Exemplified by Lars Dybdahl
Words: Daniel S. Bahrami
Photos: Christoffer Wiklöw
They come in all shapes and sizes – pop cultural, design, historical, monumental and many others. Almost every industry has an iconic element that defines it, and creates something that will forever cement its presence in history and represent a certain zeitgeist. But what exactly defines an icon and what does it take to reach the coveted iconic status? We sat down with Lars Dybdahl, Head of Library and Research at Design Museum Denmark, and asked him to help us shed some light on the making of an icon. The word icon is the translation of the Greek word for image, and was first used in the 4th century within a religious context as symbolic representation of deities. Since then, the word itself has become self-descriptive and used by many to depict, illustrate or define that one el-ement, that has the necessary x-factor to stand the test of time and stand out in a homogenized world, by being innovative and problem solving, according to Lars Dybdahl. He explains that overall there are two different types of icons.
“First there are the icons that don’t reach iconic status until later in time. Either they get a revival much later in time, like you see with the classic porcelain dinner sets, where the primary function of the item hasn’t changed with time, but with a remarkably recognizable design. Two other examples are the Danish Margrethe bowls and the American Tupperware. Both didn’t get their iconic status until many years later, but they came out in the 50’s when the plastic industry really started to boom and both are representations of that. Timing was a key element, as it was also around this time the refrigerator became affordable for the average household, which gave the Tupperware an extra functionality. Furthermore, Tupperware is a brand name and has become a generic trademark representing all plastic containers, even though they aren’t the Tupperware brand, thus cementing their status as an icon. Both examples are also victims of plagiarism, which is a crucial factor affecting iconic items and people. The other icon is the instant icon, that almost reaches iconic status as soon as it is released. Pop cultural instant icons include the Spice Girls, who were manufactured as a group to cater to all girls, no matter if they were tom boys or fashionistas, providing them instant success. A more recent example is the iPhone, or smartphone in general, which used the advanced technology of mobile phones and exploited our newfound desire of being able to access the internet 24/7. This led to an instant success and was a mile-stone in mobile technology forc-ing all other competitors to stop producing old school phones and start focusing on the new era. Instant icons are the ones that form the get-go cater to a desire that we hadn’t realized we had – while also adding an element of surprise.”
The story of a typewriter
The two different types of icons also differ in the way they are created. Whereas the classic icons are created with time often looking back at a specific social or political situation, instant icons are characterized by the intentionality behind their iconic status, a great example being the brand giant, Apple. Some of the strongest designs, however, were not created because of their functionality but because of their soft qualities. Lars Dybdahl uses a specific brand of typewriters as an example of this.
“Designed by Ettore Sottsass, The Olivetti Valentine typewriter is an excellent example of a classic icon that today is considered a collector’s item. Designed in the playful 1960s pop artera, with bright colors used to prove that design played just as big a role as functionality for some icons. The Valentine was on the same level as other typewriters on the market at the same time, but was expensive to produce and ended up being an economic failure. Still, it was included in MoMA’s permanent design collection only two years after it was released. The critical success was indeed a result of the emotional context behind the typewriter – with the name derived from Saint Valentine, this typewriter was manufactured not for the busy working bees of global corporations, but rather the freespirited poets, who wished to wander up the mountains with the typewriter to write love letters to their beau.
Although available in a different array of bright colors, the most successful one was always the lipstick red, which was the color of love.” Although the functionality of a typewriter was very useful in the 1960s, most would agree that more advanced products have since taken over. Yet, this design classic still sells for an average of $500 online, proving its successful reign as a timeless icon. When asked what is the most iconic piece of clothing in his opinion, Lars Dybdahl’s reply brings us back to the importance of timing.
“1906 was the year Burberry debuted their now famous trench coat, which has become a staple in fashion design history. It was functional as it protected against wind and rain, but it was light and flowy at the same time. The coat is very reminiscent of an army look, and this was around the time that militaries shifted into more khaki-colored uniforms, rather than the traditional dark, earth toned colors. Even though this was 30 years after the first trench coat was designed, it was the timing, fabric and colors of the Burberry model, which has allowed it to be perceived as the icon of trench coats, and has since been produced with little to no alterations from the original trench coat, and is still widely popular and considered nostalgic. A classic piece of garment, that will always be en vogue and the true definition of something iconic. ”The Burberry trench coat is an excellent example of an icon that crosses geographical borders, and according to Lars Dybdahl something cannot reach iconic status if it hasn’t been accepted by the collective opinion of a society or culture. Whereas some are globally accepted, icons limited to certain demographics do also exist, like countries where cer-tain food is considered iconic in their society or certain celebrities who are worshipped at an iconic level.
human as icons
Timing is also an important factor when it comes to iconizing human beings, as well as being a public figure that a large group of people can idolize.
