Design Trends, Ideas + Inspiration

On Our Radar: The Icons

The word icon is defined as a person or thing regarded as a representative symbol of something. It’s not a descriptor that should be used lightly, but has applied to everything from architecture to celebrities to art–and of course, home décor.

But what is it about a modern design piece that takes it from a simple object to a veritable design icon? The ones we’ve chosen below do exactly as the definition says for the modern era. They represent innovation, originality, harmonic form and function, and all the things in between. These works are instantly recognizable and created by some of the most renowned names in design.

From the early mid-century to today, here are some of the most iconic modern design objects that symbolize the best in design.

Saucer Bubble Pendant from George Nelson Bubble Lamps

In 1948, designer George Nelson was searching for a high-quality, spherical light with a silk covering, but everything he found was too expensive. He began thinking about how to design his own durable, reasonably priced lamp that would produce a soft, glowing light. Nelson’s inspiration for what would become the iconic Bubble Lamp collection came from a somewhat random place: he is said to have recalled a photo in The New York Times of the decks of ships being put into storage by covering them with netting and spraying them with self-webbing plastic. Nelson tracked down a manufacturer of the self-webbing spray and tested a plastic-covered light that turned into the Saucer Lamp. It soon became a well-recognized symbol of modern living in the 1950s and remains a classic to this day. Photo: @pheintz

Random Light by Moooi

The pendant light that a million DIYers have tried to replicate. Designed in 1999 by Bertjan Pot, the Random Light became an immediate best-seller when it was released by Moooi in 2002 (and remains so to this day). Looking back, it’s a seemingly simple design. The pendant is made out of resin-soaked yarn randomly wound around an inflatable beach ball. When deflated, the resulting shade is perfectly round and–due to the random placement of the yarn–perfectly one of a kind. The whimsical design story and the resulting fixture–at once voluminous and light, playful and sophisticated–explains the pendant’s enduring popularity.

101 Pendant from Le Klint

The first pleated lampshade was folded by P.V. Jensen-Klint in the early 20th century to fit a paraffin lamp he designed. Eventually, he turned this pleating skill into an official business, which his son, Kaare Klint, helped develop. In 1942, Kaare created the Pendant 101, one of the brand’s bestselling designs, to decorate the Danish Museum of Modern Art. Originally known as “the Lantern,” the light attracted favorable notice on the big screen, including in the 1960 movie Let’s Make Love, starring Marilyn Monroe and Yves Montand. In one scene, Monroe sings the title song wearing a pleated dress that matches the pleats of the lamp seen in the background. Photo: @sfgirlbybay

Saarinen Round Dining Table by Knoll

The Saarinen Round Dining Table from Knoll is an iconic, masterful creation from world-renowned Finnish designer Eero Saarinen. Responsible for the famous Gateway Arch in St. Louis, Missouri, and the Washington Dulles International Airport in Washington D.C., Saarinen created this dining table with the same neo-futuristic vision exemplified in his other works. 

PH Artichoke from Louis Poulsen

A classical masterpiece, the PH Artichoke was first introduced over 40 years ago. Originally designed for the Langelinie Pavillonen restaurant in Copenhagen by Poul Henningsen in 1958, the PH Artichoke still illuminates the restaurant today, symbolizing its modern lighting legacy. The design’s “leaves” produce glowing, glare-free illumination, intentionally concealing the light source in the center, no matter what angle you look at the fixture from. In order to maintain the quality of each PH Artichoke Pendant Light, much of it is constructed and assembled by hand to this day.

Flowerpot VP7 Pendant Light by Verner Panton from &Tradition

The Flowerpot VP7 Pendant Light by &Tradition embraces the open, modern mentality of Copenhagen-based architect and designer Verner Panton. Created in 1968, this lamp became synonymous with the Flower Power movement in the late 60s, and two deep-draw metal shades are matched together with a modern, organic feel that is simple and statement-worthy. 

Bourgie Table Lamp from Kartell

Ferruccio Laviani, a member of the inventive Memphis design movement and known for infusing his work with classical references, reinterpreted the traditional table lamp with the Bourgie Lamp. Laviani playfully decked out the Baroque silhouette in the most modern of materials: polycarbonate plastic. More than half a million Bourgie have been sold since it was launched in 2004 and many prominent designers have put their own stamp on the light, including Philippe Starck for its 10th anniversary. Reflecting its place in popular culture, the name comes from a line in an Ashford & Simpson song: “Everybody wants to be bourgie,” or middle class. It acquired celebrity status in the movie The Devil Wears Prada, when it appeared in the office of Miranda Priestly, played by Meryl Streep.

Eames Lounge Chair with Ottoman from Herman Miller

The Eames Lounge Chair and Ottoman are considered among the most significant and collectible furniture designs of the 20th century. When the set was introduced in 1956, there was nothing else like it. The design was completely new and merged comfort with a clean, yet welcoming aesthetic. Today, the pair remains a true icon of modern design. Built by hand, just as it was originally, the meticulously constructed set includes rich wood veneer shells with supple leather upholstered seating.

