If you love modern design but can't afford a status sofa or a work of art, buy a clock.

Novelty clocks for not a lot of money are a phenomenon these days, courtesy of the inexpensive yet accurate quartz movement. The 2-inch-square, self-contained movement, about $2 via mail order, allows a designer to create a unique clock that will run for several years on a single AA battery. Knowledge of horology isn't required.All else aside, clocks are excellent metaphors. Many people can recognize and enjoy the subtle or blatant philosophical commentary of a particular design.

"Everyone knows the clock face and the position of the hands so well that you can take liberties with its design," says Steven Holt of Zebra Design. "So what you see today is a rich series of experiments questioning just how legible the telling of time has to be."

The ambiguity of time, which can be friend or foe depending on mood, is reflected in many of the designs. Zebra's Real Wall Clock, a kit manufactured by Zelco, for example, gives users a chance to design their own clock.

"What people get is the idea that you can put up a clock of any size wherever you want it," says Holt.

The kit, about $20, includes a quartz movement in a molded plastic case with three hands, 12 dots as numerals and a paper template to construct a circle on the wall. All mount with adhesive.

Some designers, such as Tibor Kalman of M&Co, New York, have created clock faces with numerals that are incorrect or in the wrong place. "They are for that small segment of the public that is ready for confusion, parody and humor," says Kalman.

Humor of a subtle nature is behind several quartz clocks designed by Constantin Boym, a Russian emigre who now works in New York.

At noon and midnight, the hands on his Mona Lisa Clock (about $100) invisibly blend into the face so that the image of Leonardo da Vinci's painting is whole. As the time advances, the hour and minute hands move and the familiar image is altered.

Boym's Laborious Clock (about $90), recently singled out by ID (Industrial Design) magazine for an award, is a sheet of stainless steel on which each numeral has been made using a different metal working process. The 12 is a stamping, the 6 is a cutout, the 8 is two round holes drilled into the face, the 1 is a bolt.

Boym's Zvezda Clock (zvezda means "star" in Russian) consists of 12 telescoping radio antennas around a quartz mechanism and three hands. The rods can be lengthened and shortened to give the clock owner a say in how it looks. These extensions can become a memory device - for example, by pulling the antenna out at the 8 to remind of an appointment.

Another source of inspiration is the verbal metaphor. Emilio Ambasz's Hare and Tortoise Clock, a prototype, consists of a glass-covered circular field on which the hour hand is a plastic tortoise and the minute hand a hare. In a verbal pun, the Hanging Clock, designed by Chris Collicott of Los Angeles ($600 at stores such as Clodagh in New York) is a pendulum clock suspended on a wire clothes hanger.

Novices used to cut their teeth on chair design, says Holt. Now clocks often serve as their laboratory. Using a mail-order quartz movement, students in his class at Parsons School of Design in New York are able to concentrate on concept without considering technical minutiae.

Jacqueline Flynn, a student from Port Washington, N.Y., made an algae clock, employing a child's toy called Slime to imitate glowing algae. The Slime would be substituted if the clock were to go beyond the prototype stage. Orlando Peralta New York City wove a clock face out of metallic thread so it could be crushed or smoothed into different shapes.

Traditionally, low-cost clocks of strictly utilitarian design have dominated the marketplace. In 1989, for example, 76 percent of clock sales were for models under $25. Many of the new clocks are in the $50 to $100 price range.

Holt doesn't see price resistance as a significant problem. He says that as people become more accustomed to expressing personal style at home, they seek unusual products and are willing to pay for them.

"It's not just limited to sheets," says Holt. "More astute buyers want something more than a standard clock to express themselves."