Grandfather clocks, you could say, are coming out of retrograde. A 17th century construct originally known as a pendulum or longcase clock, the grandfather clock is a tall, freestanding clock. It houses a weighted pendulum inside an elongated cabinet or case and features a bold clock face up top. These towering tickers endured from their inception around 1680 until roughly the 1950s when their popularity began to wane in comparison to more newfangled timekeepers. These days, however, designers are ousting grandfather clocks from their retirement and giving them a new lease on life. Ahead, we unlock the secrets behind the grandfather clock, including its origins and evolution. Plus, tips for making one look eternally youthful in your interiors.

Wood-paneled stairwell with grandfather clock and ornate gold mirror
Photo by William Waldron / Styled by Martin Bourne / Interior by Adam Lippes

The History of the Grandfather Clock

A swaying chandelier affixed to the ceiling of the Cattedrale di Pisa reportedly provided a young Galileo with the inspiration for the pendulum clock—a precursor to the grandfather clock. Galileo never cracked the code of a pendulum-based timekeeper himself. However, the Italian Illuminati did set the stage for Dutch astronomer Christian Huygens to do so several decades later. In 1656, Huygens successfully rigged a pendulum to a timekeeping mechanism, effectively increasing clocks’ accuracy from a fifteen-minute approximation to the minute-by-minute play-by-play we know today.

Huygens’ clocks—deemed “wags-on-the-wall” because of the way their pendulums evoked a frenetically wagging canine tail—were effective, but ultimately fell victim to their own pendulums. The weighty pendulums made “wags-on-the-wall” difficult to hang and ultimately set clockmakers on a hunt for a more progressive design. The solution came about in the form of a freestanding clock dreamed up by British clockmaker William Clement in 1680. Outfitted with a prolific pendulum clocking in at thirty-nine inches long, Clement’s design set the grandfather clock in motion. 

Bright wicker armchair with potted plant and distressed-wood grandfather clock
Design by Cortney Bishop / Design by Katie Charlotte

How Did the Grandfather Clock Get Its Name? 

For over two centuries, Clement’s design was known as the longcase or pendulum clock. In 1876, however, an American folk singer known as Henry Clay Work penned a ditty known as “My Grandfather’s Clock.” Since covered by everyone from Sam Cooke to Johnny Cash, the ballad was inspired by a longcase clock Work encountered in a hotel while he was ambling across England.

The proprietors explained to Work that the clock had shuttered to a halt not long after the previous proprietor—a grandfatherly figure—had died. In fact, the clock, they reported, had stopped on the anniversary of his death, down to the exact minute and second. Since no one had been able to effectively restore the clock in the years since, the new proprietors held fast to the belief that the clock was inhabited by this “grandfather” spirit. Work’s song, which assumed the persona of a grandson, was immediately absorbed into brass and bluegrass repertoires, thereby fast-tracking the term “grandfather clock”into the modern lexicon. 

Hallway with blue floral wallpaper and gray-painted grandfather clock
Design by Brockschmidt & Coleman, LLC / Photo by Björn Wallander

Where Can You Use a Longcase Clock?

Given that most grandfather clocks tick in at over six feet, there’s no question that they add bodily presence to a room. (If you startle easily, you’ve been warned.) Their height is one of the reasons you’ll frequently see grandfather clocks sequestered away in stairwells. (It’s one of few places that virtually all homes have lofted ceilings). But while vaulted ceilings can obviously be a boon when decorating with one, they’re by no means required.  

Since there’s no need to keep a grandfather clock on guard in the living room to tell time anymore, designers are fond of employing them in new ways. Among them? Cueing up dramatic optics. Stationing a grandfather clock at the end of a long hallway can create a dramatic focal point. Not to mention, it can visually lengthen and aggrandize the hallways itself.  You’ll also see designers posting up one adjacent to a doorway. Since most door frames hover around 6’6”, a grandfather clock can have a balancing effect. 

And because (try as you may) there’s no downplaying a grandfather clock’s patriarchal connotations, you’ll often see designers installing one in areas that could be dubbed a home’s “command center.” Whether it be an entry, a mudroom, a kitchen, or a dividing wall between a dining room and a living room, a grandfather clock can evoke the sense you’ve happened upon the home’s official “headquarters.”    

Entryway with gray wainscoting, white wallpaper, and wood grandfather clock
Photo by Peter Aaron / OTTO / Design by Robert A.M. Stern Architects

How to Style a Grandfather Clock So It’s Timeless, Not Tired

Add Gusto With a Gustavian 

If the split pediments and finials that crown most granddaddies strike you as overly gothic, consider a Gustavian design. Gustvaian—or Swedish clocks as they are sometimes known—possess a round top, curvy body, and light wood finishes. Perhaps better likened to an hourglass than Big Ben, their curvature allows them to effortlessly co-mingle with modern furniture. Consider them anywhere you desire the height of a grandfather clock but not necessarily the imperialism of one.

Mind the Atomic Clock 

Before their egression in the 1970s, grandfather clocks experienced one last hurrah. In the 1960s, designers like George Nelson and Arthur Umanoff reworked the grandfather clock to fit the reigning atomic style. The result are monolithic, ultra-minimalist forms that swap wood construction for clear acrylic or smoked Lucite. Partner these clocks with mid-century ranch homes where low ceilings (and a lack of stairwells) render old school granddaddies obsolete. 

Temper with a Mural

If you’ve antiqued a ticker that looked more manageable online than in your home, try backing the area you plan to station it with a mural. A busy background can detract attention from your clock—and the effect is symbiotic. Furniture or art with a wider girth can interrupt the visual flow of a mural. In contrast, a grandfather clock’s narrow breadth barely makes a blip. 

Shop Grandfather Clocks >>

Lead image design by Peter Aaron / OTTO (designed by Robert A.M. Stern Architects)


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September 26, 2021

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