Enduring designs are about much more than aesthetics

Lynda Relph-Knight

Design icons are under scrutiny once again. In London, department store Harrods has joined the Design Museum in a series of debates on the subject. Meanwhile, at the Milan furniture fair last week the pursuit of the perfect product was on, with manufacturers Plank and Philippe Starck’s company XO apeing furniture legend Vitra in producing miniatures of what they deem to be their classic lines.

For British company Established & Sons icons are a given. Its Drift bench by Amanda Levete of Future Systems and Aqua table by Zaha Hadid are already up there, soon to be joined by the beautiful, carbon fibre Surface table created for Established & Sons by Terence Woodgate with racing car designer John Barnard.

So what makes an icon? Harrods maintains it is something that breaks the mould, changing the way we look at things. The Surface table does this by pushing technological boundaries without compromising the elegant form and designers like Ron Arad and Ingo Maurer achieve it with just about everything they do.

But does it have to be a product in the premium price range? Unfortunately, manufacturers and their marketers seem to think so, certainly where furniture is concerned.

Luckily, reality isn’t like that and some of this year’s furniture ‘icons’ may become fashion victims as seasons change. Designs that really endure touch people in more mundane ways than pure aesthetics.

Take Tetrapack cartons, cited by Harrods, or Alan Fletcher’s favourite, a humble ball of string. What about Harry Beck’s London Underground map or the motorway signage system by Jock Kinneir and Margaret Calvert? These are equally iconic and have transformed everyday life.

Designers should not set out to create icons. That is the public’s job. Design, after all, is as much about problem-solving, fulfilling a need, addressing social and environmental concerns or pushing technology as about aesthetic delight. Great designs combine all these elements in appropriate measure.

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