FX Design Seminar: In search of icons

FX brought together experts from across architecture and design to consider what leads a product, or building, to be bestowed with the status of ‘icon’… and whether the term itself has lost some of its resonance in an ever-evolving consumerist society

Report by Toby Maxwell
Photography by Colin Crisford

Taking part were
Theresa Dowling, chair and editor FX magazine
Tabby Bhuiyan, project director, Darling Associates
Vanessa Brady, OBE founder & CEO, SBID
Alistair Brierley, project director, Scott Brownrigg
Brendan Heath, associate director, SHH
Jane Lawrence, head of interiors, Knight Dragon
Alex Michaelis, co-founder & Partner, MichaelisBoyd
Oscar Pena, co-principal, Studioilse
Johannes Saugbjerg, CEO, Vola
James Soane, director, Project Orange
Birthe Tofting, international sales, Vola

If ever there was an over-used adjective in design it is perhaps ‘iconic’. We brought together a panel of architects and designers to address the realm of the icon – a word widely employed by creatives, clients, marketing types and plenty others besides – to address what makes something iconic in the first place, and how the parameters for such terminology may well shift in the future.

As always, in attempting to explore the future, the starting point can be to consider the past. Brendan Heath, associate director at SHH, said: ‘It’s quite hard to think of pre-war icons. In the post-war period, there are lots of examples of products that were created cheaply for the mass market, but pre-1920 it’s hard to think of much that obviously classifies as an icon.’

Alex Michaelis, Co-founder & partner, MichaelisBoydAlex Michaelis, Co-founder & partner, MichaelisBoyd

Vanessa Brady, founder and CEO of SBID, suggested: ‘I think a lot was prompted by the war. 1929-34 was the art-deco period and it was the shortest period of any design movement because of the hostilities. Before the 1939-45 war, it was largely about super luxury products – much of it made from silver – and art deco was generally quite expensive to make and to buy. Post-war, it all went more ‘pop’, trying to carry on the deco feel but using plastics and other cheaper materials.’

Jane Lawrence, head of interiors at Knight Dragon, asked: ‘So are we saying it’s all to do with mass production? Can something only become iconic if it’s produced in numbers?’ Brady replied: ‘I think it goes hand-in-hand with what’s going on in society, because when people don’t have money they become more resourceful through necessity. When money is more readily available, people are spending money on absolutely anything, and that’s where the design becomes luxury-led rather than function-led.’

Alistair Brierley, project director, Scott BrownriggAlistair Brierley, project director, Scott Brownrigg

Societal changes have had a significant bearing suggested Heath: ‘Historically, you might have inherited furniture from your family, so it would be something you would obtain over time. Whereas now people are better able to buy for themselves and think about design and what they might want to accumulate for themselves.’

Brady added that years ago people might be tied in to their mortgages for much of their lives and that this would take up not just most, but all of their income. ‘It was only when they got to their 50s that they might be in a position to buy their own furniture. It’s different now because from a much younger age, people might own a home, get married, go on overseas holidays, own a car, hire a cleaner. Life’s different.’

Tabby Bhuiyan, project director at Darling Associates, said: ‘I think IKEA’s furniture could be considered iconic, simply because the way that its offering is flat-packed, self-assembly and relatively affordable all says a lot about the way we live now. We don’t have the furniture being handed down through the generations, but we have people who move around more, need furniture that can be assembled, dismantled, and reassembled.’ She added: ‘I also think the wider aspects of IKEA – of the branding, the instruction booklets, even the way you shop there – is all iconic in its own way too.’

Brady added: “It might be fl at-packed and affordable but it has always been design-led and aimed at all age groups. That in itself is really unusual since most types of furniture are aimed at a certain demographic. I doubt there is a house in the UK that doesn’t have at least one item of IKEA furniture.’

