Interview With NOMOS Designer Thomas Höhnel: “A Watch’s Function Can Be To Look Good”
We talk design details with the creative force behind some of the German brand’s most popular models.
You don’t have to be purely into watches to appreciate NOMOS Glashütte’s alluring timepieces: Anyone with an eye for clean design, crisp colors, or timeless typography can’t help but be smitten by the German brand’s signature look.
The distinctive aesthetic is conceived at the company’s Berlin-based design studio, Berlinblau. Meanwhile, the production, decoration, and assembly of its in-house movements – and final assembly and regulation of its watches – are carried out 150 miles away at the brand’s triumvirate of workshops in the watchmaking haven of Glashütte.
In a bid to delve a little deeper into NOMOS’ design smarts, we sat down for a chat with Thomas Höhnel, senior product designer at Berlinblau, to discuss the subtleties of form, function, color, and materials.
Many people that are into design and watches would give their right arm to become senior product designer at NOMOS. What path did you take to get there?
I was born and raised in Dresden. Even though Glashütte was nearby, and I remember my grandfather owned a GUB Spezimatic watch, I wasn’t that influenced by watches growing up. But I was aware of the Glashütte name.
I enrolled in a course at Berlin’s University of the Arts, which included a semester at Central Saint Martins in London. I did a lot of university projects based around graphics and 3-D design. That helped me to get me a job in a Berlin furniture company designing layouts for big clients’ offices.
How did the opportunity at NOMOS Glashütte come about?
It was 2011. NOMOS was looking to expand its in-house design studio in Berlin, and I was looking for a fresh challenge. By chance, I’d been talking to a friend about the Tangente and so I checked out the NOMOS website and saw the company was looking for a product designer!
Was it easy to get to grips with NOMOS’ design language?
Well, I think I immediately understood what the brand and its watches were about. The challenge for me was that my first brief was to design a new sports watch with dive-grade water resistance, at least 20 ATM. At the time, we only really had the Tangente Sport close to that, which only had 10 ATM water resistance.
So my question to the team was, if you want to make a NOMOS dive watch, how do you want it to be? Will it be a big 42mm diver with rotating bezel and bracelet? Of course, no that wasn’t what we wanted, but at the same time no-one really knew exactly what we did want.
We realized that it wasn’t natural for NOMOS to enter the pure diving watch arena. Our designs are quiet, modest, and cerebral and that didn’t really fit with the idea of a dive watch. So I got the idea to take the Tangente design language – namely the numerals and graphics – and translate them into this casual watch for active wearers. This idea became our Ahoi watch.
What other design achievements at NOMOS are you most proud of?
I’m especially proud of our selection of straps, bracelets, buckles, and clasps. I love their details because when you put on your watch every morning, these elements are the first things that you take into your hand.
Many people have their own way of describing NOMOS design. How would you describe it?
I think it involves a clear understanding of the watch as a product born of craftsmanship. Our in-house movements, on the inside, tell the story of the Glashütte tradition, and with that comes a certain complexity and ornateness because of the way we decorate the caliber. Our task as designers is to give this mechanical craftsmanship a housing – a “form” if you will – through the case, dial and hands, and these tend to be more muted, more simplistic.
The old “form follows function” adage?
Yes. However, that expression can be a bit of an eye-roller for designers. I mean, who’s to say that one of the functions of a watch is not to look good and be pleasing on the eye?
Talking of form following function, “Bauhaus” is another word often used to describe NOMOS watches. How accurate do you find that?
It is definitely appropriate but can also be confusing because Bauhaus can mean different things to different people. For some, it’s about the use of certain shapes and colors. For others, it is the idea of combining crafts and industry to make useful, nice-looking, long-lasting products at scale and at an affordable price for a broad audience. In the context of fine mechanical watches, I think we tick all those boxes.
Tell us about the recent Tangente rose gold neomatik?
With this watch we could definitely allow ourselves a rose gold case because it is a limited edition made to celebrate 175 years of Glashütte watchmaking.
But in nearly all other respects, it follows Bauhaus principles: It is still a modest, instrument-like watch. Every detail has its function or has been reduced to its function. You have the flat case, these linear hands. The strap steps back a little, giving the dial the stage. The key was to get the right balance of the two tones on the bicolor Lange dial. While it’s gold, it’s certainly not bling.
Finally, Thomas, Berlinblau is in Berlin and NOMOS’ watchmaking workshops are in Glashütte. How do you ensure coherence between the design of your movements and the design of the rest of the watch?
In the last few years, we have consciously designed our movements to be more in line with our overall identity and the final look of the watch. I love our recent calibers like the DUW 3001 and DUW 6101, for example, with their rotor and bridges. With these we really strove to find an aesthetic balance between our work in Berlin and the work carried out by our watchmaking team in Glashütte.
There can be a little bit of a tension, in a good way. I think it makes total sense to have this distance, with the design studio in Berlin – a vibrant city with lots of art exhibitions, international events, and creative people – and the watchmaking side in Glashütte, where we visit on a regular basis to develop ideas together. They are two seemingly contrary positions, but we meet somewhere in the middle to find the best balance.