#LookCloser – Laco Rad Aux Limited Edition / And a Conversation with Matt Smith-Johnson

@FurryWristAbroad

Introduction

Every watch that I have received for review has presented its unique set of challenges. Hilarious contracts make you promise to return the watch in pristine condition when, in reality, the watch comes into your possession in tatters after months of abuse from other reviewers and influencers. There is also the fact that I am expected to take it diving and return it without the slightest of blemishes. The Laco Rad-Aux thankfully presented the best challenge and opportunity yet. This is the first watch I have handled that is literally a work of beautiful art, and the result of an immense undertaking by one designer and a historic brand. Furthermore, the watch pays homage to a video game series that is very near and dear to my heart, the Fallout series.

For this edition of #LookCloser, we will quickly go over this watch and give it a traditional review, followed by an interview with the man who designed this watch, Matt Smith-Johnson. In closing, we will go over watches in different forms of media, and how gaming plays a very special role in the lives of millions and why this watch is a significant timepiece in the history of horology.

“The Rad-Aux reminded me of the times when the Fallout universe and being immersed in it brought joy to my life. It also reminded me of the solace that the distraction of the various wastelands provided during difficult times. The bleak atmosphere was punctuated with sparks of constant dark humour that easily made certain periods of my life easier. “

– FWA

___

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The first thing everyone notices about this watch is the case and its manufactured patina. I usually engage with strangers in passing when wearing a watch for review for their opinion, and all of them immediately pointed out the case. Some immediately recognized it as being inspired by Fallout at first glance as well. Whatever the magicians at Laco do to make this case look the way it does is very effective. This magic is also a proprietary method that Laco uses for such projects. The details never seem to end, especially when looked at closely or under a loupe. All of these weathered details and damage accentuate the pronounced onion-shaped crown and the “RAD-AUX” plaque on the opposite side of the case. This mechanical watch certainly does look like a watch that has been passed down by generations of nuclear war survivors.

The only design decision that seems odd for this watch, and for it being in place in the Fallout universe, is the traditional German Flieger dial. Given the lore of the Fallout games, and that the overall design language being used is a mixture of Raygun Gothic and Art Deco, the German Flieger dial initially seems out of place. There are several weapons and other influences in the original artwork of the first Fallout games, and even in their predecessor called Wasteland, that could easily make such a dial design choice not look out of place on the wrist of an Enclave Vertibird pilot.

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The execution of the dial is flawless. It is a work of carefully curated details. While the case is 42mm, the dial is 39.5mm, making this watch more wearable than what one would think just by looking at photos. The standard lug-to-lug distance of 50mm and the 42mm case make this watch very wearable. On the back of the case is a health bar progression graphic similar to the original video game Doom – another title now owned by Fallout’s parent company Zenimax, but more on this later. The brilliantly baked-on finish of the hands and the dial draw one’s gaze past the details of the strap and case. Though not aged, the 10, 20, 30, 40, 50, and 60 markers stand out a little to bring some of the design’s centre of gravity back toward the dial. It would be all too easy to get distracted with everything else going on with this watch, and these small calculated details speak to the ingenious and thorough design.

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The wearability and the massive attention to detail that the case and dial were given extend to the strap. This strap alone deserves its own article. While the lug width is a very standard 20mm, the width of the bund backing goes from 33.75mm to 46.25mm. Again, one might look at photos or these dimensions and start condemning the watch as unwearable. This would be false and unfortunate. When you look closer at all the details, you might start to wonder why the price point of the watch is not higher simply based on the intricate detail of this strap.

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First, the back of the watch is supported by the aforementioned bund area. Many within the watch enthusiast community love to hate bund straps, but this strap would easily convert them. The bottom part of the thicker bund section is perforated, which results in a very breathable and comfortable strap. The design of the perforations also mirrors the floors seen in the Fallout universe such as in warehouses, factories, and some run-down settlements. One amusing feature of having a strap using such a complex layering of materials is that it seems to vibrate like a smartwatch when the user’s arm flexes throughout the day.

