In our fast-paced, ever-changing world, there are few things we can rely on to be constant. Good design, however, never goes out of style; nowhere is that truer than in the world of luxury watches. Consider some of the most iconic models of the modern age: the Patek Philippe Calatrava, the Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso, and the Rolex Submariner.
While they are all very different watches, they share the common traits of consistent, functional, and attractive designs that have prevailed for decades. In some ways, this is the same for high-end, modern furniture from a similar time period. Improvements may have been made over the years, different materials used and so on, but ultimately, the fundamental design elements remain intact.
I know that it may seem like a strange comparison to make, because at first glance, watches and furniture don’t seem to have too much in common other than the fact that they both cater to an exclusive and discerning clientele. But if you delve a little deeper, you’ll soon discover the unique threads and mutual thought patterns that tie these areas together. Many of these fundamental ideas can be traced back to the pioneers of modern architecture from the early 20th century such as Le Corbusier, Frank Lloyd Wright, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and of course, Walter Gropius.
They, along with their post-World War I contemporaries, sought to establish a new architectural style to represent modern times; just as Classical and Gothic styles represented their own eras. The influence of these modern ideas spread across all areas of design, including products like furniture and, of course, watches.
One of the most notable design innovators was the German art school known as the Bauhaus that was run by Walter Gropius. At the core of Bauhaus ideology was the notion of unity in design in all aspects of life. The concept of mass production was still relatively new at the time, although it was rapidly growing in popularity. Gropius believed it was possible to mass produce products that served the needs of the people, whilst still retaining individual freedom of creative artistic expression. The Bauhaus taught how art and industrial design could be unified.
The emphasis was placed on functionality through simplified, geometric forms, which would allow new designs to be reproduced with ease without diminishing the experience of the end-user. This also extended to typography, which was viewed both as a practical means of communication and artistic expression, with visual clarity stressed above all.
Form Follows Function
Perhaps the most enduring concept of the Bauhaus ideology, and the modern architecture movement as a whole, is the idea that form should follow function. In essence, this means that the beauty of an object results from it being designed to perform its practical function as perfectly as possible. This principle is evident in many of the furniture designs of the early modernist movement, including the Barcelona chair created by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Lilly Reich in 1929, the Wassily Chair designed by Marcel Breuer in 1925-1926 and of course, the various LC furniture pieces designed by Le Corbusier from the late 1920s onward.
All of those mentioned, and many other original designs of the modernist movement, have been mass produced since the late 1920s, and are continuously in production since the 1950s, with little to no change. Unsurprisingly, they have also been extensively replicated by others. More recently, Charles and Ray Eames designed the Lounge Chair and Ottoman in the 1950s. This is yet another example of functional design that has since become iconic and heavily replicated.
Over in the watch world it’s a similar story…
Patek Philippe Calatrava
The Patek Philippe Calatrava, considered one of the most iconic dress watches of all time, was originally launched back in 1932. The collection is still in production today, some 85 years later. At the time, Patek was experiencing some financial difficulties and needed a strong model to anchor the brand in the minds of mainstream consumers.
Although there have been numerous variations over the years, the fundamental design remains largely unchanged: round case, time-only display, sometimes with date, clean and easy-to-read dial, and no other superfluous details. Impossibly simple and yet undeniably elegant, it is a design that will forever be associated with the classic dress watch and of course, has proven to be a huge financial boon for Patek.
Meanwhile, the Reverso from Jaeger-LeCoultre made its debut a year earlier, in 1931. The driving force behind its design was again practical functionality. The colorful tale of its development claims that British officers in India had a problem while playing the popular game of polo: The polo mallets and their glass watch crystals did not go well together. This came to the attention of the LeCoultre brand associate César de Trey, who saw an opportunity to create one of the world’s first real “sports” watches.
The ultimate solution was a rotating wristwatch with a solid steel back, which could be easily flipped over to protect the watch glass during a match. This is a stunningly simple idea that has remained practically unchanged for the last 86 years. Ironically, the Reverso is one of the few examples of enduring design that has not been heavily replicated by competitors.
When we think about functional design in watchmaking, we inevitably think about tool watches; specifically those from Rolex from the 1950s onward. Arguably the most iconic – and consequently the most heavily replicated – is the Rolex Submariner. In fact, it’s hard to think of a model that is more synonymous with the design of mechanical diving watches. Yet, there’s something also inherently attractive about this rugged, masculine-looking model with timeless appeal.
Everything about its design contributes to making it the best mechanical dive watch possible: a black dial with contrasting luminous indices, crown guards or screw-down crown, and a bi-directional rotating bezel. All these elements serve a functional purpose and yet they also play a key role in the timeless aesthetic appeal of the watch.
Audemars Piguet Royal Oak
Last but not least on our list of timeless designs is none other than the truly iconic Royal Oak from Audemars Piguet. Like the Calatrava, it was launched at a time of distress, although this time, all the major Swiss watchmakers were in trouble due to the rapidly unfolding quartz crisis. When 1971 rolled around, Audemars Piguet realized that if it didn’t do something major, and quickly, a financial collapse was inevitable. Based on some feedback from the Italian market about possible interest in a steel luxury watch, management made the bold decision to bet big on something totally new: a sporty yet elegant timepiece unlike anything the market had seen before. The rest, of course, is history.
Famed Swiss watch designer Gerald Genta was given the task of designing the watch, and has since called it the masterpiece of his career. Inspired by a traditional diver’s helmet, the Royal Oak featured an octagonal-shaped bezel secured by eight visible hexagonal gold screws, a visible water resistance gasket, and a dial adorned with a petit tapisserie motif. Equally attractive was the integrated steel bracelet, which proved rather complex to manufacture.
All of it was made of steel, which wouldn’t have been so outrageous if Audemars Piguet hadn’t introduced it to the market in 1972 with a price tag of 3,300 Swiss Francs (more expensive than a gold Patek Philippe dress watch at the time). Therefore, the Royal Oak was the world’s first true luxury sports watch. The initial reaction was one of outrage and scorn, but eventually collectors could no longer deny the appeal of the Royal Oak, and it became a huge commercial success for Audemars Piguet. To this day, it remains the defining model of the brand.
So, there you have it. Although it seems strange at first, high-end modernist furniture and fine watches have a lot more in common than you think.
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