What Makes a Design Classic?
Often designers, or others, think that it's easy to create a design classic. Like you can order one up at will, follow the tried and true formula, pick the right colors, materials, and forms, and out comes an instant classic. This is simply not true. This didn't work for Dieter Rams of Braun fame or for that matter Charles Eames and his famous furniture for Herman Miller. Design classic status is earned not created. The dictionary substantiates this claim with this fundamental definition:
Clas-sic (kla-sik) adj.Belonging to the highest rank or classServing as the established model or standardHaving lasting significance or worth; enduringFormal, refined and restrained in styleSimple and harmonious; elegant like the classic cut of a suit.
What is important is that the classic status is earned based on the quality of execution, enduring qualities, and restraint. You don't just declare it so.The other quality that design classics have in common is that changes to them must be highly considered. Even the slightest change can wreak havoc amongst loyalists. Can you imagine what would happen to these brands if the following scenarios became real?
- Harley-Davidson stops production of the V- twin engine. Whisper quiet replacement in the works!
- Chrysler cancels production of the boxy-utilitarian Jeep in favor of low slung aerodynamic model.
- Fender to discontinue Stratocaster guitar and replace it with obelisk-like minimalist design.
- Levi Strauss to retire blue jeans from line up in favor of more trendy colors
John Swansey, a Lenovo designer who suggested the subject of this post, recently described his favorite classic design, the Tizio lamp, to me:
"I can remember very clearly when I first discovered one at a friend's house. It fascinated me: the infinite effortless positions enabled by the pivoting counter-balanced arms and the marvel of a bright light with no wires. In design school I made a convincing non-functional replica of balsa wood and paper from memory - just to have it to look at. Now my work day begins and ends with a flip of the red switch of the one on my desk. The Tizio embodies an emergent technology in a spare, memorable form, enabling extraordinary usefulness with an element of magic. When I saw that first one I couldn't have dreamed that I would one day work closely with its originator trying to create design classics of tomorrow."
The Wikipedia has a great listing of products that have attained the status of design classic.
Included are some of my own favorites: The Wassily chair, the GEM paperclip, the Vespa motor scooter, and the Thonet bentwood chair I sit on every morning for breakfast. These things not only inspired me as a design student nearly thirty years ago, but they make me feel comfortable today. With so much changing in the world today it's a welcome relief to find a familiar oasis wherever possible. Lets not forget that new is not always improved.