How  a Viennese Clock Conquered the World

Die Presse (Mirjam Marits), June 17, 2017

German Original:

The art dealers from Lichterloh have resurrected the old Viennese cube clocks: first as a watch, and meanwhile several „Normalzeit“ – products are available, designed by Viennese companies like Augarten.

Generations of Viennese did read the time from its face over and over again. Thousands of times it served as a meeting point for rendezvous. For 100 years it was a fixture in dozens of Viennese squares. Not very obtrusive, but visible: the cube clock (Würfeluhr). In 2007 the City if Vienna decided to dismount the ageing cube clocks, assuming that nobody needs them anymore. Everybody looks at their cell phones anyway to see what time it is.

Well, the city did misjudge its citizens. The outcry was substantial, but the original clocks could not be saved. As a compromise, the city installed new clocks with the (almost) same design, sponsored by insurance company Wiener Städtische (but the old lettering „Normalzeit“ on the clock’s dial had been replaced with the sponsor’s name).

Christof Stein, part of the art dealership trio Lichterloh, also read about the dismantling of the clocks in 2007, both in Die Presse and in the Falter. „I thought it’s a pity that they just disappear like that. The old design with the Viennese emblem and the word „Normalzeit“ on the dial was so special.“ So Stein called (the responsible public authority) MA33, and Lichterloh – as an art dealership specialized in designer furniture of the 20th century – purchased the remaining 35 cube clocks (once there were 78) without further ado.

At this time, Stein and his business partners Dagmar Moser and Markus Pernhaupt had no idea what potential the cube clock had as a cult- and a collector’s item. „It was more like a gut feeling that we should preserve them, we had no strategy and also knew nothing about the history of these clocks,“ explains Stein. All of that followed over time; Stein tasked city historian Peter Payer with researching the history of the clocks. For example, what the term „Normalzeit“ on the dial means: it was referring to the standard time introduced in Austria in 1910. Until then, two different time zones existed in the monarchy, which increasingly complicated everyday life. In 1910, the Normalzeit (literally „normal time“) was introduced and displayed by the cube clocks.

In 2015, Lichterloh landed the first big coup – also mostly by accident. Lichterloh had decided on short notice to bring along one of the cube clocks to a trade show in New York. The clock caught the attention of The New York Times and also of designer Fredi Brodman, who emigrated from Vienna more than 30 years ago. Brodman suggested to Lichterloh to jointly produce a wrist watch with the design of the cube clock. In 2015, the Normalzeit – wrist watch was presented in a limited edition of 1907 pieces, an allusion to the year 1907, when the first cube clock was erected next to the opera. The watch was presented in New York and received great interest on both sides of the Atlantic:; the jeweler Wempe added the watch to its assortment.

When Lichterloh began selling the Normalzeit - watch in Vienna, „we had a queue of 200 meters in front of the store,“ says Stein. „We were totally swamped.“ Many „made fun of us and asked why we don’t sell it at a more expensive price.“ Because 495 Euros for a high-quality, waterproof watch with sapphire glass, designed by a renowned designer, is - objectively speaking- too cheap. „We did make a conscious decision,“ explains Stein, „the cube clock has always been there for the citizens of Vienna, therefore the wrist watch should also be affordable.“


In the MoMA Shop
Reports in international media followed, as did invitations to renowned horology tradeshows. And slowly it dawned on the Lichterloh – collective, „that we have a product here that could possibly conquer the world.“ And that it did: Today, the watch is available in designer shops, including the one inside MoMA in New York. „That is the most beautiful distinction for us, because she now lies next to world class designs.“

But they did not stop with one wrist watch: in the meantime there is a second Normalzeit – watch in an unlimited edition („Red 36“ for 395 Euro); the red wristbands were produced by the Viennese leather manufactoryR. Horn’s. This is a good indication in which direction the cube design is headed: because for their Normalzeit – edition (with the slogan „Zeit für...,“ [time for], which can be played around with in many ways) Lichterloh now gradually takes Viennese heritage companies on board, who design products in the Normalzeit design.

For example, the porcelain manufacturer Augarten designed a tee – and mocha- cup, Lobmayr designed a water- and a white wine glass (in cooperation with the Viennese designers Polka). Mayer am Pfarrplatz bottled mixed varieties with labels playing with the cube clock design, as well as the concept of time (reading „Any time is wine time in Vienna“). This way, these Normalzeit – objects become modern and exigent souvenirs from Vienna, „who advertise Viennese businesses and Viennese craftsmanship in a symbolic manner without being too blatant.“

These products, as well as others – Demmers Teehaus contributed a tea blend called „Time for Tea“ – are currently also for sale at the Jewish Museum Vienna. Matching the exhibit „Kauft bei Juden! Geschichte einer Wiener Gescäftskultuter“ (Buy from Jews! History of a Viennese Culture of Business), the Normalzeit – objects can be purchased at the Museum; the profits are donated to the Museum by Lichterloh.

Listening to Stein, one suspect that this was not all: more cooperation with Viennese businesses is being contemplated. Ideas – for instance a Normalzeit – jam by Staud’s or cooperation with Wiener Würfelzucker [Viennese lump sugar] – are plentiful.

„Every watch has a history, but ours is almost the best,“ says Stein. It is indeed difficult to disagree. Aside from the recent success story, the old cube clock was outstanding: it was the first clock that was illuminated and centrally controlled even back then. Until the development of the cube clocks, the church and its (not always reliable) clock towers told Viennese the time. Starting in 1907, the cube clocks gradually took over that duty. The fact that the cube clock did not have any numbers printed on its dial goes back to a wish of the Viennese themselves: Emperor Joseph Francis balloted the Viennese on the design of the clocks. A very early form of citizen involvement, specifically in the monarchy. Those were the times.