Amjad Al-Hajj is, rather appropriately, a stickler for time. "I'm very punctual," he says. "My wife is as well; we're really obsessed." It is fortunate, then, that I arrive at our meeting early. Surrounded as we are by timepieces that Al-Hajj has himself lovingly crafted for his company The Horologist, it seems unlikely that any tardiness would have gone unnoticed.
An obsession with both time and design saw Al-Hajj, a Jordanian-born architecture graduate, branch out into clock-making three years ago. After graduating from the University of Jordan in 2000, he spent two years working at an architecture firm in Doha before setting up his own architectural model-making business in Dubai which, he says, "went really well during the boom years". When the financial slowdown hit, he moved into furniture design and launched an interior fit-out company.
"Design has always been my passion and I design most of the furniture in my own home," he explains. "I also have a thing for clocks and watches and time measurement. I noticed that I could never find anything that really appealed to me in terms of clocks on the market. So I always designed pieces for my own house. Three years ago I decided to take the next step and create my own collection. I spent almost a year and a half developing my pieces, experimenting with materials and design, and collaborating with a Swiss company to provide the mechanisms."
A self-confessed minimalist, Al-Hajj opted for a palette of raw, natural-looking materials. "I'm a purist so I started experimenting with raw materials like wood, for example. I would just use wood as it is, unfinished."
But his quest for the perfect medium ended when he started working with concrete. "It's as pure as it gets and it's really raw. It's a really amazing material. For starters, we mould the concrete and it has this amazing ability to imitate or mimic whatever cast it is in. The more I experimented, the more fascinated I became. Concrete has always been used as a structural element and was a revolution in the architectural world, but I think this is one of the rare cases where concrete is used as an aesthetic element.
"I also use stainless steel. Most of my clocks are a mix of stainless steel and concrete. The stainless steel is also presented as it is. It's not treated or painted."
Aesthetics are key when it comes to Al-Hajj's clocks and he is happy to admit that his products often favour form over function. "Most of my designs are not necessarily reader friendly. I view them as more of a sculpture," he says. "When I'm designing, the first priority is to create an emotion."
This is conveyed by the name of the collection, Perceptions of Time, and by the monikers given to each of the individual pieces. Together they are meant to act as an exploration of how people respond to the concept of time. There's Time Flies, Occasion and Infinity, to name but a few. But for my money, the most powerful of them all is The Origin, an unadorned rectangular block of concrete with no numbers and only two barely-there black hands to indicate the time. The stark simplicity of the piece speaks volumes about the ability of undervalued materials to strike a chord when handled in an original and intelligent way.
There's no denying that it looks effective, but working with concrete presents a host of challenges, Al-Hajj explains. "We had to develop a lot of techniques and mixtures and moulds to overcome certain challenges such as weight. Concrete is quite heavy and generally it's quite brittle so we had to develop and research the right mix."
Al-Hajj was also unsure how people would respond to the material, firstly because of its lack of colour, and secondly because it is predominantly perceived as a structural rather than a design element. But feedback received at the recent Index exhibition in Dubai suggested these fears were unfounded. "Index was a real stepping stone for me because it was the first time that I showcased my work properly and the response was great. It was a real surprise for me - we received really positive feedback even for the very minimalist designs, which was encouraging."
Al-Hajj received another useful piece of feedback: that his clocks, which cost in the region of Dh20,000, were a little on the expensive side for many potential customers. This has inspired him to create another collection "that is more affordable to a larger proportion of the public", he says. He aims to create smaller pieces that will be mass produced, thus bringing down the cost. These will be available from select retailers in Dubai over the coming months.
Al-Hajj is also looking to work at the opposite end of the spectrum, creating large-scale clocks for public spaces such as roundabouts. "We're currently proposing a very large clock in Doha which would be 9m x 5m. It's a new concept for a clock."
Whatever end of the scale he is working at, some things will remain constant, Al-Hajj insists. His clocks will continue to be manufactured in the UAE and whatever materials he chooses to use, they will be presented in their purest form.
"In the future, I'm not going to limit myself to the same materials, but they will always be pure and simplistic. I am considering using bronze - but it will still be presented as it is when it comes out of the cast. It's a mindset."
And will colour ever feature on the faces of The Horologist's clocks, I ask? "I would not put limits on what I would do but if colour is going to be added it would be in limited, calculated proportions. I am going to try to be a purist for as long as I can."
For more information, visit the www.thehorologist.net