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What makes a design classic?

What makes a design classic?

It takes time for something to become iconic. Anyone who believes in the existence of an ‘instant classic’ has inhaled too much PR. But what exactly is a design classic? It’s a question framed by the devil to torment the cautious.


First, you need to distinguish between the classical and the classic, a point of difference that can be lost on the careless.

Classical architecture has origins in the Greek and Roman eras. Order, proportion and a limited range of decorative motifs are the defining characteristics of the style. Within its strict rules there is, nonetheless, scope for expression. So, the austere Erechtheion temple on Athens’ Acropolis is classical, but so, too, was Stanford White’s rather blustering Penn Station in New York, completed in 1910. Or consider classical music, which can be described as the sonic equivalent of the architectural orders as they were defined by Vitruvius: formal, predictable and beautiful.

The term ‘classic’ is rather different. It has come to mean the best of its kind. When, in the mid- 1980s, Coca-Cola tinkered with its sacred recipe and launched ‘New Coke’, the public rebelled and the original formula had to be reinstated. Upon its re-release, it was named ‘Coca-Cola Classic’. Its famous contoured bottle, the design of which is in its centenary year, is an example of an undisputed classic. But I am getting ahead of myself.

Everybody loves classic cars, which tells us something about the nature of a classic. No one detests or despises these motors, but their individual appeal is based on nostalgia: the ones we love are those that we remember from our childhood. To me, a classic car is a Triumph ‘TR3’ or an Austin-Healey ‘3000 Mark II’. To my son, it’s an Audi ‘Quattro’ or a Volkswagen ‘Golf GTI’. In this sense, a car is given classic status not because of any rational analysis of merit, but because of its ability to transport us backwards in time to a dream world of imagined perfection.

The concept of a classic only becomes difficult when attached to the term ‘design’ - itself a word that, through familiarity and misuse, has been attenuated to a condition of near-meaninglessness. People often say that ‘everything has been designed’ but, after a century and a half of design education in this country, no one can say what exactly that discipline comprises.

So let me tell you. Design was a campaign promoted by museum administrators, architects, pamphleteers, exhibitionists and egomaniacs. During the mid-19th century, it was intended to educate the public in matters of taste and to rebuke manufacturers in matters of utility.

As the campaign evolved, it acquired very specific aesthetics; thus approved objects were known as ‘good design’ and objects of disapproval were ‘bad design’. Never mind that bad design often worked and sold better than good: that was of no concern to visionary purists. What they were promoting was, in fact, an elite style or patrician taste. You can ignore all of that form-follows-function stuff. It doesn’t now nor ever did. Form follows fiction.

Given this definition, the design movement had a historical beginning and end that are as definable as the start and finish points of, say, the Pre-Raphaelites and the Constructivists. While the idea of design emerged in the Victorian era, it only became truly influential after WWI, when mass markets full of acquisitive consumers evolved. A hundred years later (I mean right now), globalisation exploded those quaint, provincial Victorian assumptions about taste, social purpose and public utility. Thus design lost its meaning, becoming a valueless term that gets routinely.

What makes a design classic?

From the iconic Coca-Cola bottle to the metal chairs created by Xavier Pauchard for Tolix, design classics come in all shapes and sizes


The idea of the design classic derives from that earlier period of do-gooding innocence. It began at the start of the 20th century with the work of the Deutscher Werkbund (German Association of Craftsmen), which attempted to create standard shapes for everyday objects such as drinking glasses, and ended with the iPod - Apple even acknowledged this status when the sixth generation of the iPod was launched as the ‘Classic’.

Looking back at the design era, several things become clear. The people who created the likes of the Porsche ‘911’, the Leica camera and the Rolex watch were, not entirely unconsciously, aiming to achieve timelessness. These are all products that resist the depredations of fashion and appear to stay the same. In all of them, the details are in harmony with the whole: you can instantly recognise a Porsche, a Leica or a Rolex from a visual fragment. Indeed, rather like a bio-organism, the entirety of the car, camera or watch appears to evolve from its elementary parts. And, like a family, successive generations of these products look the same, or ever so slightly different.

But there’s another aspect to the defining of a design classic: it is notjust a useful product, but also represents an idea. French semiotician Roland Barthes, when discussing the 1955 Citroen ‘DS’ in his book Mythologies, described objects as ‘the best messenger of a world above that of nature’. The message? That the design of a car can be as complex and beautiful, as subtle and moving, as the architecture of a cathedral. This is a pleasant fiction. That Coca-Cola bottle? In this language, it embodies America’s takeaway culture.

Take Dieter Rams, the inheritor of the Bauhaus ethic, which he passed on to Apple’s grateful Jonathan Ive. Not only is Rams’ work timeless (his 1962 ‘620 Chair Programme’ for Vits® is still in production today and is likely to remain so for ever, or until people cease to feel the need to sit down, whichever comes sooner), but it is also the product of an absolutely coherent philosophy: quiet is better than loud, Rams believes, a classic belief if ever there was one. All of his products behave, he says, with the dignity and discretion of ‘ze gut English butler’.

There’s a neat little army of design warriors who are still, from beyond the grave, battling with the crass and the vulgar. The furniture of Charles and Ray Eames, Xavier Pauchard’s metal chairs for Tolix, Poul Henningsen’s lights - I could go on and on. But then there are also those anonymous, everyday items that have earned ‘classic’ status: a handsome wine bottle and its best companion, a ‘Waiter’s Friend’ corkscrew, for instance. Neither could be improved by adding or subtracting anything, so they are true classics.

Ultimately, design classics should make us feel good about ourselves. They dignify existence and confirm, if confirmation were needed, that life is more than a temporary conjunction of hydrocarbons in the relativist chaos of infinite space. They are the best messengers of a world above nature. And they are things of the past.

8-02-2016, 03:47
Autor: kastiel
Views: 1 107

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