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Clock watching & Bird watching. Time on your hands? Try gazing at new clock designs

ART forms that tell time. That describes those contemporary clocks where it is design as well as time that is of the essence. The unorthodox and unexpected forms can stretch the imagination or provide a topic for conversation.

Such designer clocks have become particularly freewheeling in concept in the last decade, ever since the development of the quartz movement (which utilizes long-lasting batteries) has eliminated electric cords and given more flexibility to design approach. Some of these time pieces have no hands at all. Many have marks but no numerals.

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Some of the avant-garde clock designs resemble pixilated pickup sticks, strange shapes from outer space, and the doodlings of abstract artists. These modern clocks make strong decorative statements within themselves, but their contemporary shapes may not always be for conservative people.

New clocks can also be sleek, slim, and streamlined, with all the sumptuousness of hand-blown glass, the glitter of gold, and the see-through elegance of clear Lucite. Charles Kriete, general manager for Seiko Time Corporation, points out that the use of quartz movements has enabled designers to fashion clocks with ultra-thin cases sometimes less than half an inch thick.

``Timepieces give us the opportunity to break out of standard clock shapes and to explore the interesting mixture of industrial design and graphic art,''says George Kovacs, who describes his own three-year-old line of clocks as ``fun and functional.''

``I find that people are more open now to a breath of fresh air in clock design,'' remarks Los Angeles craftsman Chris Brightman, who with his wife, Isabelle, designs and makes clocks, utilizing many of the same craft techniques that they use in their handcrafted jewelry.

The Brightmans' clocks are completely handmade in their studio and sell for between $50 and $80 in museum stores and craft outlets. The two artisans work with anodized aluminum in bright colors.

Umbra, a Canadian company, carries high-fashion clocks in bright hot colors as well as black and white mixtures and soft pastels. Shohei Mihara of Japan designed the new Tropical collection, which is not for the timorous, says Paul Rowan, the firm's art director, although he does refer to the far-out models as ``modern classics'' that would fit into any d'ecor.

Modern clock design actually took off at the Chicago World's Fair in 1933, says Ron Weaver, vice-president of the Howard Miller Clock Company. That year marked a turning point in design, he explains, and manufacturers began to look forward instead of backward. The clock designed by Gilbert Rohde and introduced by the Miller company at the fair has been reintroduced this year as part of the company's 60th anniversary celebration.

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In the last half century, this company has called on the talents of many leading designers, including the late George Nelson, who two years ago startled his fans with the vibrant colors and eccentric shapes of his Tempo 2l series based on the Memphis collection of modern Italian designs.

Anthony Rodriguez, vice-president of Bulova's clock division, says that clocks have become a fashion accessory. But because they become part of the environment of the room, he says, they must be viewed as an element of the permanent decoration and not like a fancy article of clothing that can be put on and off. The clock, he says, can be in the style of the room or it can bring contrast in its individualism. For elegance, he cites Bulova's Sculpture in Time series and its high-gloss black nickel-finished clocks, which cost up to $400.

People buy a new clock, say the company experts, for its style, its price, its ease of timetelling, and its brand name. What determines style? Modern life styles, furniture styles, and trends in art and architecture.

The new breed of modern clocks are generally priced between $30 and $400. Most people, says Howard Locker, associate buyer of clocks at Bloomingdale's in New York, says most of his store's customers buy from the $50 to $120 range and resist paying much more. He is enthusiastic about the potential of all the new clocks, however, and says their designs are setting the pace for new versions yet to come.

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