Every student of industrial design ought study Braun's line of timepieces. The sheer variety and innovation, on both the design and technical fronts, that the company was able to inject into something as simple as a time-telling device is staggering; Braun was obsessing over minute bevels and visual clarity years before smartphone manufacturers sought to differentiate one glass rectangle from another. The ability to so resoundingly distinguish a small circle on your wrist from other offerings on the marketplace is a testament to Braun's unrivaled championing of industrial design. Many of the objects they created have a quality of inevitableness to them, as if they had chipped away at all distractions and arrived at a universally perfect product, with nothing anyone could possibly add—or subtract—to improve them. Yet they continually updated their offerings for more than two decades, with a deep product line-up that would keep many a design curator busy.
On the subject of curation: The fact that every industrial design student does not study Braun's timepieces is probably because no one has compiled a comprehensive record of all of them. While we attempt to address that here, there are many models that we missed for want of images or information. The line is simply too large, the rare models too elusive. But we hope this will provide you with some sense of the deep mark that Braun made on what was formerly a staid product category.
1971 phase 1 Dieter Rams, Dietrich Lubs
Braun's first clock was the relatively primitive phase 1. Clearly a first effort, it gave no hint as to the breadth of design variety to come. It featured numbers printed on little plaques attached to a mechanical rotating mechanism. That being the case, the body was large while the numbers were small; a trade-off the designers would not be willing to live with for long.
1972 phase 2 Dietrich Lubs
By 1972 they had switched over to a flip-clock mechanism, whose tighter mechanicals enabled a smaller form and a larger display. In the phase 2 we see the design team gaining mastery over the technology in order to improve the user experience. But they were not done yet; this form factor was still driven by its mechanical innards, which they would soon discard altogether. Cutting-edge technology was in the works for what would be their radical release of 1975.
1972 phase 3 Dietrich Lubs
At the same time they put the phase 2 on the market, Braun also dipped into the analog clock pool, releasing this compact phase 3 alarm clock. It bears virtually nothing in common with the phase 1 and phase 2, despite being released at nearly the same time; but it illustrates the design team's freedom to experiment, a characteristic Braun quality that would pay off time and again. The analog form factor would evolve into objects that collectors would treasure.
1975 functional Dietrich Lubs
By 1975 Braun's gorgeous functional was ready to go. As the mechanicals were now supplanted by eletronics, it no longer featured bulky innards that needed to be stuffed into a box; Dietrich Lubs took full advantage of this, creating a clock comprised of two slim, intersecting components. The rear, horizontal portion houses the circuit boards and supports the buttons (which were raised, so they could be located in the dark). The front portion held the gas discharge display, which was angled upwards for easy legibility.Also note the self-restraint: The sleek, black display with its slick red numbers would have looked cluttered with the white Braun logo, so instead the logo was moved behind the screen, to the top of the unit.
1975 AB 20/20 tb Dieter Rams, Dietrich Lubs
1975 also saw Rams and Lubs collaborate on the AB 20/20 tb, a squared-off, rationalized version of the phase 3. Realizing that its compact form made it an ideal travel clock, they added a flip-down cover to keep dust off of the screen and prevent the buttons from being pressed in transit. The inside of the cover featured a helpful, no-nonsense graphic charting worldwide time zone differences.
1976 DN 40 Dieter Rams, Dietrich Lubs
If the functional is a greyhound, the subsequent DN 40 is a chunky, fun puppy running behind it. The bright color and softer form was quite the departure from the functional, and well illustrates Rams and Lubs' willingness to experimentally evolve. The technology was upgraded as well: The display here replaces gas-charged with fluorescent.
1977 DW 20 Dieter Rams, Dietrich Lubs
As with their first foray into clocks, Braun opted to go with a digital readout for their first wristwatch. Cramming that amount of technology into a wrist-mounted device was not a trivial task in 1977, and it shows with the chunky body and relatively tiny display.
1978 DW 30 Dieter Rams, Dietrich Lubs
For the following year's update, the DW 30 seemed to say "Sure, I'm bulky—and I'm not ashamed of it." Gone was the round form, giving way to an unabashedly rational, square piece of technology whose visual weight was offset by the silver finish.
1978 ABR 21 Dieter Rams, Dietrich Lubs
With the ABR 21, Rams and Lubs combined their relatively new product category with Braun's first, a radio. Both objects were given equal priority within the form, resulting in an elegant symmetry; the grid of dots and the overall shape owe much to the company's SK 1 radio, designed in the 1950s by Artur Braun and Fritz Eichler.
1979 DN 50 Ludwig Littmann
The DN 40 evolved into the DN 50, with a larger, much more prominent display and an almost playful tent-like form. Long keys on the back made it easy to set the device without needing to see the controls.
