Swatch: Modernism’s last stand

07Mar11

Correct me if I’m wrong, but to me, and to many of the godfathers of the modernist movement (Maholy Nagy, le Corbusier, Eames, et al), the concept of “modern design” has always been subliminally charged with a smattering of utopian ideals. Great design is good, sure. But great design for everyone is better. (Ikea apologists take this how you will). While dropping 4 grand on an Eames lounge is fine as an act of ancestor worship, the longstanding ubiquity of the Aalto stool packs more cultural punch. To me, no single 20th century product managed to encapsulate all that is good about “the modern approach” more than the Swatch watch. The trendy-turned-iconic design of the classic plastic Swatch has somehow managed to endure as a simple, well-made, affordable, repairable, and endlessly relevant accessory for the better part of 30 years.

Swatch as a company and a product came into being in 1983 or so (long after what anyone would tell you was modernism’s golden age), predicated, (as all great designs of the 20th century were) by a leap forward in technology. A crew of Swedish engineers cooked up a super-thin analog watch with a plastic body, hoping to take steam out of the over-saturated Japanese digital watch market, which was hogging all the futurist spotlight. They used the plastic backplate as the main movement plate, joined tiny parts with ultrasonic welding, made the whole thing waterproof, and reduced the overall number of parts from around 90 to 51 with no reduction in overall accuracy.

Apart from the engineering standpoint, Swatch as a brand was way ahead of its time in the marketing department. The meticulous mechanical efficiency made the new watches cheap to produce, and having created their own market niche, Swatch was decidedly adventurous when it came time to sell the things. Here’s how:

Watch as accessory:
The ability to sell a nicely-functioning wristwatch for under $50 gave the swatch brand instant pop-culture appeal. Unlike most things boasting of their Swiss pedigree, Swatches ditched any kind of dour snobbery in favor of disposable glam. The first few collections were about as 80s possible, in grid patterns, memphis-lineage pastels, and new-wave color pops. Interchangeable bands and stretchy rubber face protectors made the watches themselves eternally updatable, a “make it yours” counterculture nod masking a capitalist masterstroke.

1983 Swatch Ad

Fresher than New Coke.

Collaboration:
The basic Swatch idiom for the company’s first years of life might be summed up as “variations on a theme”. The almost immediate market response to Swatch’s first few collections vaulted the simple design to “icon” status in no time, as customers bought up dozens of designs all built on the exact same platform. The Swatch had quickly become an a priori blank canvas, and starting in 1985, the company started inviting artists & designers to make their marks. Although the idea of artist collaboration is everywhere these days, it was an almost absurdly prescient move 25 years ago. While today you might rock your Pushead x Nike dunks on your Obey x Fuji fixed gear without batting an eyelid, the 1985 Keith Haring Swatch collection was mind-meltingly fresh.

Keith Haring for Swatch 1985

Boo Ya.

Collector Cult:
While “collectors editions” have been a marketing gimmick since the dawn of time, Swatch pushed the envelope with the debut of “club swatch” in 1990. Probably because the street-level hype and sales figures had started to die down, Swatch established an elite club, inspiring Otaku-level nerd passion for limited styles. Once a year, club members are offered the chance to purchase watches limited to a few thousand, and available only in flagship Swatch retail spots. These “club Swatches” laid out chronologically make an impressive cross-section of the aesthetic and conceptual territory the brand has covered in its 28 years of existence.

After digging through dozens of internet forums and RARE OOP eBay listings, I found a few example models that really embody the far-reaching conceptualism of the Swatch brand, and its ability to be unflinchingly trendy yet totally next-level.

Grey Memphis

Grey Memphis Swatch 1984

First up is this stark little gem from 1984. The connection between Swatch and Memphis design makes perfect sense, and made for some truly awesome designs. This one is a rare grey variant of an Alessandro Mendini design. The face looks like a charred funhouse, and those green and pink hands scream “for mutants only”.

Paella by Natalie Du Pasquier

Paella Swatch by Natalie du Pasquier

Another Memphis heavy hitter here, from the early 90s. Natalie Du Pasquier was the Memphis group’s main fabric designer, and her textiles are some of my favorite patterns ever. Can’t say I’m bowled over by this watch, but I appreciate the effort. It’s definitely riding a “radical architecture” vibe, but the restrained color palette and symmetry keep it just below “legedary” status.

Rated X Swatch 1987

Rated X Swatch 1987

FOR MY FRIENDS. FOR MY FAMILY. FOR MYSELF. STRAIGHT FUCKING EDGE. Random cross-pollination or genius ear-to-the-subculture marketing move? you decided.

9 to 5 Person Swatch 1999

9 to 5 Person Swatch 1999

Nothing but pure dot-com era hubris here. This watch from 1999 reads “I am not a 9 to 5 person” across its length. Anti-corporate attitude for alterna-business entrepenuaers.

White Card Swatch 1999

White Card Swatch 1999

“The last Swatch of the 20th century”. Slick fascist-style typography for this end-of-days beauty.

Nam Jun Paik Swatch 1996

Nam Jun Paik Swatch 1996

Titled “Zapping”, this model was designed by veteran A/V explorer Nam Jun Paik, and plays sound of his devising. The bright space-lego green body and CRT bricolage band give it a real “Aliens ate my TV” vibe.

Ice Dance Swatch 1995

Ice Dance Swatch 1995

CALL A FRIEND. TAKE A CAB. FIND A CLUB. STAY UP LATE. RIDE THE GROOVES. An ice-cold post-Neville Brody trance accessory.

(Note: Most images borrowed from swatchandbeyond.com. I encourage you to dig around for 100s more confoundingly bizarre styles, and maybe even buy one)

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