The Person behind Nooka: an interview with Matthew Waldman


The story behind this interview with Matthew Waldman, the person behind the timepiece company Nooka is interesting as he was quick to get back to me with my questions. Just before Christmas I talked about Nooka’s watches on a blog post. Tina, though some of you may know her as Swissmiss mentioned that she knew him, and that he was quite a help when she started to design in New York. She also mentioned that she would be happy to introduce me to him.

There was only one thing that I wanted for Christmas and my wife Tamara was cool enough to get me a ZenH. It’s one of those watches that makes you just rethink a lot of things. Stuff just looks different when you change your mindset. Then I noticed Matthew’s name while I was checking out the roster for Pecha Kucha New York last week. I figured that was the perfect time to do an interview with him, so I asked Tina for the virtual handshake. Very quickly I put down the questions that had me interested in the watch as I was wearing it. Matthew responded incredibly quickly and I’m very grateful for that. Enjoy

Michael Surtees: What made you want to design watches?

Matthew Waldman: I actually never set out to design watches. Nooka is just one result of an internal and ongoing dialog I have about the nature of intuitive design combined with my questioning of accepted norms. Here is a rough outline on how it happened in my brain:

Inline skates become popular in the early 1990s causing me to have a “why can’t I rethink a product like that?” moment…

I fell into web design as a profession after creating web pages on my own as a hobby. I founded an interactive design studio in 1997 where I was part of the birth of information architecture as a discipline. This got me obsessing over intuitive design [over aesthetics]. (There was a similar movement in product design 15 years earlier when people were obsessing over ergonomic design)…

Unrelated, my intellectual brain was re-ignited after reading a chapter on Riemannian Geometry in Michio Kaku’s Hyperspace in the mid 90’s. Kaku used geometry as an example on how people do not question enough especially in his field of physics. His argument was something like this: Everyone thinks of Euclidian geometry as the geometry of the real world, but Euclidian geometry does not work on curved surfaces. There are curved surfaces everywhere in our world. Riemann, a 19th century German mathematician solved this problem but no one is taught Riemannian geometry in High School…

Waiting for a client in a London Hotel [The Landmark in Marylebone] staring at a wall clock gave me a flashback to learning how to tell time in first grade. I remembered learning it as part of math class and we had little exercises to do to learn time telling. This led to another flash back to fifth grade when digital watches and clocks became popular and we were taught how to read a digital display. Adults don’t think about it much, but time is calculated in base 12 [or base 24] when almost everything else we calculate is base 10.

These concepts are difficult for some children and must be taught. If something must be taught, then it is not intuitive…which brought all the background processes above together and I questioned why there were only 2 ways to represent time.

I sketched some ideas on a napkin, went back to New York and showed them to my IP Lawyer who thought they could get design patent protection. There were some other steps, and then a watch!

MS: How long does it usually take to design a watch – how do you know when it’s complete?

MW: The design takes little time to conceptualize. I then work out the proportions and function sets on the computer. We then do the 3-D models and spec which is sent to the factory for prototyping. If the movement is standard or something we’ve already produced, the whole process will take between 3-6 months. If a new circuit/movement is necessary, it can take 6 months to a year from concept to product.

MS: Once you have the idea, what steps does it take in production to get made?

MW: see question 2.

MS: I have the Nooka ZenH. I knew I wanted a Nooka but it took me a while to decide on the one. Ultimately it came down to the fact that it didn’t have any numbers on it and it read from left to right. Could you talk about how this watch came to be? If you could design that one again, is there anything that you would change?

MW: The Zen-H is my personal favorite and was designed expressly with the goal of producing a timepiece that would be easy to understand without numbers. I am actually redesigning the Zen line for a 2008 release when you will see the answer to the 2nd part of your question.

MS: What watch are you wearing right now?

MW: A blue Zub Zen-V.

MS: Where would you like Nooka as a company go? Why did you start it and what are your goals for it?

MW: I started Nooka to capitalize on the good press I was receiving when Seiko had licensed my designs but then dropped all of their sub-brands. I was encouraged by retailers who had carried the Seiko versions and wanted to work with me.

As a new brand and company, I want Nooka to expand into more markets so we can achieve the momentum and resources necessary to develop more products and sponsor cultural/educational activities that reflect my philosophy. I would like to see Nooka become a fashion brand and product think-tank with an inventory of concepts to license to other companies and collaborators.

MS: Are there any other products that you would like to design?

MW: Yes! Watercoolers and shoes.

MS: What keeps you inspired?

MW: Biology. Evolutionary biology is one of my other obsessions, and unlike the cliché of “i find natural forms to be very inspiring”, I am inspired by the processes and events that shape organisms and biological relationships.

MS: Do you read any blogs, and if so which are some of your favs?

MW: I read yours. I also read a lot of music blogs. I had a blog for my art project, the fairy labor union, but can’t remember where I had it hosted. If anyone can find it, please let me know.

MS: In your bio it mentions that you teach. Why do you teach and was there one teacher that influenced you more than any other?

MW: Teaching is great for so many things. First, it keeps me articulate about my process and what I do as a profession. Second, it gets me out of my apartment and office. Third, I get a jump-start on finding talented interns and potential designers for my studio. And of course, the students benefit from being taught by a working professional with a focus on creative process.

I was very lucky to have very colorful New York City public School teachers throughout grade school and High School. One teacher that inspired me a lot was Mr. Gupter, my High School architecture professor. I was a typical depressed art/angst teenager [they call them Goths now right?], and spend one whole senior semester writing poetry in his studio where I should’ve been working on his projects. When it came for him to collect finals, he asked me to hand in the notebook I was writing in. At first I thought he was trying to embarrass me, but he said very directly “You’ve been writing in that book all semester and I have to grade you on what you did in my class” He gave me an “A” and told me that all good design is about inspiration and composition. He thought my poems were inspired and well composed. He thought that the ability to write poetry would serve me well as a designer.

This experience helped me see how interdisciplinary all the arts are – something that I hope is apparent in everything I do.

MS: As a native New Yorker, what’s the one thing that you can do over and over again and always enjoy yourself?

MW: Look at people on the subway, ride my bicycle up the Hudson River Park and in Central Park.

MS: Thank you so much, it was fascinating to hear how Nooka came to be and I’ll be looking forward to seeing what you come up next with Nooka.

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  • litherland

    Thanks, Michael. Interesting thoughts on geometry. And biology. I wonder what he thinks of Terry Winters.

  • David Lasky

    great article, i am working on a sustainable project for my school project and would like to know how I can contact Matthew Waldman directly…. any informaiton on how to do this would be most helpful….thanks in advance… David