Vanessa Brady, OBE, founder & CEO, SBIDVanessa Brady, OBE, founder & CEO, SBID

Discussion moved on to the role of the passage of time in defining ‘iconic’. Alistair Brierley, project director at Scott Brownrigg, said: ‘I asked someone recently whether they thought IKEA was iconic and they replied ‘no, not yet’, which got me thinking about whether icon status is to do with time. To an extent, other brands – perhaps when you think of McDonalds’ golden arches – do have that status, but personally I don’t buy in to the idea that IKEA is “iconic” in that sense.’

Heath replied: ‘I don’t think these brands ever set out to be iconic. There are two types of icon I guess; one has been set up a long time ago and deserves its place in history because of its achievements, while the other is where someone has deliberately gone out to try to design something iconic.’

Birthe Tofting, international sales, VolaBirthe Tofting, international sales, Vola

Oscar Pena, co-principal at Studioilse, said: ‘That’s impossible. Something can only become iconic if it stands the test of time, if it remains popular despite the passing of years. For me that’s one of the strongest design attributes.’

Perhaps a trigger point is needed to stimulate creativity on the kind of level capable of creating what we would recognise as iconic designs. Alex Michaelis, co-founder and partner at Michaelis Boyd, said: ‘The Sixties is when many of what we today think of as icons emerged, when there was a big battle of consumer products. It’s still post-war as it took 20 years for us to effectively come up with cheap housing and setting the world right again before people started designing to their full potential. For that kind of explosion of creativity – perhaps it needs a massive change or faultline in society to allow the freedom of new technologies to emerge.’

Defining ‘iconic’
Chairing the discussion, FX editor Theresa Dowling steered the conversation to an analysis of what is ultimately meant by the word ‘icon’. James Soane, director at Project Orange, said: ‘I think the term has become toxic, and I think one of the reasons for that is that another definition for the word is “an item of uncritical devotion”. It has become a tool for mass consumption and for people to basically invest meaning into objects that may or may not be necessary.

‘As an architect, if you look at the city, we often talk about iconic skylines. But if you think about one of the most famous skylines in the world, Shanghai, the image we are always shown is it against a beautiful blue sky or illuminated at night, never the pollution covered vista that it is the majority of the time. It’s really important to question that kind of thing and not just blindly accept how something is positioned.

Oscar Pena, co-principal, StudioilseOscar Pena, co-principal, Studioilse

‘Icon and fame become the same thing and so you have to start unpicking it. All the things we talk about as iconic tend to be a little nostalgic, and really Marilyn Monroe is an icon; people can be icons.’

Lawrence suggested: ‘If you buy into the idea that an icon has to be something with a level of history to it, there is an argument to suggest that items such as the Robin Day chair are iconic, and that they are not to do with “fame as such”.’ Heath pointed out that objects can be seen as icons for different reasons; some because they have broken new ground in technology for example, led to new production methods, or perhaps have come to be seen as a definition of a new era.

Soane wondered if the term ‘icon’ has become little more than a marketing term, when really what we should be referencing is just ‘great design’. Brierley said: ‘It’s often not the designers using the term, to be honest. It might be the client that is asking for something “iconic”. Frankly, I agree that it is a toxic word and as designers and architects we probably shouldn’t get involved.’

Objects of desire
Those around the table had been asked to come to the discussion armed with ideas on what they believe could be referred to as iconic designs. Bhuiyan said: ‘If you think of the Apple iPod, depending on where you are in the timeline, that is probably a modern icon. When it came out, it was a very new way of listening to music and at the time, was a very beautiful thing to look at.’

Pena questioned whether it was a design that stood the test of time? ‘Perhaps we’re too close to really be able to judge that,’ suggested Heath.

Jane Lawrence, head of interiors, Knight DragonJane Lawrence, head of interiors, Knight Dragon

Brady put forward the famous Barcelona chair as a ‘cheap and cheerful’ design that has passed the longevity test: ‘When it was designed, it wasn’t created to be an icon, it was designed for a specific purpose and has since been seen in this way. Is it the style of the design or is it the quantity of sales that have made it iconic?’

