A catalogue of acknowledged classics of 19th & 20th century product design from Europe and North America. Further suggestions welcome.
Note: searching the web for non-commercial information on Design Classics tends to bring up pages on furniture, cars, or buildings. The scope of this page is wider and covers items in all categories, although architecture is excluded as a building is not a product. Pure inventions are also excluded. All the items featured are, or were, commercially available designs or manufactured products produced in quantity.
Design or invention?
During 2006 the BBC Culture Show launched "The Great British Design Quest". People voted online, or by phone or SMS, to elect a winner from 25 shortlisted British design icons. The winner, Concorde, was announced on Thursday 16th March on The Culture Show on BBC Two. The 'design icons' are the Aston Martin DB5 (12), the London A-Z (19), the Sinclair Calculator (25), the Raleigh Chopper (18), Concorde (1), the Doc Martens boot (13), the E-Type Jaguar (11), 'The Face' magazine (24), 'Grand Theft Auto' video game (9), the K2 phone kiosk (the Great British Telephone Box) (10), the Anglepoise lamp (17), the Mini (car) (4), the Mini skirt (15), British road signage (16), the Penguin paperback book (cover) (14), the 'Sgt Pepper' album cover (20), the 'Power, Corruption and Lies' album cover (21), the Catseye (7), the Routemaster bus (6), the Supermarine Spitfire (3), the 'Tomb Raider' video game (8), the Dyson vacuum cleaner (23), the Word Wide Web (5), the London Underground map (2), and the Verdana typeface (22).
(*Bolded entries were voted into the top ten, of which the Spitfire, Concorde, and the London Underground map were the top three. The number in brackets is the item's voted position out of 25.)
Not all these 'design icons' are designs as such. Some are inventions – the Catseye, for example. There's a difference between a design and an invention. The Dyson vacuum cleaner is more difficult to categorise because it obviously has a design but Dyson also invented its dual cyclone system to replace the traditional bag. So are people voting for the Dyson design or for the invention itself? The Mini skirt is not really a design – there are countless 'designs' of the Mini skirt 'invention'. An invention is generic and a design is a particular manifestation of it, amongst other designs of the same invention.
I've chosen my own list of design classics for their design qualities rather than the inventiveness of their creators. There's a degree of invention to most of them, but there could be other, lesser designs that feature those same inventions. Michael Thonet invented a process for bending wood, but what matters is the way the invention was used to create an outstanding design, rather than the invention itself. The same applies to the innovative tubular steel 'space-frame' body of the Mercedes-Benz 300SL, and the use of metal rivets in the Levi 501. All those products succeed primarily by the virtues of their design.
Classic design is more than beauty
The BBC and the Design Museum are guilty of woolly thinking. It's the usual dumbing-down of everything that the BBC has become so fond of. They're not just confusing designs and inventions, but they say "good design can be beautiful to look at. It can do its job function efficiently, or help us to do something new and useful. It can be a remarkable example of innovation in its use of new materials or technologies. It can help us to be more responsible towards the environment. Sometimes it makes us laugh."
Of course good design can be beautiful to look at, but that alone does not make a design classic. Whether a design makes us laugh or not is completely irrelevant (unless making us laugh is the specific purpose of the design). Innovation per se has nothing at all to do with design, and "so what?" if a design makes us more environmentally responsible.
As for video games being included amongst British design icons – who's going to look back 25 years from now and say that Grand Theft Auto is a design classic?
Terminology: 'design', 'classic', & 'icon'
The process of 'design' is to "work out and arrange the parts or details of [something generic]." In the context of design, 'classic' means "serving as the established model or standard" or "recognized as definitive in its field." So a 'design classic' is "an arrangements of parts or details of [something] that has become recognized as definitive in its field." An 'icon' is "an important and enduring symbol [of something]" so a 'design icon' is "an arrangements of parts or details of [something] that has become an important and enduring symbol."
Note that in the case of both 'classic' and 'icon' there has to be 'something' already in existence (i) for there to be a 'field' of, or (ii) to be a 'symbol' of. The 'something' is the generic object: boot, plane, sports car, map, chair, game, or whatever. That's why the Catseye can't be a design icon or design classic, but there could be a classic design of Catseye as long as there are a few to choose from. The Mini Skirt can be an 'icon of the 60s' but it can't be a design icon. And the World Wide Web is obviously an invention, not a design.
[ First published October 17th, 2006 ]