Tolomeo Classic Table Lamp from Artemide

Italian designer Michele de Lucchi had long relied on a trusted task lamp, the Naska Lora, but he was determined to create his own for use over his drawing board. Inspired by tension lines used by fisherman to maneuver ropes up and down fishing nets, de Lucchi devised a spring mechanism hidden in a tube and operated by a small cable. There are no screws in the Tolomeo (except for the tie). And de Lucchi was intent on having the head of the lamp, which resembles a conical jar, hide all the engineering so it looked as familiar and common as possible. “The Tolomeo represents the idea of frugal technology that is much needed today,” de Lucchi said. “There is nothing obscure in the object, and that calms.”

Mantis Wall Lamp from DCW éditions

Movement was an intrinsic part of the work from artist, engineer and designer Bernard Schottlander—and such is true for his Mantis lamps. The collection is a tribute to the work of Alexander Calder, the designer known for creating the first mobile and of whom Schottlander was a big fan. The design uses a clever system of counterweights, strong-yet-flexible metal bars and metal-spinning technique that results in the striking sculptural design that seems to float effortlessly in the air.

Twiggy Floor Lamp from Foscarini

When Marc Sadler designed the Twiggy, his aim was “to make something ridiculous,” he says. He envisioned a fisherman holding a rod, with a lamp at the end of it. Working on a model in his home, he created a heavy disc on the floor with a stem rising from it as if it were planted there. It was, he explains, “like a bamboo cane along a river, moving until it finds its position.” Above all, the Twiggy reflected Sadler’s desire to design something simple and easy to understand. An LED version of the Twiggy debuted a year ago.

Type 75 Task Lamp from Anglepoise

One of Britain’s most identifiable designs, the Anglepoise® was created in 1932 by George Carwardine, an engineer who developed automotive suspension systems. He developed a formula for a spring that would remain in position after being moved, setting it apart from previous desk lamps. The Type75™ Anglepoise, by famed British industrial designer Sir Kenneth Grange (known for making the Kodak Instamatic), hews to the clean lines and no-frills functionality of the original while also making it more sophisticated and modern. An inline switch transformed it into a multi-use, multi-room table lamp rather than just a desk lamp, and the intersecting geometric pattern enhances its strong visual identity.

PH 5 Pendant from Louis Poulsen

Created in 1958 by Poul Henningsen, the PH 5 is part of the popular PH series. Henningsen was a stickler for the scientific properties of light and designed the fixture with three reflecting shades—a cone and two smaller shades—to “tame” electrical light and eliminate visual glare. Calling it “the ultimate solution,” he painted two of the smaller shades red and blue to create a warmer tone of light because the human eye is the least sensitive to those colors in the spectrum. The PH 5 is a common wedding gift in Denmark and can be found in about half the homes there. Ranking right up there with the royal family, the PH 5 even had a stint on a postage stamp.

Semi Pendant from Gubi

In 1968, soft forms were leading the design landscape in Denmark during the so-called “cozy era.” Student designers Claus Bonderup and Torsten Thorup sought to create something more crisp, which led them to the confident proportions of their Semi Pendant, derived from the negative space between two circle shapes. The piece won Bonderup and Thorup’s school competition that year, and remains a light, timeless design to this day.

Atollo Table Lamp from Oluce

After its creation in 1977 by Vigo Magistretti, it wasn’t long before the Atollo Table Lamp was awarded Italy’s highest honor in design: The Compasso d’Oro in 1979. Composed of a trio of simple geometric shapes—cylinder, cone and sphere—the Atollo silhouette manages to be both essential and bold. It’s what we expect, and don’t expect from the classic table lamp. Magistretti’s Atollo is an icon of Italian design and can be found in museums around the world.

La Lampe Gras No 205 Table Lamp from DCW éditions

Bernard-Albin Gras was a designer far ahead of his time. He designed the GRAS lamps in 1921, intended for use in industrial environments and office. The lamp was simple, robust and ergonomic, with no screws or welded joints in its form. The GRAS lamps were incredibly original for their time, and won the affection of design pioneer Le Corbusier. Today, Lampe Gras is available in several colors, materials and configurations and fits modern lighting needs as well as it did nearly a century ago.

Arco Floor Lamp from Flos

In 1962, designer Achille Castiglioni was looking for a lamp to hang over his dining table but lacked an electrical outlet. The Arco Floor Lamp, with its long, arched metal stem inspired by curved streetlight designs, was his creative solution. He made the base out of marble from the famous quarries in Carrara, Italy, which gave it stability and substantial heft. Weighing in at 160 pounds, it’s one of the heaviest floor lamps on the market. To enable it to be moved, Castiglioni designed a hole in the base through which one could push a broomstick and carry the lamp with the help of a friend. Today, around 1 in 10 homes in Italy has an Arco lamp.

CH24 Wishbone Chair from Carl Hansen

Hans Wegner’s classic dining chair design, the CH24 Wishbone Chair is a versatile modern dining chair. The solid wood frame, easily identifiable back and paper-cord seat are all there, giving the CH24 Wishbone Chair a timeless modern style.

Nelson Ball Clock from Vitra

With the diversity of materials used and their sculptural shapes, George Nelson’s clocks embody the joie de vivre of the 1950s. To this day, his wall clocks remain a refreshing alternative to the usual timekeepers. 

Aalto Vase from Iittala

Alvar Aalto’s first sketches for his vases were playfully called “Eskimo woman’s leather trousers.” Nature played a great role in Alvar Aalto’s life and creativity. The Aalto Vase – Rain takes a team of seven skilled craftsmen working as one to create and is an icon of modern design.

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