An artist like Madonna is considered a music icon after being in the industry for almost 40 years, and although she is not selling albums like she used to, she is still iconic in the way that she aided in the evolution of the music and fashion industries of the 80’s and 90s, with her distinct sound still being recognized by the artists of today. Another example is Beyoncé, whose fan base has an almost cult-like behavior, acting as a group in worshipping their queen, and also ingeniously naming themselves the bey-hive (a clever alteration of beehive). They are all joining together in their greater purpose to idolize their Queen Bey (bee), in the same matter, as you would see amongst religious people when worshipping their respective gods in the early centuries. This is a prime example of an icon being established by a collective opinion of a certain subculture in the world. Lars Dybdahl also illustrates how David Bow-ie and certain supermodels can be considered good examples of icons.
“Although they are of flesh and blood, supermodels are worshipped and objectified for their looks. To reach iconic supermodel status, you must both fit into what is sought after and desired at that certain time, and stand out in a crowd of thousands of others like you, who also try to make it big. Kate Moss came out in a time when it was the general collective opinion among fashion executives that they were looking for more frail looking models, which she became the icon for. A model like Naomi Campbell became an instant success because of her attitude and recognizable runway walk, which immediately caught the attention of fashionistas all over the world. One model surfaced and fit the current zeitgeist, and the other appeared and wowed the world with her uniqueness, but both examples of supermodels that to this day are still considered icons in their industry. Likewise, David Bowie appeared in the 1970s and embodied glam rock and certain subcultures that were rising at the time, and he was perceived as a symbol of the movements happening amongst the youth. His over-the-top make up and especially his playfulness with the androgynous look and gender fluidness was a reflection of the time, which propelled him to instant icon status, just as much for his appearance and attitude as for his music. A status that has only been strengthened after his death.”
DEATH BECOMES THEM
When speaking of David Bowie, we were curious to find out more about how big of a role death plays in helping attain icon status. Often celebrities, authors and athletes achieve incredible success after their, often way too early, demise.
“If a person who is on their way to become an icon suffers a tragic death, we often see that their icon status exponentially increases. Often it is people who had a lot of charisma while being alive, but also with a very dark and tragic story. We see it in artists like Kurt Cobain, who spearheaded the grunge movement, and tragically committed suicide by shooting himself. We see it in Jimi Hendrix, who was an extremely talented guitarist, but battled substance abuse. We see it in Tupac Shakur, a talented poetic rapper who was shot in what is assumed to be a gang related shooting and more recently we saw it in Amy Winehouse, whose dark soul created the most poetic lyrics, but her body eventually caved to the rough and addictive lifestyle she led. All are individuals with a certain aesthetic and dramatic life that made it very interesting for people to iconify them. To a lesser extent, the same examples can be found in other industries as well.”
THE LONGEVITY OF AN ICON
While some icons just strengthen their status with time, others fail to keep their momentum, while some industries never have any iconic examples. Lars Dybdahl explains, that although household items like the paper-clip, used by millions of people on a daily basis, it’s still a product that we shouldn’t expect to see becoming an icon anytime soon. Although still considered an icon, the Coca Cola bottle is an example of an item, which has changed over time. Still being recognized as an all-time classic design item, the mass production of the much cheaper Coca Cola can has taken over the consumer market, leading us to see the iconic curvy bottle less and less. Lars Dybdahl explains that it doesn’t take away from what importance the bottle has had in design history, but it does change how we perceive it a bit, since it’s no longer always a staple in our everyday life. Even after having expert Lars Dybdahl clarifying the concept of an icon for us, we still have one burning question in mind; WHY do we have the need to iconize items and people?
“It’s a sociological way of thinking for human beings. It’s a crucial part of our identity and understanding of who we are. It’s a way for us to measure and assess ourselves, and the authenticity and value of the icon is dependent on it awakening some sort of feeling inside of us. Icons gives us an identity and make us feel like a part of the group, which again dates back to the origin of the word icon, and the religious context from which it arose. As human beings, this is a need for us – to anchor ourselves both socially and culturally.”