Before falling victim to a syndrome of corporate and industrial maladies in the Seventies, a grande dame of French watchmaking bowed out with a last-ditch blizzard of bombastic designs – since established as cult collectables
By Alex Doak
Think about it: unlike fashion, furniture, architecture or anything defined by aesthetics, watches very rarely bear the hallmark of famous designers. Off the top of your head, who actually is there? Well, Gérald Genta of course, but following the Seventies hit parade of the Ingenieur, Royal Oak, and Nautilus, his eponymous enterprise went through the mill before becoming a Bulgari hybrid, Genta himself resting in peace. Of relatively recent times, there’s Ross Lovegrove and his ill-fated affair with TAG Heuer; Marc Newson’s Ikepod and Jaeger-LeCoultre dalliances before the call of Cupertino; and to a certain degree Philippe Starck who, in a worthy break from Fossil territory, set auction rooms alight in collaboration with Richard Mille back in 2008.
Most others, however, quickly learn that you must either play by the cardinal Swiss rule of anonymity (no famous makers or designers, just famous brands) or learn to respect the belief that brands are perfectly capable of designing their own watches, thank you very much. Not to mention the plain fact that watches are difficult beasts to tame on paper. Any would-be darling of the Wallpaper* crowd will soon realise that topping-off a portfolio of lemon squeezers, chairs and door knobs with a token watch presents a far greater challenge than previously imagined. Just try it – you won’t get much further than a circle with two hands before it starts looking like a Flik Flak.
So what exactly was Lip thinking when, in 1974, amidst uprising trade unions, waning profits and the looming threat of Far Eastern quartz, it drafted in not one, not two, but seven high-profile, external designers – few of whom had had any experience designing watches? While still a rare occurrence nowadays, back then this was unheard-of: a melting pot of pan-European industrial, architectural, interior, and graphic designers, all given carte blanche by Lip, regardless of its 107-year reputation for mass-produced, everyman watches. As Kevin Carrere of Lip’s modern revivalist, Manufacture Générale Horlogère puts it, “The term ‘watch designer’ just didn’t exist in France back then. This was a very new, daring idea. Especially as Lip held a similar status to Ford in France; it was universally known and virtually everyone had one.”
Inevitably, the results of Lip’s gamble were, in the vernacular of the time, far out. Rectangular cases, multicoloured pushers, asymmetry… Everything Lip didn’t stand for, in other words.
These were desperate measures for desperate times. In 1954, Lip’s Besançon factory had boasted 1,500 employees and was turning out 300,000 watches a year, making Lip France’s biggest watch producer by far. It was also the same year Lip developed the revolutionary Fifty Fathoms diver’s watch on behalf of a certain Swiss watchmaker. In keeping with the progressive mood of the era, a nine-year collaboration with Elgin elicited the ‘electric’ R27 movement of 1958, generally recognised as being superior to Hamilton’s 500. It was marketed successfully, improved upon and subsequently sold to Waltham and Benrus.
But times were a-changing – and it wasn’t just the advent of quartz. In the early 1960s, the French market was flooded with cheaper, lower-quality watches and Lip’s key selling points – accuracy, quality, and reliability – were no longer valid. In a market growing at 10 per cent, Lip’s sales were only growing at 3 per cent, and one of their major shareholders pulled out. Chairman, Fred Lip – his name shortened from ‘Lipmann’ – was forced to stand down in 1971 by majority shareholder and ETA forebear Ebauches SA, ending more than a century of family ownership.
Shortly before his exit, however, one of Fred’s last acts paved a brave new way for his successor, Claude Neuschwander: he hired an illustrator and package designer by the name of Prince Francois de Baschmakoff. De Baschmakoff’s treatment of the Lip brand was as dramatic a departure from Lip’s usual round or tonneau three-handers as one could imagine – thin, oblong cases bearing concentric-disc jump-hour displays, born by wide, integrated straps. The sort of thing you see slavishly mimicked by Diesel, Nixon and Fossil nowadays. The stage was now set for a major shake-up.
Neuschwander, a former advertising man, went on to recruit six more modernist draughtsmen, each at the top of their game at a time of breakneck dynamism: air travel, space travel, a dawning computer age, vibrant pop culture… Amazingly, it’s all there in wristwatch format, as interpreted by Roger Tallon, Isabelle Hebey, Michel Boyer, Marc Held, Michel Kinn, and Rudi Meyer.
Of the seven, Roger Tallon has arguably had the most lasting influence, and remains the most prolific both in terms of his work for Lip and his career as a whole. Most famously, before arriving at Besançon in 1974, he’d already designed the futuristic locomotive and carriages for France’s new Train Grande Vitesse (TGV) rail network. TGV’s aerodynamic nose remains virtually unchanged today and its influence can be seen in Germany’s ICE trains and the Eurostar. A true renaissance man, Tallon also turned his pen to portable TVs, the world’s first helicoid staircase, 8mm cine cameras, motorcycles – anything ripe for his timely fusion of utilitarian lines and colourful, moulded curves.
Tallon’s ‘Mach 2000’ range has since become an icon for Lip. The D-shaped case and coloured ball-pushers set into negative spaces was (and still is) completely fresh. It has a consistency and strength of character for interpretation across a diverse range, from sideways Ds to upright Ds and rectangles; from two pushers and a crown, to a single crown. What’s more, Lip has kept the logo that Tallon designed for his dials as the brand’s trademark. Its use of childlike primary colours and shapes even pre-dated the Italian “Memphis” art movement of the Eighties – described by one critic as “a shotgun wedding between Bauhaus and Fisher-Price”.
Then there were the jump-hour watches of Berschmakoff and blocky, hinged minimalism of Isabelle Hebey, who was responsible for Concorde’s interior and another ubiquitously enduring shape: Honda’s “H” motif.
Back in 1976 though, when Lip finally launched these outlandish new babies, it was a case of too much too late. Since 1973, the company had been locked in an extraordinary series of strikes and employment disputes that daily newspaper Liberation described as “the social conflict of the 1970s”.
For eight months prior to Neuschwander’s election, the factory had even been occupied and worker-managed, under the slogan, “C’est possible: on fabrique, on vend, on se paie!” (It is possible: we make them, we sell them, we get paid!). It is a fascinating tale of French social conflict, probably best left to the pages of political textbooks. For our purposes, suffice to say Lip’s inevitable liquidation concluded in 1977, commencing a dark and faltering era for this grande dame of French horology.
The current incarnation of the brand is better built than you might expect – not the Valjoux chronographs of old, obviously, though still driven by solid Rondas and cased in chunky steel – but that’s to miss the point; it’s all about the out-there looks and the out-of-the-box decisions that led to them.
Just recently, watch brands have started to embrace the designer again – most notably Rado, which has strong roots in this domain. The reimagining of the Ceramica by Konstantin Grcic last year shows that some of the bravery displayed by Lip might be returning to the industry. Elsewhere, the strength of brands such as Junghans, Nomos Glashutte and Bell & Ross demonstrates what can be done with a design-first philosophy.