A few reflections on time and on watches

April 2003

A wonderful exhibition recently took place at the Palazzo Reale in Milan, under the auspices of Cartier. The event was even more interesting because Ettore Sottsass was engaged to handle its artistic direction. It provided the ideal opportunity to meet the famous architect and designer, who was invited to speak on the theme of watches and jewellery as seen from the perspective of object-symbols that are both decorative and functional.

Sottsass was born in Innsbruck, Austria in 1917. He studied in Turin, then collaborated with Olivetti for 30 years. Sottsass also founded the avant-garde Studio Sottsass Associati.

The exhibition, entitled 'The design of Cartier as seen by Ettore Sottsass' afforded the architect the occasion for a profound reflection, both professional and existential. On display was the rich production of the luxury brand founded in Paris in 1847. More than 200 objects reflected the mastery and creativity that has been accomplished in decorative arts over the years. The displays were excellently planned and arranged. Inside the large glass temples (perhaps reminiscent of the Memphis period?), the objects were caressed by the subtle lighting and seemed to float like poetic and multi-coloured holograms.

Colour was at the heart of Sottsass' plan. The chromatic symphony of the precious metals and gemstones evoked his own work and the play of colours in interior decoration and furniture that he has created during his career. This reflection on colour certainly applies to jewellery and 'objects of virtue', but what about watches whose primary function is not so much to add decoration to a wearer or to a house as it is to tell the time?

“But it is so simple,” explained Ettore Sottsass. “In our lives, time is the background colour for everything. The time that passes is identified with life itself. We can understand this by evaluating the various ways that we watch the unrelenting passage of the hours. There are those who claim to want to rigorously control everything that happens, while others are perfectly content to have only an approximate idea of what is coming. Personally, I am in the second category. In life, as in creative work, there must be a sort of continuous change, a permanent revolution.”

Transposed to watches, this dual, and contradictory, approach to time and existence results in, on one side, “watches that are large, ostentatious and very complicated with all their buttons and their functions.” On the other side, there are “very simple pieces, rather flat with only minute and hour hands, with markers and hands that are quite visible.” Behind this philosophic discussion is also a man who understands watchmaking. Among the experiences of Ettore Sottsass are several realizations of watches. One was a Bauhaus-inspired design created for one of Pierre Junod's collections (see article on Pierre Junod in this issue). Another was a project for Cleto Munari.

“The most intelligent watch,” adds Sottsass, “is the one that is the 'softest', the least aggressive, that provides the least information, simply because it does not believe in its own verity. It is the opposite of complex and showy timepieces that claim to know the truth about time and have control over it. As far as I am concerned, I can perfectly use a clepsydra or even a sundial, which is a metaphor of our very existence with its approximations of the hour.”

With a smile on his lips, Sottsass then tells us how, during a long period recently, he did not wear a watch when he went out. He related how he was able to experience the noises, the voices, the environment around him, the rays of the sun, the iron grills that were pulled down as the stores closed, the heavy traffic… All these activities reflected approximate times, yet they were all perfectly readable. Sottsass admits that he does not want to “take away from the longevity of objects that must endure, only to create a form of consciousness in the minds of those who use them.”