- Words by Mr Kevin Braddock
East London-based watch brand Uniform Wares is gaining a reputation for beautifully minimalist watch design whose straightforwardness, wit and charm define a certain type of British character. Its ranges, such as the spare 150 series and the more luxurious 250 line, are neither showy nor shouty, and certainly not fashiony or flamboyant. Rather, in the vein of other new-Anglo lifestyle brands - think of the careful craftsmanship of clothier Albam, or Labour and Wait's utilitarian homewares emporium - these timepieces bespeak a modest, solid-value timelessness.
Nonetheless, Uniform Wares is a relatively new player in the watch world. Rather than taking on established Swiss marques by creating mechanical timepieces that hark back to the golden age of British watchmaking, founders Mr Oliver Fowles and Mr Patrick Bek came to their current vocation via their love of mid-century design and, in particular, electric British wall clocks. As a result, their designs are unashamedly quartz-driven.
The pair became friends while studying product design in Birmingham. The company was established in 2009 and has since attracted a cult following in the UK and far beyond. "It's a real USP that we are identified as a British brand," Mr Fowles explains. "Our strongest sales are in the US, Canada, Australia and Japan, while a growth area is Southeast Asia. Such markets are making it worth being able to translate that classic but modern aesthetic we like, which could have been quite hard because, while we are always looking to use modern materials and modern finishing processes, we always like to have those small references that hark to the classic age."
The components of a Uniform Wares watch and the required tools
Mr Fowles is referring to the middle of the last century - a design vernacular somewhere between Mr Malcolm Sayer's E-Type Jaguar and Mr Dieter Rams' portable radio. "We're influenced by modern design from all over the world," he continues, "but also a sort of quintessential aesthetic of the detailing and finish, especially with regards to the watch design that we are working on. We have got a few little reference books for pocket watches and wristwatches from British manufacturers."
It's telling that Mr Bek hails from Birmingham, once the principal bench in the workshop of the world, and from where much of the style of indigenous clock and watch manufacture once infiltrated the world. In addition to sourcing parts from abroad - leathers from Paris, steel straps from Germany, quartz movements from Switzerland - Uniform Wares also works closely with manufacturers in the Midlands.
What stripe of aesthete buys a watch brand that says so much, so quietly? A person, one suspects, for whom the essentials of what Messrs Bek and Fowles term "the daily carry" - pen, wallet, watch and so on - should be designed in accordance with as many of Dieter Rams' famed 10 principles as possible. The sixth - "Good design is honest" - seems especially apposite. The muted tones of the 100 series, in particular the walnut-brown 103 and the pewter 316L, have proved popular with architects and customers of a more advanced age ("We had a guy call us once who said, 'I think this is likely to be my last watch, so I would just like to ask a few questions about it'") and, yes, women. "We're a unisex brand," Mr Fowles says firmly.
Uniform Wares founders, Messrs Bek and Fowles
The "daily carry" theory, which the duo developed while studying, is where Uniform Wares began. Originally they intended to create a broader range of products, but the success of the 103 convinced them to focus on timepieces. "We wanted a certain amount of simplicity at a certain price point," Mr Bek explains, "and we recognised that there was so much more we could do within watches." Were they to expand, he points out, "we wouldn't design a pair of earphones, something throwaway or a gimmick. It would be something solid, with a similar attention to detail and the diligence that we've learnt to apply to our wristwatch collections."
Diligence: it seems an appropriate word for a complicated age, when a rigorous approach to simplicity may be the noblest goal. "In the UK we've got a history of no-nonsense design from people such as Robin Day, who designed the London Underground benches," Mr Fowles says. "They're very nondescript, you hardly notice them, but the detail that he put in there... there's no embellishment. In terms of good design being honest, you don't embellish design with anything unnecessary. For us, this element of simplicity and character is something we're seeing more and more in minimalist watch brands."
Uniform Wares may sound rational and unglamorously utilitarian, yet they're on to something. Later this year the company will release a new, more upscale 350 range, and there's talk of opening a showroom in Clerkenwell, London's own zone of horological innovation and mystique. Such wares prove the usefulness and quiet delight of the uniform.