1980 ABW21 set Dietrich Lubs
One of Braun's first wall clocks was the radical ABW 21 set, which featured both a clock and barometer. As with the ABR 21, both dials were given equal weight. Modern-looking Perspex, a descendant of Plexiglas and Lucite, sealed the faces. The faces themselves were designed to both tilt and rotate; if the user so desired, they could separate the two objects to mount them separately or place them on a desk, rotating the faces as needed to reconcile with the bases' new positions.
1981 ABW 41 Dietrich Lubs
The ABW 41 injected minimalism into Braun's wall clocks, providing a super-flat profile and a stark white-on-black color scheme.
1982 ABK 30 Dietrich Lubs
Just a year after the ABW 41, however, the '80s had begun to creep into Braun's design department. The follow-up ABK 30 was offered in a variety of colors to provide the clock with some era-appropriate pop.
1984 AB 2 Jurgen Greubel, Dieter Rams
The AB 2 desktop clock also strove for minimalism, but in a different way than its desktop predecessors; what was desired was a standalone dial, with the barest of legs enabling it to stand on its own.
1985 ABK 20 Dietrich Lubs
The ABK 20 may not seem terribly different from its ABK 30 predecessor—which is actually a sign of unpublicized success: With the ABK 30 Braun had begun shifting production to Asia, as was the manufacturing trend of the time. But the product designers and engineers at Braun HQ conspired to bring production back to Germany. By putting their heads together, they transformed the ABK 30—the body of which was made from eight different parts that required assembly at the factory—into the single injection-molded part that was the body of the ABK 20. Production returned home to Braun's Marktheidenfeld factory, yet the manufacturing cost dropped while production soared.
1985 AB 312 vsl Dietrich Lubs
The AB 312 vsl travel clock introduced what was then a hi-tech feature. It wasn't exactly Siri, but the clock's alarm could be shut down via voice. An onboard acoustic sensor picked up your spoken command.
1987 AB 1 Dietrich Lubs
Finally we arrive at the AB 1, whose sheer simplicity gives it a kind of perfection for a desktop clock. Nothing more ought be added, and it's difficult to see what you would remove from the design. For many design collectors, the AB 1 is the Braun clock to acquire.
1988 ABW 35 Dietrich Lubs
With the ABW 35, Lubs devised a way for the clock to blend even further into the background: by making it primarily transparent. The numbers and hands float over whatever color the wall it's hanging on is painted.
1989 AW 10 Dietrich Lubs
Braun's first analog wristwatch was the AW 10, with which Lubs transported the stark perfection of the ABW 41 and AB 1 onto the wrist with crisp Helvetica numbers and elongated hash marks for increased visibility.
1990 AB 5 Dietrich Lubs
The AB 1 could not have been more minimalist—but that doesn't mean Lubs wasn't game to try. With the AB 5 he stripped away the square shape, and added a horizontal cylinder at the bottom rear to provide a base for it to stand on.
1990 AW 20 Dietrich Lubs
Lubs' AW 20 did the AW 10 one better by adding the date and going with a simpler, monochromatic rim. The subtle bevel is something we'd later see smartphone designers obsessing over in their own products.
1991 AW 50 Dietrich Lubs
The AW 50 took the next logical step of striking the numbers off and doing away with the minute gradations. The pop of the red chevron indicating the numerical date increases legibility, while the reading of the time doesn't suffer from the lack of numbers.
The New Era
By the 2000s Braun had experienced tremendous growth. In 2002 Braun revenues hit the 1.5-billion Euro mark, and across all of their product divisions, the electric razor and oral hygiene categories were particularly dominant. They were eventually faced with the quandary that all ever-increasing businesses have to deal with: Do we risk spreading ourselves too thin, or knuckle down and concentrate on a few divisions? The decision was made to license the timepieces category out, enabling the design team to focus on shavers, grooming, haircare and oral hygiene.
The good news is that they left Braun timepieces in good hands: Watchmaker Zeon licensed the name and today produces a line of wristwatches reminiscent of earlier Braun designs, as well as newer products like the Prestige digital watch, last photo below, which won both iF and Red Dot Design awards in 2012. Wall clocks, digital clocks and travel clocks round out the full collection of modern-day Braun-branded timepieces.
For those looking to buy classic Braun timepieces, you'll spot them on eBay from time to time. For a more curated and consistent selection, check out Das Programm's excellent offerings.
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I'm sad to say though that my current experience with a new "Braun" alarm clock (the one shown second to bottom) is anything but iconic. The clock suffers from a simple design flaw by which the alarm's on/off switch has no perceivable click, so you're never sure whether it's really on. I've taken to using a back up just in case, which rather defeats the object.
It shows that although it says Braun on it, there's no Braun in it.