Lawrence asked if there are any products broadly considered to be iconic which are not purely functional? Soane suggested: ‘The Juicy Salif lemon squeezer by Philippe Starck for Alessi is iconic but doesn’t actually work particularly well. Much of Starck’s furniture though is very practical, but he’s stated that in future all of his work is going to be non-iconic and instead have a real emphasis on sustainability.’

Heath added: ‘Starck himself became an icon in the Eighties and Nineties. I guess his products were so ubiquitous that it was inevitable that he would become synonymous with that early Eighties’ post-modern style of the time. He was kind of iconic before that became the word to apply to someone in a way.’

Suggested Pena: ‘Perhaps an icon is not just a moment in history, but a product that can actually change history. That’s maybe where something like the iPod fits in.’

The consumer mindset
The role of marketing in all of this did not go unnoticed. Soane said that the approach to this has changed dramatically over the years, skewing our take on how important certain products may be in our lives. ‘In the past, marketing was used to help people get to know a product, a place or something. Now it’s a much more complicated series of levers that are pulled to try to get you to purchase something that you may or may not need.’

Dowling pointed out: ‘Many younger people see items such as expensive trainers as must haves. Similarly, there will be those who are desperate to own pairs of designer Jimmy Choo shoes. Does it have to be expensive to be good?’ Heath commented: ‘There’s a sense of something that is not attainable actually being seen as more desirable.’ Brady suggested that this is again symptomatic of the marketing machine that encourages consumers to believe they need a certain product in order to ‘fit in’ or be accepted. ‘As such, some of these products are seen as iconic to own, whereas when I was growing up, my impression of something iconic was an old established product, or even an antique, rather than something contemporary.’

James Soane, director, Project OrangeJames Soane, director, Project Orange

Lawrence asked: ‘Is it so bad to want to attain something, to own nice things? Is it not simply aspirational to want to own a beautiful chair rather than just a basic chair, for example?’

‘It’s interesting because identity is often seen as being conferred though ownership rather than through experience or friendship or community,’ said Soane. ‘I think actually that’s breaking down and creating big problems in many areas. It starts with the idea that “yes, I’ll buy those trainers” and yet those same trainers are going to be in landfill within a year.

‘We can all probably name 30 or so icons, but for us that status has been earned through its longevity, its part in history and its continuous path in our world, but how do you separate that out from all these other things around ownership as we know it today?’

Pena brought along what he considers to be a true icon – a hammock. ‘I come from Columbia and we have lots of hammocks. It came from the Indians who used to use this material as fishing nets but was then also used for this purpose too. I hold it up as an example of something that cannot really be improved. I genuinely don’t know how you would be able to make it better.’

Michaelis added: ‘Perhaps an icon isn’t really designed by someone but is actually just one of the simple, beautiful necessities of life.’

Striving for special
Within the machinery of the design or architecture process, where does the thirst for icons come from? If, has had already been discussed, many icons as we recognise them today were never created with that status in mind, why do some strive to achieve this? Lawrence posed the question: ‘Are the words “iconic” and “innovative” in briefs from clients being used because we as designers are not creating beautiful enough things, that they feel they need to embellish it further to get what we want?’

Brierley replied: ‘It’s often the nonarchitectural briefs that say that, and it’s normally a sign that it will be a project that will be won on a couple of visualisations, and that there may not be a great deal of substance behind it all.’

Brendan Heath, associate director, SHHBrendan Heath, associate director, SHH

It can be about ‘big bang’ moments, added Heath: ‘Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao is one of those moments in the architectural world where the term is used on a building that changes things. After that, everyone else wanted their project to be an icon.’

Lawrence wondered if creating an icon is about ‘capturing the zeitgeist’, with a moment in which the designer has seen the future and captured it in their work. Or perhaps it is something reactionary and different, such as Marcel Duchamps’ Fountain urinal artwork, which still raises questions and discussion today.

