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Brian Eaton, Memento Mori clock

Image courtesy of the artist

Artists Up Close: Countdown to the End

By Sarah Grosspietsch with Brian Eaton

Our MCA Store buyers travel around the world to find the finest and freshest designs, but as the museum prepared for its 50th anniversary celebration, our buyers decided to look for talented artists and designers much closer to home. A call was put out to local artists and designers this past spring to submit products that would hit the store in time for the holiday season. Extraordinary submissions came pouring in from all ends of the city and many fabulous products were added to the MCA Store’s unique selection, but one clock in particular managed to enchant the submissions panel.

At first glance, Brian Eaton's Memento Mori clock is a handsome walnut and copper bedside alarm clock—until you check the time. Instead of counting the 1,440 minutes in a day, the Memento Mori clock counts down the minutes until you die. Your estimated time of death is based on an algorithm with stats from the World Health Organization, including age and biological sex, that fellow Chicagoan and MCA product designer Aidan Fowler programmed into the clock. The algorithm does not take into account, however, whether or not you smoke, exercise, or jump out of planes for a living.

The sight of this everyday object with such heavy implications can be fairly jarring to some, but perhaps the clock takes time itself into question and can serve as a reminder rather than a timer. Greeted by a daily reminder of your demise might be the encouragement necessary to eat a bit healthier, take a walk, spend time with your kids, call your mom.

When the clock strikes zero, a single tune plays—something few have had the opportunity to hear. In the spirit of mystery, the folks at the MCA Store kindly declined a preview, favoring instead the surprise when their time came, but we had a few other questions for Brian.


What type of people do you imagine want a clock that counts down to the minute that they will die?

That’s a good question; I haven’t been able to pinpoint any one trait in people that are interested in Memento Mori. Morbid curiosity is a very real thing and if I say I can give you a countdown to when you’ll kick the bucket, I bet part of you would want to see it.

Besides being a clockmaker, you also hold a full-time job. How were you able to make all of these clocks by hand in your apartment-turned-clock-factory?

It’s been a combination of an overwhelming drive to see something through and overly understanding roommates. I’ve been fortunate enough to have a support network in my friends and fellow artists who have been so helpful in this process. In particular, fellow artist Aidan Fowler was pivotal in developing the brains of the clock, which this concept is built on.

What do you hope people will understand about your slightly dark design sensibility?

The whole point of Memento Mori is to let the owner find their own meaning while not interjecting my own beliefs on mortality. So often I see artists and designers make something about death that leaves little for the viewer to interpret. Every aspect of the clock’s design is ambiguous so when you see your countdown, the only meaning you derive is your own.

Top of the Memento Mori clock

Image courtesy of the artist

Who are some product designers who inspire you?

I’m terrible at keeping up with fellow designers. I end up going down a rabbit-hole, researching work on specific concepts I myself am exploring. For instance, while developing this project I became fascinated with On Kawara’s work and how he brought such a new perspective to the idea of recording time.

What advice do you have for someone who has an idea of something they want to make, even if it’s unusual?

This is something I struggle with on a daily basis. I’ve developed two principles that have helped me immensely in my work.

  1. Work on multiple projects at once. The feeling of putting the brakes on creativity while you wait on supplies or to get into the shop can be debilitating. I’m in a creative rhythm when I continually jump between projects, slowly completing work.
  2. Learn skills to complete projects, not just to learn a new skill. Learning anything is frustrating so if you don’t have something to achieve, it becomes all too easy to give up. If there’s a goal on the horizon, obstacles become much less daunting.

What’s next?

Keep doing this, and hopefully the outcome will be a little less creepy. I have a laundry list of ideas and my workshop is a mangled mess of half-cooked concepts. Expect to see a lot more soon.