Defining a Classic

A1965 Mustang. A pair of Levi’s. A little black dress and pearls. Each is a classic, an essential element of history and style. Each has mystique, an indefinable aura of being “right.”

The American Heritage Dictionary defines the word classic as “Belonging to the highest rank…Serving as the established model or standard…Having lasting significance or worth, enduring…recognized as definitive in its field.” Likewise, it defines the word mystique as “An aura of heightened value, interest or meaning surrounding something to which special power or mystery is imputed.”

Both definitions imply a sense of height, power and increased importance, but neither explains the essential element that creates it: excellence.

Classic doesn’t happen on demand. Time and effort must be spent on the details, not the hype. Some of the best movies ever made had shoestring budgets and a cast of unknowns, while would-be blockbusters flopped. The Mustang, the blue jeans and the little black dress all achieved definitive status not because their creators set out with grandiose plans to create a classic, but because they focused on good design in each detail of form and function, resulting in an object that was right for its time and the culture that embraced it.

Lee Iacocca didn’t tell the engineers at Ford to design a collectors’ car, he told them to create a car that Americans would love to drive. Levi Strauss did not design a cultural icon, he made a pair of pants to withstand the rigors of gold mining. American youth made them a fashion statement after World War II. Coco Chanel changed the concept of the black dress from mourning to modern in 1926, and single-strand pearls have been worn since Medieval times. Together, they are the always-elegant solution to any female sartorial dilemma.

Good design transcends popular taste, but it doesn’t happen in a vacuum. When the design of an object is both excellent in form and relevant to the audience, classic happens.