What Doesn’t Make an Icon

Posted inID Mag

Why some designs remain in production while others disappear

In 1970, MoMA released The Design Collection: Selected Objects, a slim, spiral-bound omnibus of works the Architecture and Design department had acquired since the collection’s beginnings in 1934. The book is a jumble of Art Nouveau oddities, enduring forms, and precursors to modern classics. (Gunnar Aagaard Andersen’s 1964 urethane foam armchair, dubbed a "curious brown anti-object" by then-director Arthur Drexler, bears a surprising similarity to Jerszy Seymour’s Scum collection.) But sprinkled throughout are a handful of smart, directional, now forgotten objects that, if picked up by high-end retailers or knocked off by Ikea today, would surely become top sellers.

In one entry, the celebrated orange mushroom-shaped Nesso lamp by Artemide sits atop a clear acrylic cocktail table whose bent legs appear to have been peeled from its top. The book identifies the table’s designer as Neal Small, who in the 1960s created a handful of quirky but functional Lucite pieces. Small removed himself from the design scene in the early ’70s, choosing instead to focus on sculpture and move to Maine, where he still resides in what he calls "semi-retirement." But what about designers who are still in the game? What is it that keeps some lauded pieces in the public eye—and often in production—while others disappear? The caliber of a design, it turns out, is almost never the reason; there are far more freak twists of fate.

Murray Moss ticks off some of the "pedestrian and arbitrary" explanations for certain products’ lack of market presence: "There’s a Tord Boontje Swarovski chandelier we don’t sell because it never got UL approval and the manufacturer wants every buyer to sign a waiver," he says. "There was a Moooi carbon-fiber chair pulled from production because everyone was using carbon fiber at the time, and there wasn’t enough material to go around. And at Moss, you won’t find much made in Japan, for purely selfish reasons: I don’t speak the language there, I haven’t set up a shipping network, and I don’t like the food."

Having a single patron at the helm is what allows The Conran Shop the same luxury of keeping products alive for eccentric reasons. "Terence’s favorite chair is called Karuselli," says Emmanuel Plat, vice president of Conran’s New York store. Conceived in 1964 by the Finnish designer Yrjo Kukkapuro, the leather and fiberglass piece is based on the imprint of the designer’s own body engulfed in snow. "It’s in museums, and it gives us credibility. But the chair is quite large, and at almost $6,000, it’s a dog commercially," Plat admits. At the same time, the shop is mindful of the practical concerns involved with most reissues: "Some stuff comes back because it’s fairly easy to reproduce or a big manufacturer has a lot of money and is going to buy a mold," Plat says. "There are things we’d love to see again but the risk is too high to say, ‘I’m going to invest in a $200,000 mold and it will sell like crazy.’ What if it doesn’t?"

That’s the question that haunts Gregg VanderKooi, Herman Miller’s product manager for classics.

Herman Miller certainly does its part to revive erstwhile icons; in 2006, the company relaunched George Nelson’s 1958 Swag furniture collection on curvy steel legs. The group’s favored status with VanderKooi may have hastened its return to the market, but a reissue can mostly be credited to how easy it was to update the pieces for modern use: A grommet through which cords can be threaded was embedded in the corner of each desk, and the chair was cast in environmentally friendly polypropylene rather than the original fiberglass.

Nelson’s 1963 chrome-rimmed Sling sofa, which also makes an appearance in the MoMA book, hasn’t fared as well. "We discontinued it more than 10 years ago because the manufacturer of one of the main parts—the sling—went out of business," VanderKooi says. But surely, in an age of rapid prototyping, there might be another way to source the part? "The sofa had a low volume potential, not enough to justify the tooling costs," he explains. "We have to ask ourselves questions like, ‘Will it enhance the Herman Miller brand and generate enough press that we won’t mind if it just breaks even? Is it a favorite of what I call ‘classics fanatics,’ an informal focus group we have of the really dedicated retailers and designers? How long would the development time be? Are the costs of the material skyrocketing, and would it be too financially volatile to reintroduce? How many knockoffs are already out there?"

Ah, knockoffs: the great conundrum. Some claim they are the ultimate homage, a tribute to a piece’s iconic status. But in many cases, prolific copycatting can overshadow the significance of an original design. "To an extent, these designs are seen as almost generic," says Daniel Sachs, CEO of Proventus, the Swedish company that in 1992 took ownership of the Finnish manufacturer Artek. He’s referring to classic Alvar Aalto pieces that have served as the basis for best-selling items at Ikea, from the Poang armchair to the Frosta stool. "A lot of people recognize Aalto pieces without realizing where they come from. People have seen them for so long, they become a part of our common cultural heritage, but it’s very important to respect the way they were originally produced."

Indeed, the quality of original bentwood pieces by the likes of Aalto, Bruno Mathsson, and Charles Eames is impossible to reproduce; with vintage versions of those Eames pieces still fetching outrageous prices at auction, though, the antiques market could eventually make all of these concerns moot and encourage more manufacturers to venture into revivals. A living, eloquent designer can help speed the process. "I’m here, I’m visible, I’m accessible, I’m having fun, and the press likes me," reports Vladimir Kagan, age 80, who has spent the past decade reviving 50 years of past projects. "One of my 1950s Serpentine sofas brought $192,000 at a Christie’s auction," he says, "and now I’m making new ones that go for $1,699 at Room & Board."

Nonagenarian Jens Risom finds himself in a similar situation. In 1941, the Danish-born designer became the first non-staffer to design for Knoll, and in recent years, the company has revived his amoeba-shaped tables and webbed chairs, making Risom eager for more reincarnations. "I watch my pieces sell well on eBay, and in some cases it’s something I did as a special order 50 years ago and can barely remember," he says. "I know a lot of those things would sell again if they were made at a reasonable price, if I could find a manufacturer who would be enthusiastic and promote it right." Then again, maybe Risom shouldn’t start pounding the pavement just yet. In this industry, as Kagan puts it, "No amount of careful planning can replace dumb luck."

Rima Suqi is a freelance writer in New York City.