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Classic Design

  Classic design is a 20th-century term for objects which have stood the tests of time and critical approval. Although the phrase was not used in the 19th century, its sense was implied nonetheless—it was, so to speak, a design version of the principle of survival of the fittest. As a theory of design it was explored by those adherents of modernism who invested key examples of industrial production with qualities they described as ‘classic’. To qualify as classic, an object has somehow to step outside issues of taste and style, and to retain its value and integrity. Le Corbusier, for example, selected the Thonet bentwood chair: its design, he said, had ‘qualities’ of ‘relevance and permanence’.

More recently, the idea of classic design has come to reflect less ideological principles than issues of marketing and fashion. During the 1970s the concept of classic was exploited by furniture companies which identified a reproduction market for the work of famous 20th-century designers, including Gerrit Reitveld and Marcel Breuer. In the 1980s the word classic became a powerful marketing tool and shopping malls, department stores and high streets saw a proliferation of shops selling classic design, including objects ranging from lighting to toothbrushes.

Although the phrase ‘classic design’ and the value-judgement implied are a vital part of our late-20th-century consumer outlook, they are in the end no more than hype. The attitude to (certain aspects of) the past which they reveal is interesting; the concept of ‘classic’ design itself is less so. CMcD



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