When I migrated from the East Coast to the Bay Area in 1983 I wound up living in a communal household on Margarido Street along the border of Berkeley and Oakland. Among my housemates was a graphic artist/raft guide/old car aficionado/baseball nut named Steve Kowalski.
Steve was famous for a lot of things but he was absolutely notorious for the way he lived within his bedroom. I’ve seen very messy living quarters in my life, places that the health department, if they dared to go inside, would declare dangerous to one’s safety, but Steve took messiness to an esoteric, artistic level. When Steve was away my roommates and I showed his bedroom to visitors, but we kept his door shut if potential renters came by. No one would have moved in if they had seen the catastrophe upstairs.
But times have changed. Steve went on to run a very successful graphic arts firm located on Fifth Street in Berkeley. Then he transitioned into clock making.
His one-of-a-kind, quirky, high-end timepieces, lovingly assembled from antique airplane, plumbing, ship and car parts, sold for $500 to $8,000 at galleries in San Francisco and New York.
In 1995, Steve and his brother John, who was working for the Paris branch of Nintendo, decided to join forces hand-building small batches of clocks behind an old shop at Sixth Street and Austin Way. Soon thereafter, brother Dan joined in and together they formed Timeworks, Inc. with the goal of making historically authentic and attractive timepieces that are affordable and functional.
“There is so much that should be said about … the fact that we have not killed one another,” says youngest brother, Dan. “I think that a family working together is both a blessing and a mistake. There is such a great dynamic that sizzles when the three of us are having fun, but when the pressure of business comes into play, it makes it hard to feel synergistic!
“Steve was such a big influence on my childhood, and that of my three brothers,” enthuses Dan. “He made operating mechanical tanks that all five of us would sit in. We’d hold on to exposed nuts and bolts for dear life and travel down long hills, often until the thing hit a curb and we would go flying. I think all of us have a few sets of stitches on our noggins, yet our wild childhood produced some creativity. We’re all self-employed.” He laughs for a moment and then continues.
“Steve made some of the finest small scale hand-built models I ever remember seeing. He was a celebrity as a teenager at Paul Freiler’s model shop in Torrance, where even the oldest fine model craftsmen would be amazed at his work.”
Now located off Ashby Avenue in Southwest Berkeley, Timeworks has grown from the three brothers doing everything to over sixty employees.
The original tiny 250-square-foot space has given way to the 50,000-square-foot warehouse located in one of the large buildings formerly occupied by Whole Earth Access. The selection of fine clocks has expanded from four originals to over 200. Also available is a line of adorable nursery room décor.
The clocks are manufactured, assembled, tested and shipped from the Berkeley warehouse.
Steve favors a new model called the Museum Stradivarius. It is based on an original sculptural timepiece Steve created years ago using parts from an 18th Century violin in combination with antique clock parts from the 1890s.
Most Timeworks clocks sell in retail stores for between $60 and $200. The new museum line, of which the Stradivarius model is the first, will retail from $150 upwards to $400.
Like most businesses with a good idea, Timeworks has recently been plagued with copycats: low-end, offshore manufacturing companies that have plagiarized Timeworks’ designs but not the Kowalski brothers’ pursuit of superior quality. Combined with the downturn in the economy, Timeworks recently dropped from $13 million in sales to $10 million. But the brothers have no plans to compromise on craftsmanship.
“Our clocks are the best in the marketplace,” says Steve. “We’ll continue to maintain our high standards and niche market.” Adds Dan, “We’re going to be exploring other products yet to be determined, but with Steve's ingenuity, John’s savvy and my approach to presenting our product to the public, we can make interesting things the public will love.”
Steve has been able to combine his fondness for antique cars, ships and baseball with his love of clock making. Timeworks manufactures logo-branded clocks for every major league baseball team, a line of authentic nautical timepieces, and a tinplate collection of children’s clocks, mirrors, picture frames, coat racks and chalkboards that feature whimsical depictions of old fashioned automobiles, trucks, airplanes, and fire engines.
A rabid Giants fan, Steve has season tickets to PacBell Stadium and can be found there with his wife Patti and baby daughter Stephanie just a few feet behind first base during almost every home game. Not only does he have a great view of his favorite team and players, but he can look across the ballpark from where he sits and see the huge clock above the scoreboard. It’s a clock he designed for the Giants. Below it are large metal letters that spell out the word Timeworks.