Or might broader issues facing society be the prompt for ground-breaking, potentially iconic, creativity? Soane said he believed that some of the environmental issues currently on the agenda may force the hand of those designing and manufacturing products to explore different avenues. ‘If we carry on doing what we’re doing for very much longer, producing lots of “stuff ”, then the world will radically change. Climate change is very much a product of our culture of constantly making things and throwing them away. You can sit in your bubble and carry on designing nice things, but I think young people are interested in trying to find new ways of existing that might be more light on their feet.

‘The Body Shop used to do refills. It was way ahead of its time and really showed initiative. The problem was it wasn’t “sexy” or marketable enough, and involved customers having to carry their old bottles around.’ Michaelis added: ‘That speaks of a movement that is much bigger than just a single icon. Maybe there is some relevance there in what future generations need to do – it’s not just one small thing, but rather a much larger scope of actions.’

So were more iconic things made in the Sixties because people were more socially aware? Brady suggests that consumer perspectives are an important means of understanding some of these factors: ‘I read a survey on how happy people felt during different decades. Those in the Fifties had the least in terms of money and possessions and yet it was the most content of decades including those right up to today. It’s because they were glad they were alive post-war. They might not have had very much, but they were happy with what they did have. I don’t think many of us feel like that today.’

Lawrence added: ‘My parents had an Arne Jacobsen-designed Egg Chair, not because they were trendy, but just because that was the kind of chair that was there to buy back in the Sixties. I think it’s sometimes only designers that get caught up on these sorts of designs as being icons – do non-designers even recognise these objects as being anything particularly special or do they just see them as ‘a Sixties’ chair’, for example?’

Dowling suggested: ‘This isn’t always about exclusivity though is it? The Robin Day chair for example was manufactured in such quantity that it was everywhere – schools, airports and so on. Would that have been him as a designer, or the manufacturer Hille, which made it a household name?’

Tabby Bhuiyan, project director, Darling AssociatesTabby Bhuiyan, project director, Darling Associates

Laurence said: ‘But that’s the thing; it’s known by us as designers but is it really a household name today?’ Suggested Soane: ‘The reason it worked then was because it was affordable and well-designed and there’s something very important about that. The problem now in our copycat world is that even the IKEA boss said last year “we’re at maximum stuff ”. The reason we go back to some of these things from the past is that they perhaps represent the very best of their kind.’ Michaelis added: ‘Perhaps iconic in this sense is also to do with “simplicity”, both in terms of the simplicity of materials aligned with a very clear aim and direction which is slightly lost nowadays because there are so many new materials available.’

Soane argued that consumerism has changed drastically over the years. ‘Where before, you might buy the iconic Chanel handbag, that would be it and you had it for life. Now, a new one will come out before long with slightly different detailing and it feeds consumer anxiety about having the very latest or the best version of something. There is no longer that purity to it, which I think makes it harder to define an icon in that context.’

Staying power
So is there an environmental benefit in something being seen as an icon, in terms of it being kept for the long-term rather than being thrown away? Brady wondered whether the glass buildings that many of us work in today will still be around in 100 years’ time for example. Heath said: ‘They aren’t designed to last that long. Some were built to last 30 years, and then occasionally you have one like the Lloyd’s building, which was always intended to have things added or replaced over time but now it can’t because it’s been Listed.

‘Which begs the question of whether you can have an iconic building that could ultimately become dysfunctional,’ added Lawrence. Brady replied: ‘Old buildings such as chapels have done, but have subsequently been repurposed as housing. So some types of buildings are able to be adapted quite easily, but I’m looking at modern glass buildings and I wonder if one day we’ll have a gap in architectural history where none of these buildings remain.’

The pace of radical thinking
Dowling put forward Frank Pick’s famous London Underground map for discussion: ‘It’s such a clever idea because the distance between Leicester Square and Covent Garden might be 200 yards, whereas between stations further out might be 15 miles. He moved away from doing a geographical map altogether in favour of clarity and simplicity. It was radical thinking, quite different to anything that had gone before it.’