Beyond the bund section, the complexity of the strap simply astounds anyone gazing at it. The distressed and painted leather adds a certain degree of depth when seen at different angles. There are paint blotches all over the strap, further giving this strap a look that it has spent years in a messy wasteland filled with a century’s worth of industrial waste. The aqua blue stitching also matches the carefully positioned blotches to accentuate this effect. The very comfortable and capable keepers have a hazard pattern that resembles the ones found on the Pip-Boys of the early Fallout games. The second keeper mirrors the strap’s underside in its soft material and finish.

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The vast attention to detail given to this watch makes it a fantastic companion throughout one’s day. I even managed to wear it with a suit on a couple of occasions, and though it may have looked out of place in the eyes of those who take it upon themselves to judge others based on their attire, it made me smile constantly. Having loved the Fallout series, seeing this watch on my wrist finally made me understand why there are so many Instagram watch-related accounts with “007” or other James Bond-related names. To be clear, I never liked the Bond series, for I found the movies and the womanizing and indestructible character to be a male power fantasy gone too far. In fact, I remember getting a little upset when my Seamaster 300 was announced to be a Bond watch a few months after buying it. Now I can see why these men love their Seamasters and the connection to the film franchise. 

The Fallout franchise, however, is not as pleasant as it once was, and recent events have been giving many devoted fans pause. We shall touch upon this at the end, but now we are going to dive into the mind of the zany, creative, and all-too-lovable designer of this watch. His name is Matt Smith-Johnson and he is a watch designer, writer, and the founder and creative director of Sentient Creative in Toronto. Sentient Creative builds marketing platforms. Multi-faceted and massively capable, having the opportunity to be a fly on the wall seeing Matt work is an eye-opening experience. It gives you the window into what a world-class designer and writer is capable of. 

So without further delay, here is the interview portion of the review:


FurryWristAbroad – FWA

Matt Smith-Johnson – MSJ

FWA: So before we get into the watch and its ridiculously beautiful and thoughtful design, what was your first memory of when you took notice of watches as a child?

MSJ: I can’t remember a specific moment, but I do recall having a sense that watches were important since I was very young. The first watch I remember having was an all-black and neon ZOT. I was probably around 7 or 8 years old (1990/1991). It was in a display case at Zellers or K-Mart, and I begged my grandfather for it. He caved in and got it for me. 

It was way too big for me. My granddad punched an extra hole in the rubber strap so it would fit my tiny wrist. I couldn’t even read the analog dial, but it was a prized possession. 

FWA: In your collection, which of your earlier watches speaks to you the most in terms of design? Has it, or another piece been most influential in your design work?

MSJ: I remember in college I had saved like crazy ($400 CAD) and got myself a Diesel DZ-7023 digital LCD watch. It was super angular, looked like a 70’s sci-fi sort of thing, a retro-futurist sort of thing. There was a button you could press to get a tip of the day. The only tip I remember was, “Smile at a stranger”—it was fun and quirky and that is what I loved about it. I still have it, but the digital module is dead from battery corrosion.

FWA: Besides the watch that is the topic of discussion today, which watch design of yours are you most proud of, and why?

MSJ: I have only done a few watch designs to date—it’s a new thing for me and I am hoping I can do much more from here on out. Before focusing on watches I did graphic design, and once upon a time, fashion. I try to avoid feeling proud of anything, to be honest. It’s no religious conviction or anything, I’m just always seeking my next task as a designer. 

Fallout 4
Fallout 4

FWA: Now let us focus on the wonderful Rad-Aux. Were you familiar with the Fallout universe before you undertook the project? As someone who adores the universe, its artwork, and its lore, I immediately thought that you were a veteran of the Fallout series.

MSJ: Oddly, I have never played the game. However, I am definitely a fan of the design, lore, and world-building of Fallout. Also a fan of the clever marketing campaigns. I love the animations they released for Fallout 4. 

