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What makes a design classic?

Throughout history humans have been creating things. In the beginning we did this to survive,  in more recent times we’ve seen the rate of creativity and design increase exponentially with thousands of items being made for a myriad of purposes. Very occasionally someone creates something that we refer to as a ‘classic’ but it doesn’t happen very often. The design process is usually one of evolution where the first version is primitive and subsequent improvements make the item better and more refined. What I’m referring to are those rare cases where someone creates something new, original and special, and gets it perfect first time round.

What invariably happens is that these design classics become the archetype of the genre they represent. They become the ‘Hoover’ of the vacuum cleaners, the one that people instantly recognise,  the archetypal version that ends up defining the whole genre of products they come from.

Here are a few examples of when the designers of products got it right first time and created an iconic design classic & a piece of human history.

Fender Stratocaster

1. The Fender Stratocaster Guitar

In 1954 Leo Fender released the Stratocaster guitar onto the open market in America. The modern design shocked many at the time and it initially received large amounts of criticism from the music industry. The proportions, curves and lines were all completely pleasing to the human eye, it looked like a thing of beauty. When people played it they realised it wasn’t a passing fad, but a serious instrument that seriously rocked! It was versatile, robust, stayed in tune, didn’t feedback, light weight, and was equally at home being used in Country & Western as it was Heavy Metal, although it did take some years for Heavy Metal to be born, when it was the Stratocaster (Strat for short) was there in the hands of the pioneers of this classic music.

The Fender company grew massively on the back of the sales of the Stratocaster and in 1965 the company was sold to the corporate giant CBS. They set about making ‘improvements’ to the guitar very gradually and over the ensuing years it morphed into quite a different being. By the late 70s it was totally different in feel and sound from those early 50s and 60s examples thanks to a forced evolutionary process of ‘improvement’. Fender were struggling to see why famous guitar players of the era like Mark Knophler of Dire Straights, were happy to play a Strat on television, but only old ones.

By the early 80s the Strat was becoming less and less fashionable and sales were dwindling. Then something remarkable happened. Over in Japan a factory started making copies of Fender guitars, the inevitable law suits followed but one thing stood out. The Japanese weren’t making copies of modern Fenders Stratocasters, they were creating very faithful reproductions of the versions from the 1950s and 1960s. The players loved them and before Fender could get their lawyers deployed thousands of Japanese copies were heading onto American and European shores.

It actually worked out well for Fender in the end. They began their own manufacture operation in Japan and were forced to wise up to the fact that what players wanted was the original design with 1954 specifications. Today Fender sell thousands of Stratocasters every year and offer faithful reproductions of the early versions. The guitar remains an icon and part of music history, definitely a design classic!

Fun facts about the Fender Stratocaster

  • Early Stratocasters were painted with automotive paint from the Du Pont Company
  • In the late 60s the guitar was set to be discontinued until it was made popular again by Jimi Hendrix
  • The superiority of the early guitars created demand for ‘vintage instruments’ & by the mid 80s ‘Vintage Guitars’ became it’s own industry
  • Early Strats from the 50s can fetch £10,000s if in original condition.
  • During their unpopular phase Eric Clapton bought ten of them and gave them to friends.


A Staunton Chess Set
A Staunton Chess Set

2. The Staunton Chess Set

This one goes back to 1849 when a champion chess player, Howard Staunton, had become fed up with playing international matches using obscure designs of foreign chess set. He was convinced that using an obscure ornate set was affecting the outcome of the games, often because the players were having to think about which piece was which. He wanted an international standard, a set that everyone could instantly recognise and a set where you could never get the pieces confused with one another. But he also wanted all the pieces to look like they came from the same family, a common ‘look & feel’.

A London based games manufacturer in conjunction with a man called Nathanial Cook created what was to become the perfect chess set. It took it’s design cues from London Architecture of the time and ticked every box that Staunton wanted. Upon seeing the set he immediately endorsed it. It took off and became an instant hit among chess players. What was also remarkable was how the design was such that it could easily be mass produced, something it shares with the Fender Stratocaster.

When most of you think of a chess set the image your brain goes to first will inevitably be the Staunton set. The horse for the knight, the castle for the rook, the bishops mitre, the crowned queen and the king with a cross on his head. Prior to 1849 this design didn’t exist which seems hard to imagine. What was remarkable about the design was how it was beautifully proportioned, each piece was instantly recognizable but they clearly all came from the same set. There was no way you could mistake a pawn for a bishop, or a rook.

Nathaniel Cooks Original Design
Nathaniel Cooks Original Design

Since it’s creation the set has been copied thousands of times, numerous new versions created, some of which really take the design to a new and interesting place. But the blueprint always remains the same and somehow changes to the original design never look quite right. Today the Staunton set is still by far the most popular design, it’s no longer made by the company in London but versions of it remain in use and have become the standard for chess associations and tournaments across the world. The original sets from the 1800s attract high antique values and remain very collectable.

Fun facts about the Staunton Chess Set

  • There is no company called ‘Staunton’ that makes chess sets
  • The original manufacturers of the set are still in business, but they longer make the sets themselves
  • The knights were carved by hand in the 1800s and still are today! all other pieces can be turned on a lathe


The Coca Cola Bottle
The Coca Cola Bottle

3. The Coca Cola bottle

Back in 1915 the Coca Cola Company wanted to re bottle their product and make it distinctive, copycat brands were being set up and they wanted their product to stand out and be unique. They commissioned The Root Glass Company of Terre Haute, Indiana to design a new bottle and they created what’s now referred to as ‘The Contour Bottle”. The original brief for the bottle was “a bottle which a person could recognize even if they felt it in the dark, and so shaped that, even if broken, a person could tell at a glance what it was.”

A Root employee by the name of Earl R. Dean was inspired by the shape of cocoa pod and created a prototype that initially won approval but was too wide in the mid section for easy production and distribution. The bloated mid section was slimmed down and the design that we all know and love today was born. Dean was offered a $500 bonus for his work but turned it down in favor of the offer of a lifetime job at the company.

By 1920 the Coca Cola company had adopted the new bottle design as it’s main vessel for their dark, sweet drink.

Deans Original Design
Deans Original Design

Fun Facts about the Coca Cola bottle

  • The patent for the bottle was filed on December 25th, it was nicknamed “The Christmas Bottle”
  • In 1944 the Coke bottle was the subject of a landmark legal case after one exploded
  • The bottle designers wanted to base the initial design on a coca leaf or a kola nut, but couldn’t find pictures of either

Today the Coca Cola bottle is one of the most universally recognized items on earth.





Design ClassicsOne striking thing all three of these items have in common is their shape. To a certain extent they all feature the lines and curves of the human form. Could it be that one of the reasons we are naturally drawn to these iconic products is their similarity to our own natural image?


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