Design Classics

What makes a design a design classic?

Written by Craig Berry
Former Junior Designer at VBAT | Superunion

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Calling an object a “design classic” is a subjective thing to do; there’s no definitive list and they can vary from person to person based on their taste and knowledge. What makes an object a “design classic” can also vary and be debated but, traditionally, it is an object which has a timeless aesthetic value, it serves as a standard of its kind and remains up to date regardless of the year of its design. Thus, for an object to become a design classic requires time; enough time to create an impact, to build a legacy and to influence later designs.

As I said, calling an object a design classic is subjective and there isn’t a definitive list. However, there are some things which are widely accepted as design classics such as the Volkswagen Beetle, the Braun calculator or the London Underground Map. Whilst thinking about this, I wanted to explore what I thought my design classics are or my favourite pieces of design I see as timeless.

The objects and designs below are some of my design classics, you don’t have to agree or disagree with these. They are personal to me, some of which I have experience with, some of I own, some I wish to one day own and some I just appreciate. I will explain what they are, who designed them and why I like them; specifically their design details and cultural significance.

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Technics SL 1200 Record Player, Shuichi Obata, 1972
This is an object which definitely falls out of the well-known, widely accepted, design classic category and belongs in the “huh? what is that?” category. This is definitely a niche object but for people who are into records and record players will admit that this record player (or its successor the SL 1210) is a great piece of design and can be found at most good record shops and nightclubs.

Designed in the 1970s by Matsushita (now Panasonic) under the brand name of Technics it was released as a a high fidelity consumer record player. It was quickly adopted by hip-hop artists such as Grandmaster Flash and Africa Bambaataa, experimenting with it and developing scratching techniques thanks to the construction of the player. Also thanks to it’s steel metallic look and numeric name it set the slang terms for the DJ’s record player being called the ‘wheels of steel’ and ‘the 1’s and 2's’. It is a hard-working, hard-wearing record player with simple but considered design features.

Further reading.

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Eames Moulded Shell Chair, Charles & Ray Eames, 1950
This chair is definitely a benchmark when it comes to chair design, especially mass-produced chairs. In the 1940s and 50s the dream team of Charles and Ray Eames wanted to create a chair design which would be available for the greatest number of people at an affordable cost. The result being the Moulded Plastic Chair (series), a one-piece seat shell which was moulded to fit the contours of the human body.

Whatever the material, be it original fibreglass ones or the now plastic ones (made by Vitra or Herman Miller) this chair is a staple in modern houses now (real or fake). Part of its allure to me is its simple construction of one piece of plastic in the least obtrusive way but also the adaptability of the design; there are numerous combinations and versions of this chair in different colours, with different coloured or material legs, with or without upholstery, indoor or outdoor, plastic or metal mesh, stackable or not stackable, swivelable or not swivelable… the list goes on. You can configure your own on the Vitra website and see for yourself the level of customisation.

Further reading.

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Anglepoise 1227 Lamp, George Carwardine, 1932
When making this selection I wanted to include some obscure examples and some which most people would go “yeah, I know that, that’s a classic”. The Anglepoise Lamp firmly belongs in this category. Designed by George Carwadine in 1932, his 1227 lamp was inspired by his work as a car designer, specifically working with vehicle suspensions.

Both vehicle suspensions and the Anglepoise lamp use springs, the lamp with joints creates tension in the springs and allows the lamp to be moved into a range of positions. The Anglepoise lamp is the standard for desk lamps, specifically in the creative industry, allowing you to work around a space, moving light where it is needed, quickly and easily. It feels industrial and solid with its exposed springs, minor struts of metal and wire running up but it still feels soft with its rounded lamp head and smooth metal finish.

Futher reading.

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Volkswagen Golf MK1, Giorgetto Giugiaro, 1974
The original ‘hot-hatch’ compact car design. Designed and released in the 1970s, it symbolises the era of blocky and square looking cars; other than circles like headlights, there are very few curves on this car—inside and out—giving it a bit of a military, tank-like look.

Nowadays the Golf MK1 is a popular retro/classic car as it’s seen as a great car to buy and restore either for car shows or even to take on a track. They look and feel pretty much indestructible.

Further reading.

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Nike Air Force 1, Bruce Kilgore, 1982
This is one of my favourite and most used products of recent times, be it that I have (and have had) several pairs which I wear regularly. The Nike Air Force 1, named after the presidential plane — specifically in all white — is one of the bestselling shoes of all time as it is a simple, all round good shoe worn by footwear enthusiasts and general people. It was introduced in 1982 by Bruce Kilgore as a basketball shoe in a high-top version and based on a hiking-boot style shoe with a chunky sole and containing the all important Nike cushioning.

I think the appeal to this shoe is the simplicity of it. It is the perfect canvas for designers to create new iterations of be it new colourways, special editions and collaborations; each time still keeping the iconic shape and important details: a thick sole, a big Nike swoosh, a metal lace lock and a few panels of material. The Nike AF-1 has received a lot of attention recently due to some big collaborations such as with streetwear/fashion designer Virgil Abloh and hip-hop artist Travis Scott. It was made for the basketball court but it’s now owned by the streets and ingrained into hip-hop culture.

Further reading.

Rough like Timberland Wear

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