It was actually Ariel Adams who suggested the Fallout angle for the RAD-AUX. I was originally inspired by Iris Haussler’s Abandoned Trailer Project from 2012. But researching Fallout for this piece allowed me to dive deep, and I can say I respect and admire that series even more as a result. Incredibly detailed world-building. 

FWA: What were the challenges in designing this watch in particular? What made you and Laco decide to go down the heavily detailed route that you did? It would have been all too easy simply to modify an existing model slightly with some Fallout themes and call it a day. You obviously did not do this. How many months of sleep did you lose over this project?

MSJ: The big challenge came with making the prototype on time for Wind-Up NYC, in 2018. I only had about 45 days to make the strap, box, postcard, manual, Polaroids, and bottlecaps. I used every available minute to get that done on time. The head of the watch was made by Laco in Germany.

Prior to that, designing the pitch for Laco took around 200 hours. There was a primary rough draft I shared with Ariel, and then a completed version with some additional details. 

FWA: The strap of the Rad-Aux is easily more complicated than many other watches or entire model line-ups of certain brands in itself. Take us through the design process that resulted in such an artful success. Not only is it beautiful, but it is easily one of the most comfortable straps I have tried on all year. Was comfort a primary goal with this strap, or did the design easily allow for it to be as snug, pleasant and homelike on one’s wrist as it is?

MSJ: I used to make straps back in 2011, and I think about strap design a lot. I wanted the strap to help make the watch look aesthetically closer to the Pip-Boy from Fallout, but also have the practical benefit of comfort. The perforated bund adds breathability while bulking up your wrist for the 42mm flat-lug case.  

FWA: Beyond the watch and the strap, the box and the many items that it comes with are simply delightful for a fan of the Fallout series. They help build the world for the timepiece as one opens the box, but also builds a wonderful relationship with the watch as this gorgeous box finds a nice home on a display shelf.

The box itself is actually rusted. For the reader to understand, it is actually covered in real rust. What was the process in making the box the way it was?

MSJ: I worked with a prop-maker from Delaware (Anders Aller) and we went back and forth a few times to get the look just right. He actually made a small-scale test version for me to begin with. Once I found the right tin maker in Chicago, I had them send him the prototypes for weathering. 

Anders and I had a discussion about what story the box needed to tell. I said it needed to look like it has been knocking around in a dirty rucksack for 50 years before being abandoned in a shed with a leaky roof. The result looks pretty accurate!

Anders was a delight to work with, and he also helped with the production of the bottlecaps. 

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FWA: The many little items within the box do a magnificent job of placing the watch within its alternative world. What pieces of lore did you decide to include in the artwork and why?

MSJ: For the fictional owner of the Rad-Aux, I developed a story arc in my head. The owner was someone compassionate, who grew into a needlessly confrontational individual; a storied and sentimental person, who came to an unceremonious and prosaic end. A life with an amazing story, consumed and forgotten by the passage of time.  

As for specific lore, I will say this: In Fallout, each vault has a unique story. One vault in particular, has a logically assumed outcome based on the parameters of the experiment it contained. I decided my character’s story would start there, in defiance of expectation.

FWA: Given the complexity of this project and its various parts that needed such a high level of attention, what have you taken away from this experience, and how will it affect your watch designs moving forward?

MSJ: Seemingly impossible goals can be achieved if you work with the right people. Everyone who helped me realize the completed prototype was amazingly supportive. I only worked with people who got as excited as I did about this project, and I can’t wait to do something like this again.

FWA: Thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule to entertain a fan of the Fallout franchise and someone who loves watches.

MSJ: No problem! Thank you for taking interest in the Rad-Aux project. 😎

 

Closing Thoughts

This watch has the possibility of being a historic timepiece. There have been video game-inspired and branded watches in the past, but not on the scale of the Rad-Aux, and definitely not made by such an established, reputable, and historic brand such as Laco. As many other brands force tie-ins and collaborations with movies, musicians, music genres, or cities, the Rad-Aux fully embraces the Fallout universe in its entirety with an astonishing amount of detail and design.

