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Erik Ulfers: Playing for Time

The designer turns junky clocks into fanciful, functional works of art

My Craft: Erik Ulfers

Bryan Derballa

Set designer Erik Ulfers turns junky clocks into fanciful, functional works of art

Time has always been an obsession of mine. My grandmother in Iowa had two huge onyx clocks. I was fascinated with their darkness — they weren't jolly, that's for sure. Even as a child, I knew clocks were made to tell more than just the time.

But it wasn't until a decade or so ago that I took on clocks myself. A friend had given my wife and me a big, goofy-looking clock that was made to look old but wasn't. It was hideous. I began to ditz around with it, thinking I could do better. I don't know that I did, but working on it inspired me enough to create my own timepieces. Because my profession as a set designer for TV is so collaborative, I really enjoy having something in my off-hours that's just mine alone.

My clocks can seem sort of grim — even Gothic. I limit the color scale, using a lot of black and gold leaf metals, and some people who've seen them say, "Man, you're a dark dude." But I'm really not. My clocks have some playfulness to them, some visual follies. For example, I'll use the sweep of the hands — sometimes just replicas of human hands themselves — to represent the whole clock. Or I'll add some bawdiness, like an unzipped corset that reveals a clock.

Usually it takes me three months to finish one clock. I've made about 30 so far. I'll buy crappy, beat-up clock cases at antiques shops, or when I'm visiting my twin brother in Paris, I'll pick up some things at the street markets there.

I've had people who've asked if they could buy them, but I haven't decided yet whether to sell them. They're still very personal to me. Some of my clocks represent fables with the moral that life is transient, so you'd better live now. Hey, maybe I am a dark dude.

— As told to Michael Anft

Emmy-winning designer Erik Ulfers, 63, lives in Dobbs Ferry, N.Y.

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