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What makes a contemporary icon?

11 March 2021

Dombo Mug ©Richard Hutten
The word ‘icon’ is frequently wheeled out and thrown about, like ‘national treasure’ or ‘legend’ for the creator, and ‘celebrated’, ‘successful’ and ‘much loved’ for the product. Icons with their iconic offspring are all around us. As fans of design, we blush in their presence, warmed by their glow. Is iconic status the accumulation of popularity and praise from helping recalibrate standards to a higher level?

“Famous to whom?” Asks Dutch interior stylist and blogger Patrick Kooiman AKA ‘The Interiorator’ when asked about iconic design. “Marcel Wanders knotted chair might be iconic as it is symbolic of the advancements in material technology but only if you’re really, really into design”. Patrick reels off a list of names; John Körmeling’s Sunny Cloud, The Susan Bijl shopping bag, Piet Hein Eek's Waste Table, Maarten Baas Schiphol clock… All known and loved, to the design enthusiast. Some, recognised by a wider public.

Patrick Kooiman 'the interiorator'
© Patrick Kooiman

Iconic design may be part of our cultural landscape, seeping in and out of our consciousness, but what of the commercial world? Do industry entertainment and academic titillation transfer to the high street?

“I find it really hard to think of a contemporary design that is really successful commercially” reflects Patrick, “The Dombo mug by Richard Hutten might be a good example. At least it is iconic in the sense that every Dutchman recognises the design, even if they don’t know the designer.”
Is to succeed at being truly iconoclastic, to put it brutally, really just to be winning a popularity contest, be it commercial, cultural or hopefully, both?  “I guess in this day and age, celebrity, popularity, the number of likes play a role," says Patrick. "Things become a bit easier when you tweak the definition of iconic and turn into something that is highly admired by a group of people' or 'something that sets a new standard".

The ‘something that sets a new standard’ will raise a nod of acknowledgement from industry insiders but ‘admiration from a group of people’? In the wider world? This surely means the messy world of social media. The wow factor. The ‘Instgramability’ of it all.  Are designers considering a wow factor in their work?

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“Yes, definitely," remarks Patrick, "Studio Drift, for example, are very good at that, putting on a drone show for New Year's Eve in Rotterdam, so they know what they are doing, and I guess ‘Instagramability’ if that's a word, is important.
Studio Drift’s work is extremely photogenic, Shylight being the cover star. “I saw at least as many people filming it at the Rijksmuseum as they did filming Rembrandt's Nightwatch", notes Patrick.
It’s OK if you happen to be photogenic, but what happens if your work has ‘more of a face for radio’? How does Instagram square up to a design scene that has arguably gravitated beyond aesthetics to embrace more conceptual and systems based outcomes?

Frederiek Dijkstra, project leader Dutch Design Awards
© Frederiek Dijkstra

“Looking at the Dutch Design Awards archives, with 18 years of the awards, you see a change in that the projects have increasingly become based on impact and relevance questions, and not so much around aesthetics. It’s no longer design for design’s sake” says Frederiek Dijkstra, Project Leader at Dutch Design Awards.
If the output from designers has become more socially charged - less glamourous and more conceptual, is it harder to be iconic? Can an idea, alone, be iconic?
Perhaps, it is in the mannerisms in conceiving and connecting ideas that we might find a clue to unlocking contemporary iconic behaviours? Eccentricity and bravado are two traits that spring to mind.

© Rutger Hollander

“Our international peers always remark upon our sense of humour and the fact that we are not afraid to show it, from simple objects to really large infrastructure, like the Zaligebrug in Nijmegen, for example”, says Frederiek.
The bridge, with its location in a floodplain, makes the bridge partially submerge in the water a few days a year, which was a design consideration. Where else in the world would you find a bridge that deliberately sinks?
When asked about Dutch Design Awards’ roll in the ecosystem of iconic design, Frederiek says, “Does Dutch Design Awards produce icons? I look at Marcel Wanders, Maarten Baas, Studio Drift, they are there, but it's obviously not a Dutch Design Award alone that makes you an icon”. Frederiek continues, “they have something that sparks. We present what could be iconic, design perhaps with an iconic mentality and within that, the potential for monumental status.”

How does one reach the first step on the ladder to monumental status when everything is closed?

“[The awards] being broadcast online, we were able to reach a larger public last year’ explains Frederiek, ‘It was a perfect format to explain what awards are and the meaning of the categories. Service and systems, as a category, are not that easy to understand, but now we had 30 minutes to talk about the category with the nominees and the plans…” (ed. from 2021 onwards Service & Systems will be called Data & Interaction).
So, maybe the photogenic won't get to steal the show. After all, those with a conceptual face can still get in the spotlight. Everything, it seems, is up for re-evaluation at the moment, and perhaps some of the current makeshift ways of working will be here to stay in the future.
At a time when ‘iconic mentality’ levels have probably dropped a bit, what of the zeitgeist and where to next?  “Destructive and sustainable” voices Patrick.
There is something in this tension. Will the world head into a post-pandemic 1920's style party era full of decadence? Surely there is a full itinerary of protecting the planet, to keep us more than occupied? Perhaps we can do both.
Whatever the outcome, tomorrows icons are being shaped today Frederiek notes that whilst graduates from Design Academy Eindhoven continue to shine, those from ArtEZ in Arnhem are also beginning to further shape our future.
Instagram may be a stage, but it is the actors and the script that is most important. For us, as fans of design, we give out the ‘likes’ and write words of praise to those helping recalibrate standards to a higher level. We need our pin-ups, our heroines and heroes. But it is the impact, whether it is emotional or functional, that drives – the spark that we never knew was there before.