Jet Age Design: The Clairtone Project G

by James Kraus

Clairtone Project G, 1964

Clairtone Project G, 1964

In the 1960s, dedicated audiophiles listened to their music through a system of separate components. Most others enjoyed listening via the recent invention of the Console Hi-Fi, also known in the UK as a Radiogram. These furniture-like units usually incorporated a tuner, turntable, preamp, and amplifier together with a set of speakers. The first of these were monaural, but by the early sixties, most were stereophonic. Some even included a television, making them an early form of entertainment center.  

When buyers selected a console, the looks and quality of the cabinet were often as or more important that the sound quality. Most units were built by large home electronic firms like Admiral, Magnavox, RCA, Ferguson, Philips and Telefunken, each company offering their own component chassis and speakers in a variety of furniture styles; Mediterranean, French Provincial, Regency and whatever other period style happened to be in vogue.

If one wanted something of a modernist nature, about the only option was a conservatively interpreted Danish Modern cabinet. This all changed with the debut of the Clairtone Project G of 1964. Right at home in a room furnished with mid-century Eames, Saarinen or Jacobsen furniture, the Project G exuded an air of sleek sixties sophistication.

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A small Canadian firm, Clairtone utilized in-house assets whenever possible. In this early promotional photo, the model is the wife of company co-founder David Gilmour, and the Jacobsen Egg chair was appropriated from his office

The G was finished in rosewood with leatherette side panels and sat atop a base of polished aluminum. The audio components were covered by sliding a rosewood tambour door across the top. The most striking aspect of the design were the black-anodized spun aluminium Sound Globes which contained the loudspeakers. These could be rotated up to 340 degrees to adjust the mix of direct and reflected sound reaching the listener to enhance the acoustic spatiality of the listening space. The Bose Corporation would later become famous for designing speakers utilizing reflected sound principles, but their first speaker system would not be introduced until 1968.

As a final flourish, the album storage compartment was lined originally with red velvet, and later with pink felt. Including the sound globes, the unit was fully seven feet (two meters) long and sold for US$ 1,850, nearly five times the price of typical stereo console and about the same price as a nicely-equipped Volkswagen Beetle.

A Project G in Montecito, California, 2013

Project G in Montecito, California, 2013

Development of the Project G began in 1962 by Hugh Spencer of Clairtone, who’s initial scale concept mockup used a pair of tennis balls to represent the sound globes. Following nearly two years of development, the finalized G debuted in January 1964 at the National Furniture Show in Chicago.

Early G with vertical control panel featuring rocker switches and triangular knobs

Early G with vertical control panel featuring rocker switches and triangular knobs

Not surprisingly, the Project G made quite a splash. Playboy featured it in the June 1964 issue alongside the newly introduced Ford Mustang. Hugh Hefner placed one in the Playboy Mansion. Frank Sinatra got one for himself and gave a few more to his pals. In September, the Project G won a silver medal at the 13th Milan Triennale Exhibition of Decorative and Industrial Arts and Architecture.

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Late G with horizontal control panel and pink felt-lined record storage box

In 1965, it was featured in two Hollywood films, I’ll Take Sweden and Marriage on the Rocks. The Project G was initially conceived as for a limited run as an attention-getting halo model; but despite the lofty price, nearly 400 units were ultimately built and sold from 1964 through 1967.

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Clairtone G2, 1966

In 1966, the Project G was joined by a slightly smaller and less expensive G2 designed by Al Faux. The new model was a bit shorter; mostly due to the reduced-diameter sound globes, which shrank from 18 to 13 inches (46 to 33 cm) in size. For increased placement flexibility, the G2 speakers and brackets could be removed and the globes positioned elsewhere.

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Engineering drawing of the G2 Sound Globes

The new smaller globes were more robust and dent-resistant, being fabricated of cast rather than spun aluminium, though they no longer featured the intriguing moiré pattern generated by the offset perforations of the previous dual-layer shells.

The G2 opened up and ready to entertain. DC Hillier photo

The G2 opened up and ready to entertain. DC Hillier photo

The sliding tambour cover on the rosewood cabinet was replaced by two hinged acrylic lids, and record storage was in a separate module enlarged to accommodate up to 100 single-disc albums. The G2 was on display in A Fine Madness and The Graduate, and in 1967 received a Prix d’Excellence in design from the Canadian Nation Design Council. Somewhat less than 1000 were built until production ended in 1970.

The G and G2 represent a high water mark in modernist console audio design and today survive as rare artifacts of suave Jet Age sixties style.

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