Many of the writers here at The Matick Blog were and are still gamers. As we have all grown up into working professionals, spare time has become an ever-growing luxury that sadly has resulted in us not playing video games as much as we desire to. Watches such as the Rad-Aux allow us to take the universes that we fell in love with along with us. 

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With all this being said, franchises such as Fallout and their integrity are in jeopardy. At the time of this writing, the subscription service for Fallout 76 called Fallout First has been released to much controversy and animosity from the gaming community. Ever since Bethesda’s parent company, ZeniMax Media, started to receive funding from private equity firms such as Providence Equity Partners, the company’s decisions have slowly started to alienate their consumers. 

The cycle of profit for a video game developer is unlike many traditional industries. They require a large amount of investment for two to four years to develop a game. Only after the game’s release, after several large installments of investments are made, only then can a video game developer and its stakeholders start to see some revenue. This is not a very attractive business model for investment firms. As a result, such subscription services and gambling and lottery tactics called loot boxes have been introduced within games to generate a continuous source of income. 

There is also the mechanism of forcing gamers to grind away at the same tasks and missions within the game. These are the only ways in which players can obtain desirable items within the game. These items can range from cosmetic upgrades to powerful items that give them a competitive edge against other players. These systems are based on an internal lottery systems such as random number generators. Usually players can purchase the right to speed up their progress by making it more likely for them to obtain the said desirable items by increasing their chances at the lottery. The developers then charge what they believe to be the perceived worth of these digital items. Fallout, like other game series, employs this method of revenue generation, and in the past players felt like they were being taken advantage of. The issue with all of these tactics is that they are supplying the consumer with features that were standard in an initial game purchase not too long ago. The government of Belgium has in fact made loot boxes illegal for they are exploiting children and those with addiction problems.

As a result, as aging gamers who only have a small amount of time to once again turn on their consoles or gaming computers, we are bombarded with these new predatory and unsavoury tactics. We do not have the time to grind away at repeated missions to progress in these games. Bethesda and other developers have introduced in-game stores such as their Atomic-Shop which attempts to keep selling the consumer more items as they keep playing the title they have already payed for. At least for the time being, there are fantastic games without these built-in extra sources of revenue outside of downloadable content. Some such games are The Witcher 3, the recently released The Outer Worlds, and the recently announced Hellblade 2: Senua’s Saga. These games reward their players with outstanding writing, level design, soundtracks, and most importantly fair and reliable gameplay.

Fallout New Vegas
Fallout New Vegas
The Outer Worlds (1)
The Outer Worlds

The Rad-Aux reminded me of the times when the Fallout universe and being immersed in it brought joy to my life. It also reminded me of the solace that the distraction of the various wastelands provided during difficult times. The bleak atmosphere was punctuated with sparks of constant dark humour that easily made certain periods of my life easier. Many can relate to this, as can the writers of The Matick Blog. Video games such as the Borderlands series have in fact created characters dedicated to those who used video games in the last moments of their lives as a coping mechanism. In Borderlands 2, the character of Michael Mamaril was made in loving memory of a cancer victim who played the series in his last days. This is the power of video games. This is why many of us keep coming back and will never give up on the genre of entertainment. No matter what difficulties the industry sees, just like the field of horology, we will not abandon our interests or support for such powerful industries and experiences. 

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My short time with the Rad-Aux brought me an unexpected amount of delight. It reminded me of the first time the massive slow creaking doors to Megaton opened, or entering the Cafe of Broken Dreams in Fallout 2 and running into the various other fourthwall-breaking Lone Wanderers, or having to decide whether to rescue or murder a replicant/android version of your son in Fallout 4. This is why I am thankful to Laco for undertaking such an exhaustive project as the Rad-Aux. This is why I am grateful to Matt Smith-Johnson for doing the universe such justice through his tireless efforts. This is why I am utterly filled with gratitude that a watch such as the Rad-Aux exists, for it is my hope that it will result in the release of other timepieces that are inspired by such wonderful and colourful worlds as the Fallout series.

 

For Team Matick,

FurryWristAbroad

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