 1974.

In a French publication in 1954, “Basis and Aim of Aesthetics in the Age of Mechanism,” Max opined, “It seems self-evident to us that the most diverse objects produced with the help of machines should serve men. As properties, they must fulfill a whole range of functions, which are judged according to the following arguments: solidity, utility, beauty, value for money. The basis of any aesthetics should, above all, be function. This is perhaps a somewhat general concept; it is to say that an exemplary object should serve its purpose under all circumstances.”

The prototype of buffet table clock designed by Max

Max Bill and Junghans

In the 1950s, Max Bill was invited to collaborate with German watchmaker Junghans on a number of timepieces, including wall clocks and watches. Max Bill and his students at Ulm designed the now famous ceramic “max bill Kitchen Clock” in 1956 that exemplified the clear philosophy of form follows function. The clock was bright and cheerful, but also highly functional with a built-in timer and a clean, minimalist design that prized legibility and quality.

Max Bill designed the famous ceramic kitchen clock in 1956

When asked about the design, Max commented, “It was clear the clock needed to have numbers — the hours on the minute tracks and the minutes on the short timer. Why? The kitchen clock is often the only wall clock in the household. It teaches children to tell the time, to read the first numbers, the order of hour and day. And it should be bright and friendly, like beautiful dishes.”

Junghans manufactured thousands of max bill kitchen clocks, and they were commonly seen in German households. However, finding a pristine example now is considered a rare collector’s item.

In 1958, Max created a clean and simple buffet clock that Junghans still offers in their collection to this day. In 1959, he created a pair of wall clocks inspired by a pocket watch and a wall clock that his watchmaker grandfather had in the house when he was a child. Max Bill had a weak spot for watches and clocks, as he explained, “This must have been because one of my grandfathers was a watchmaker and we had beautiful old watches at home… Two of these clocks were especially dear to me from childhood on: a wall clock and a pocket watch … Again and again I had to compare all the clocks I came across with these two clocks from my youth. And only very rarely did I find clocks that could stand the comparison.”

Modern Junghans table clocks based on Max 's minimalist buffet table clock from 1958

The Watch Design

Max Bill has emphatically stated that he was “obsessed with making beautiful, precise timepieces.” The natural next step for Max and Junghans came to fruition in 1961 when he collaborated to design the first wristwatches for the manufacturer. These watches were powerful with their insistence on clean legibility and functionality of form. The three recognizable designs would prove to be iconic, standing up to the test of time.

The original max bill "index only" timepiece launched in 1961

The first design focuses on the index, with no numbers for distraction. The oversized hour markers are further distinguished by luminous markers, single dots at 3, 6 and 9 and a double dot at 12. Max Bill invented this double dot (colon) device for orientation and Junghans was the first manufacturer to use it.

The second style is a numerical dial with a typeface designed by Max himself. His philosophy of reducing to the bare essential was incorporated into the creation of the numerals. Clearly rounded and without any embellishments, the numbers show the independent signature of the Bauhaus-trained artist, which is most clearly visible in the number four. Max Bill elaborates on the watch design, “The wristwatch corresponds even more perfectly to my own ideas; the one with the steel case, with the silver plated dial, the differentiated scale with minute numbers that also signify the seconds, and the full circle of hour numbers. And what I particularly like about this wristwatch are the fine luminous hands and the luminous dots in the quarters, the double dots at the top in the center, at full hour.”

The final design forgoes the luminous dots and gives more emphasis to the minute markers with thicker lines that are more prominent on the dial. The thicker hour markers are covered with luminous material. This style was created to have the right contrast for a black dial. Max Bill also introduced a variation of this watch with indexes in a galvanic gold plated case.

Modern Watches

The original watches were 34mm in size, small by today’s standards but representative of the trend in their time. Modern versions are updated to larger sizes and with technology changes such as automatic winding, date complications, sapphire crystal, solar cells and three-bar water resistance.

Junghans’ max bill Automatic retains the same design elements of the original but now in a 38mm size. Junghans offers them in three variations — with numbers, indexes, with or without date. They are also available in quartz models at a more accessible price point. While most of Junghans’ max bill watches are fitted with mineral crystal, since 2020 Junghans is also offering them with sapphire crystal.

In 2006, Junghans introduced the Chronoscope, their largest 40mm watch that is based on original concepts by Max Bill that delivers a chronograph complication that is both functionally complex and visually minimalist. The design features fine lines, luminous dots, filigree hands that are true to Max’s design philosophy. The watch retains its clarity despite the two minute and hour counters, which are arranged symmetrically. An additional small seconds hand was omitted for a minimalist design. The mushroom- shaped pushers round off the design perfectly.

From left to right: max bill Chronoscope Ref: 27/4502.04, max bill Handaufzug Ref: 27/3701.04, max bill Automatic Ref: 27/3502.04.

In 2021, Junghans relaunched the original max bill collaboration Kitchen Clock from 1956 in light blue ceramic with a white glazed dial and featuring the gorgeous typography developed by Bill. It features a mechanical 60-minute timer and a Junghans quartz movement J738. The domed mineral glass and carefully balanced minimalist design would be a beautiful and historically significant addition to any household.

A showcase of 2021 novelties starting with the max bill kitchen clock Ref: 362/1100.00

Max bill Chronoscope 27/4600.02

Max bill Kleine Automatic Ref: 27/4105.02

Max bill Kleine Automatic Ref: 27/4107.02

Max bill Kleine Automatic Ref: 27/7108.02

It’s clear that Max created his designs with a timeless appeal, and he would be delighted to see how people around the globe continue to appreciate his thoughtful approach to form and function. To close in Max’s words, “For us it has become self-evident that it can no longer be a question of developing beauty from function alone, but we demand beauty as equal to function, that it be equally a function.”