Universal time is actually a fairly new idea. It wasn’t until the 19th century that the British navy came up with the idea of a centralized office that could regulate the time for cities all over the world, down to the second. Before that, communities and households had their own arbitrary systems for meting out the hour, usually based on localized factors like sunset hour, agriculture, and tradition.
“The exact time is often irrelevant,” says Dutch designer Maarten Baas. “A coffee break, a meditation, a nap, a business meeting, they could take a few minutes longer or shorter than an exact amount of time.”
Baas has been examining how we tell time since he was in design school, reinventing the familiar 24-hour clock in radical new ways. In one piece, two people sweep garbage into a corner–as trash accumulates, so do the hours. But none of his conceptual work has ever been made into a functioning timepiece. “I don’t want to make just another watch,” he said in 2009, talking to a journalist who asked if he’d design a clock. “It should be more than that.”
Apparently, Baas’ time has come (yikes). Working with the Dutch/English manufacturers Laikingland, Baas has unveiled Just About Now, a timepiece that’s virtually useless to anyone who needs to adhere to Greenwich Mean Time. The wall-mounted clock is actually a simple brass gong, hooked up to an hourglass. A mechanized mallet strikes the gong when the glass is full–roughly every hour. Very roughly.
“Time is very abstract and very relative,” explains Baas. By asking us to put our faith in a mostly incorrect timepiece, Just About Now foregrounds the arbitrary ways in which we measure time.