Heath agreed: ‘That’s a clear icon, not least because pretty much every single metro network around the world has based its maps on that idea.’

Soane believes that technology has a big impact on how we view such radical, innovative ideas today compared to those of the past: ‘The problem with technology is that by its own definition, it’s constantly in a state of flux. That’s why we have some qualms about outright naming the iPod as an icon because, like all technology, it is eventually superseded and potentially fails at some point.

‘There’s a famous essay written by Andre Breton in 1936 in which he talks about the “crisis of the object” and that how until the 19th century, no-one would keep a broken teapot or jug. But then the Victorians invented this brilliant thing called nostalgia whereby you held on to objects that had no function anymore purely because they were pretty or reminded you of something. In a way, that’s quite an interesting hinge point where we started the accumulation of stuff.’

Bhuiyan said: ‘I’m not sure an object has to work indefinitely to be considered an icon. For me, every era has its own icons. Perhaps what’s changed is because of the way in which the current generation works and the way technology moves so much faster, is that these iconic ideas come through much more quickly and are more fleeting. Kids don’t necessarily want things that last for a very long time, and nor do we manufacture things in that way.’

‘In a way, it shows that it doesn’t really matter,’ replied Soane. ‘The way that icon status is conferred is really through “curation”, so they become relevant when they’re selected for a museum or whatever. The interesting thing about the hammock suggestion though is that no-one chose it; it’s just a thing that does its job and does it well.’

Changing perspectives
He asked ‘where does consumerism begin?’, pointing out that most of us remember our childhood when we were not so focused on objects. ‘Now of course we’re bombarded with messages, living in an era of connectivity which is perhaps the biggest social experiment in human history.’

Lawrence said: ‘Somewhere along the line it surely will implode. We’ve seen how manufacturing has gone from craft to noncraft and in some ways we’re leaning towards an interest in craft once again as people once again realise the value in such a thing.’

Johannes Aa. Saugbjerg, CEO, VolaJohannes Saugbjerg, CEO, Vola

‘As much as the term “icon” is overused, so too is “craft”,’ suggested Heath. ‘Everything is craft now; it becomes ubiquitous and meaningless once it gets applied to everything indiscriminately. There are furniture brands that talk about craftsmanship but when you go their factories, all the pieces are made by automated machinery and then hand-finished.

‘It’s possibly where the hipster movement has come from, as a way of fighting against the mass-consumerism and being told what to buy or wear, and instead striving for something that is unique to you as an individual. It’s anti-icon in a way, kicking back against the uniformity and the loss of character in the things around us.’

Entering new territory
This engaging discussion was taking place in the central London showroom of Danish tap brand Vola, surrounded by examples of its products which, for many interior architects, could be seen as examples of iconic design themselves. Birthe Tofting, director of international sales for Vola, explained: ‘Certainly there was a point 50 years ago that we redefined how a tap looked and how it worked, and today it is copied very widely.

‘The first tap that Danish designer Arne Jacobsen designed for the brand looked completely different to anything that was already out there. Subsequently, it evolved to also include a version that was a handle and tap spout built in to the wall and this too was unlike anything else on the market.’

The essence of the design remains the same as those original designs, but Tofting added: ‘There have been many technical improvements since. Jacobsen wanted to make the bathroom an aesthetic room and not just a functional one, so in a way it was the very beginning of a new way that we are now used to thinking about the bathroom.’

Jacobsen was a designer whose ‘less is more’ approach often acts as a lesson in how to avoid over-designing a product or a building, just as contemporary figures such as Jasper Morrison or Naoto Fukasawa also achieve. Such designers doubtless did not set out to achieve ‘iconic designs’, merely products with inherent function and beauty. Perhaps getting these core elements right goes to the heart of what makes a potential icon. So inevitably with so many strands of discussion to this mighty title, there was no consensus, and the discussion continued long into the evening. Thank goodness!

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