An Ode to Icons

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New York in Fifty Design Icons written by Julie Iovine in collaboration with London Design Museum, is a tribute to the icons that sum up the spirit of New York City. Photo courtesy of The Design Museum.

By Allison Nekola

According to Webster, an icon is a person or thing that is revered or idolized. For Design New England’s Icon (one of our favorite departments, which appears in every issue), contributing editor Bruce Irving uncovers the people, places, and things that make New England unique, beautiful, historically important, and/or quirky.

In our September/October 2015 issue, he digs deep into the past, present, and future of Boston’s Haymarket (“There’s Only One Haymarket”), the city’s oldest and most spirited outdoor market, and an undisputed New England Icon.

So when the London Design Museum decided to focus on design icons from New York and London, two cities that are themselves icons of urban living, it caught our attention. The content-packed little books (just 8 inches square) are to be released this October. Here’s a preview.


New York in Fifty Design Icons, written by Julie Iovine and London in Fifty Design Icons, by Deyan Sudjic. From grafitti’ed walls of the Brooklyn Bridge to the original Victorian engineering of the Tower Bridge, each volumes’ concise descriptions give just enough detail to fascinate this reader.

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London in Fifty Design Icons, written by Deyan Sudjic in collaboration with London Design Museum, is a tribute to the icons that sum up the spirit of London. Photo courtesy of The Design Museum.

New York in Fifty Design Icons, Conran, 2015, $20
Julie Iovine, architecture columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former design reporter for The New York Times, joined forces with London’s Design Museum to reveal the city’s visual masterpieces. Jaws will drop as each new photograph is unveiled. Iovine narrates the history of each icon and its importance to the 8.4 million people who have another name for New York City. Home.
For some natives, the Brooklyn Bridge is just another sight outside their window, and they probably don’t consider the ferries that transported people from Manhattan to Brooklyn before the bridge opened in 1883. German immigrant John Augustus Roebling, envisioned the project setting out to build the longest steel-cable suspension bridge ever attempted. When Roebling died, his son Washington took over the construction and added his own ideas such as the open-caissons that allowed workers to dig pilings into bedrock under the East River. Some workers died during construction, others suffered from decompression sickness, known as “the bends” attributed to their work done in deep water. Despite these setbacks, thousands of people came to the opening, and the Brooklyn Bridge was dubbed as one of the “Eight Wonders of the World.”
Though the majority of the icons listed are buildings, museums, or bridges, there are one or two unique selections. The bagel stands out as the most unexpected. While it’s no secret, especially to New Yorkers, that the best bagels in the world come out of the city, they were made even more famous by popular television series such as “Sex and the City” and “Seinfeld.” The first major flux of Eastern European immigrants in the 1880s eventually led to the creation of the first bagel-making machinery in the 1960s and the smell of fresh bagels filled the air at shops like H&H Bagel. Today, diehard dough fans still contend that the only place to get a “real” bagel is NYC.
The most famous of the New York icons is without a doubt, the Empire State Building, even if it lost its title as “tallest building in the world” almost 50 years ago. At 102 stories, it was built within a year after the Wall Street Crash of 1929. In his 1932 Men at Work, photographer Lewis Hine captured the construction workers in life-threatening conditions, working on girders and cranes a whooping 1,250 feet off the ground, but making it look easy. Two years later, a simulated giant gorilla climbed to the top of the skyscraper, in the classic movie “King Kong.” Observation decks on the 86th and 102nd floors invite visitors to grasp the beauty of the iconic skyscraper.
Coming in close second to the Empire State Building is the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade and its giant character balloons. Up to 70 handlers are needed to keep the largest balloons, weighing in at 120 pounds while standing six stories tall, from blowing away before reaching Macy’s home base in Herald Square. The first parade was November 27, 1924, but it took the world by storm after it starred in the 1947 Christmas classic, “Miracle on 34th Street.” Today, more than 3.5 million people stand for hours to catch a glimpse of the balloons, while another 50 million viewers watch on television. For New Yorkers, the real fun comes the night before on 77th street and Columbus Avenue as the enormous figures come to life.
London in Fifty Design Icons, Conran, 2015, $20
Deyan Sudijic became the director of Design Museum London in 2006 after working as a design and architecture critic for the Observer. He is the author of several books, including his most recent work, B is for Bauhaus. Sudijic’s knowledge of London and his talent for writing combine for an entertaining yet informational end product.
One may not look twice at a ubiquitous classic London taxicab cruising along the streets of Trafalgar Square, proof of the staying power of the classic model TX4, which is an exact replica of the Austin FX3, created in the 1950s. Its ability to fit five passengers comfortably has kept the functionality of the taxi alive, while other services such as Uber make it difficult for the London Taxi Company, the originator of the black cabs, to stay alive financially. Still these icons capture the essence of the city, so much so that a case has been made for the English Heritage to give the cabs the same protection other historical properties have received.
London’s history perseveres thanks to the Blue Plaques given to buildings of historical importance. They document the association a building has with notable individuals. A project of the Royal Society of Arts, the earliest plaques date to 1867 and the oldest sign hangs on a house in Covent Garden where an exiled Napoleon III resided until he returned to Paris. The plaques represent importance and greatness of a character, but when sculptor Gavin Turk turned his final show at the Royal College of Art into a whitewashed studio space with only a blue heritage plaque commemorating his own existence, the school was not impressed with his self-flattery and denied him a degree after the spectacle.
Opened in 1946, Heathrow remains the world’s busiest airport. Not only does it generate tens of thousands of jobs, every year 70 million passengers embark on international travel from no fewer than five terminals. It earned the title “first model airport of the jet age,” regardless of its dismal origin as a World War II-era runway built for large military aircraft. Fredrick Gibberd’s original terminal, built in 1956 and a dream for the less fortunate who could only imagine the luxury of air travel, was demolished in 2010. Today the majority of his original design is lost to rushes of expansion and renovations.
Abbey Road is now protected by its English Heritage listing. The once mundane crosswalk is forever marked in history thanks to the cover of the last album recorded by the Beatles. John Kosh, creative director of Apple Records, designed the concept of the cover though the image of the four men began as a sketch drawn by none other than rock legend Paul McCartney. The hot August day was no match for the four-man band, three clad in suits (George Harrison opted for a head to toe denim ensemble), walking in unison across the street. McCartney’s lack of footwear barely turned heads in the summer of 1969.
Great design is always at your fingertips! Read Design New England’s September/October issue online!

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