written by:
December 17, 2009
Originally published in The Future

Marcel Breuer’s Wassily chair, the Eames lounge chair, George Nelson’s Ball clock, and Giancarlo Mattioli’s Nesso lamp are just a few of the prodigious products that one might claim are timeless. While thousands of the objects we produce each year fall into obscurity without so much as an adieu, a select handful manages to survive and flourish with the march of time. The reasons for this are largely indecipherable—–popularity, technological advances, sales, usefulness, beauty, and whimsy, to name a possible few. The only true measure of timelessness is time itself. We asked four design minds to stake their bets on a design from the past decade that will hold up to tomorrow.

velib bicycle jcdecaux landscape

Rob Forbes on the Vélib’ Bicycle by JCDecaux

Rob Forbes is best known as the founder of Design Within Reach, which he started in 1999. He left the company in 2007 to create Studio Forbes, which concerns itself with issues of design, culture, and commerce. Studio Forbes recently launched Public, a company focused on alternatives to the car.

“If you travel a lot and pay attention to changes in the urban landscape, there is one obvious addition to almost every truly modern city: the bicycle. While bicycles have been present in some form on our streets since their invention, credit the French Vélib’ program for their popular resurgence. The Parisian Vélib’ will be the reference point for smart urban transportation in the 21st century and stands as an icon of timeless design today.

“There are currently 20,000 of these bikes on the streets of Paris—–and another 3,000 in the suburbs. You can ride them for a little over a dollar a day, and ridership is estimated at about 78,000 trips per day. Now that’s a real solution for traffic, pollution, mobility, health, community, efficiency, and fun.

“Maybe what I like most about the Vélib’ is that it is humble. Many have tired of modern design that serves the wealthy few. Here is a common object repurposed to serve an entire urban population. Many design icons of the past—–like the paperclip, the Aalto stool, the Eichler house, and the Golden Gate Bridge—–are all very democratic in intent and share this humility.” 

Andrew Blauvelt on the iPod by Apple

ipod apple

Andrew Blauvelt is design director of the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota. In addition to producing all of the museum’s collateral, including catalogs and exhibition graphics, Blauvelt also curates design-based exhibitions, such as the recent Worlds Away: New Suburban Landscapes.

“I’m not sure I believe in ‘timeless’ design. Design is certainly ‘timely’ in the sense that it is a product of its technological, social, and cultural context. In this way, objects can be responsive to their times, even antici-pate the near future, but they do not telegraph their immortality. I do believe that we can have iconic designs as well as objects that have been essentially perfected in their form and function over the course of many years. From the past decade, the first decade of this millennium, it is increasingly difficult to find something that you think will last forever, and maybe that’s the most defining characteristic of this new century: constant evolution and technological change.

“In this spirit, I chose Apple’s iPod. Building upon the Sony Walkman (1979) introduced more than 20 years earlier, the iPod is an archetypal object, defining a new genre of portable digital-music players. The iPod—–from its classic mechanical scroll wheel to the streamlined and downsized Nano and Shuffle players to the iPod Touch—–epitomizes the kind of relentless product evolution and technological obsolescence that characterizes industrial design in the digital age. A true object of desire since its introduction in 2001, the iPod captures the idea of ‘aspirational design’ perfectly, something that Apple does so well—–the ability to show the public something new it might not even know it needed or wanted, instead of simply mirroring the known tastes and expectations of the public back to itself.

The iPod is a 21st-century classic to me because it is an object whose success is also supported by a business innovation, the iTunes Store. The iPod is a portable device tethered to the digital network: It allows us to be both isolated and connected.”

Philip Wood on the Link Lamp by Peter Stathis

link lamp peter stathis

Philip Wood is the founder of CITIZEN:Citizen, a company that thrives and even preys on the boundaries of commercialism, cultural commentary, art, and design.

“Peter Stathis’s latest lighting project, the Link lamp, is his most concise to date, and I think it’s destined to become a classic. Link, which is greater than the sum of its considered, minimal, and pared-down parts, is a contemporary rethink of an iconic form. Not only does it offer us a simple tautology on function and form, but, in the process, it has aided the development and implementation of cutting-edge, custom technology while setting a new industry benchmark for cradle-to-cradle design.

“Performance and simplicity are its expression, yet it never loses any of the playfulness that characterizes task lights. The ubiquitous wires, cables, springs, and balances that allow the cantilever to perform in an industrial age are deftly swept away by Stathis’s experienced design sensibility and replaced by an elegant armature that articulates the form, is a conduit for
the power, and brings us safely to land in the 21st century. Link is an example of design at its best.” 

Birgit Lohmann on the Vegetal Chair by Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec

vegetal chair ronan bouroullec

Birgit Lohmann is the cofounder and editor-in-chief of popular online destination Designboom. As a designer and consultant, she has collaborated with a pantheon of Italian designers, including Achille Castiglioni, Renzo Piano, Enzo Mari, and Bruno Munari.

“I believe the Vegetal chair, by French designers Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec in collaboration with Vitra, will be a timeless icon. It is a chair for indoors and outdoors whose contours seem borrowed from nature. It features asymmetrical branch structures woven in three levels to form a slightly irregular seating shell.

“The original idea came from historic garden chairs of English origin, structured in boughs of cast iron, and from chairs ‘grown’ with actual trees in the U.S. during the first half of the last century. The guiding question for the Bouroullecs was how to construct a mass-produced plastic chair that would most closely approximate the idea of a naturally grown chair.

“As the brothers note in an essay about the making of Vegetal, plastic chairs usually fall within two distinct groups: Either the shell is fixed to the base (or legs), or the entire chair is molded in a single piece. For Vegetal, the seating shell is cast together with only the front legs; the back legs have been kept separate. (They are glued to the structure later.) Calculating the dividing line of the two parts without creating a ridge was a difficult process. Another important stage in the devel-opment process was transforming the branch shapes of the seating shell, circular at the outset, into a T-section. This solution gives better structural and ergonomic qualities while at the same time meeting the demands of injection fluidity. Flat on the upper surface and textured on the under-side, the chair is stabilized by the ribs that grow out of the supportive legs.

“The complexity of this design posed several questions of industrial feasibility—–in fact, this chair has been redesigned a thousand times, and development went on for four years. It finally went into production in 2009.”

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