Some designs are smart. Some designs are beautiful. Some designs are instantly ingrained in our lives. It’s the rare design that combines all three qualities. Some date back to the late 1800s; others just came on the scene in the past few years. But no matter how long they’ve been around, these buildings, objects, and other designs have had a massive impact on the daily lives of people around the world.
These products and projects demonstrate ingenuity as well as an eye for beauty and function. Some are the first of their kind, while others took existing concepts and made them better and more accessible to the masses. They’ve fought off competitors and knockoffs and have come to define our built environment. From designs created by household names such as Jony Ive, Eero Saarinen, Isamu Noguchi, and James Dyson to products whose creators remained in the background, these items make life easier, solve problems, and push the boundaries of what we believe to be possible in the fields of architecture, technology, and industrial and graphic design. And most important, they show how one idea has the potential to permanently change the way we live in the world.
A true original doesn’t come along every day. But once it arrives, it’s hard to imagine going back to a life without it.
Launched in 2007, the iPhone not only changed the cell phone industry, it also changed the way we take photos, drive our cars, and meet potential mates. The groundbreaking design put a computer in every pocket and started an entire industry of app developers. The iPhone has gotten better—and sometimes bigger—with each new iteration, adding features including facial recognition, augmented reality, and an HDR camera. The iconic, much-imitated design is the brainchild of Apple’s chief design officer, Jony Ive, who has led the company’s design team since 1996.
2. Victorinox Swiss Army Knife
Karl Elsener’s Swiss Officer’s and Sports Knife, better known as the Victorinox Swiss Army Knife, was introduced in 1897. The multi-tool design became popular in the U.S. after World War II, when soldiers brought them home from abroad, and in 1968, the popular red object was added to the collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. NASA first purchased 50 of the knives in 1978 and they’ve been a staple of space missions ever since. Today, the designs balance the original functionality with new technology such as LED lights, altimeters, and timers, and are just as handy as they were over 120 years ago.
Can a font be called beloved? It can if it’s Helvetica. The typeface so famous it had a documentary made about it was first developed in 1957 by Swiss designers Max Miedinger and Edouard Hoffman and later rebranded as Helvetica by the Haas Type Foundry. The clean and versatile typeface is used everywhere from the logos of American Airlines, Nestlé, and Comme des Garçons to the New York City subway. Earlier this year, type company Monotype gave the font an update for the 21st century (and the era’s smartphones and high-resolution screens and printers).
4. The High Line
The former train tracks on the West Side of Manhattan could have easily been torn down to make room for new development, but instead, a nonprofit community group, Friends of the High Line, turned the stretch of railway into a glorious public space. James Corner Field Operations, Diller Scofidio + Renfro, and Piet Oudolf collaborated on the 1.45-mile greenway, the first section of which opened in 2006. The High Line features over 500 species of plants and trees as well as spaces for public art and performances. The High Line’s influence goes beyond Manhattan—it has inspired similar redevelopment projects in cities across the country and around the world.
5. Thonet Chair
The ubiquitous Thonet Chair, found in cafés across the globe, is the result of an important innovation in furniture making. Michael Thonet developed a process of bending and laminating layers of wood veneer that allowed bentwood furniture to be made simply and inexpensively. His No. 14 chair, introduced in 1859, was made up of six wooden components (plus 10 screws and two nuts) and could be put together by the customer—an early example of flat-packed furniture. Thonet was a major influence on mass production of furniture and introduced an iconic design that has never gone out of style.
6. Toyota Prius
The idea of a hybrid vehicle had been around since the late 19th century, but Toyota finally took the idea from prototype to production with the introduction of the Prius in 1997. The gas-electric hybrid hit the American market in 2000 and celebrities such as Leonardo DiCaprio and Cameron Diaz became early adopters of the vehicles. Priuses boast impressive fuel economy and decreased CO2 emissions; in 2012, Toyota introduced a plug-in model, the Prius Prime. The success of the Prius helped pave the way for other hybrid and electric vehicles and made it cool to be environmentally conscious.
7. Dyson Vacuum
James Dyson turned a household device into a design object with the introduction of his cyclonic vacuum cleaner. The inventor spent years developing a bagless vacuum that wouldn’t lose suction or become clogged and made sure that the look of the product was as impressive as the technology it used. This dual focus allowed the vacuum to take a share of a previously impenetrable market and has informed the company’s subsequent products including the Airblade hand dryer and the Air Multiplier, a bladeless fan. Models of the Dyson vacuum are included in the permanent collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, MoMA, Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, and the Design Museum in London.
8. Aeron Office Chair
If you’ve worked in an office at some point in the past few decades, the odds are good that you’ve sat on an Aeron chair. Designed by Bill Stumpf and Don Chadwick for Herman Miller, this ubiquitous office chair was unveiled to the public in 1994 and quickly became a staple of businesses, particularly Silicon Valley start-ups during the dot-com bubble. The ergonomic chair’s mesh-fabric seat and back replaced the usual upholstered foam cushions of office chairs, and gave the design its now-iconic look, which landed it in the permanent collection of MoMA. The Aeron was redesigned in 2016 to improve performance and make the product more environmentally sustainable.
9. Saarinen Table
One of the most recognizable furniture designs of the 20th century is Eero Saarinen’s pedestal or “tulip” table for Knoll. The table, part of a collection that was released in 1958, features a curvilinear base that reduced the clutter of legs. (Saarinen described the area beneath tables and chairs as an “ugly, confusing, unrestful world.”) The simple, elegant design still resonates today, and, like any icon, has been widely copied.
10. Empire State Building
The Empire State Building was not the first skyscraper, but it can be argued that it has had the most impact of the early towers. The 102-story building designed by Shreve, Lamb & Harmon opened in 1931, the victor in the city’s skyscraper race, and was built in just one year and 45 days, thanks in part to a team-design process that involved the architect, owners, engineers, and builders. The Empire State Building held the title of the world’s tallest building for 40 years, until the completion of the World Trade Center. It has become a symbol of the city and the United States, and its efficient collaborative design process continues to influence the way buildings are constructed.
11. Post-it Notes
A design doesn’t need to be complicated to be innovative. Just look at Post-it Notes. The brightly colored sticky notes were the brainchild of Art Fry, an employee of 3M, who was in need of a better bookmark for his church hymnal. Spencer Silver, a research scientist at the company, had developed a removable adhesive in 1968 that had yet to be utilized. Fry applied the adhesive to paper and Post-it Notes were introduced in 1980. Fry created a product that’s simple to use, instantly identifiable, and extremely functional—all marks of a great design.
12. Paper Church
Architect Shigeru Ban’s Paper Church was a prime example of green design, as well as an innovative approach to disaster relief. The church was built in five weeks in 1995 by 160 volunteers to replace the house of worship that had been destroyed in the Kobe earthquake. Constructed of 58 paper tubes and corrugated polycarbonate sheeting, the Paper Church has an elliptical design that nods to the work of Italian architect Bernini. The church was dismantled in 2005 and donated to a city in Taiwan.
13. Polaroid Camera
Before Instagram and digital cameras, Polaroid gave people instant photographic gratification. Polaroid founder Edwin H. Land introduced the Polaroid Land camera in 1948, and it quickly became a hit with consumers. Art-world luminaries such as Andy Warhol, Ansel Adams, and Robert Mapplethorpe also took to the cameras, exploring the possibilities of instant film. When the company announced that it would stop producing the film in 2008, a group known as the Impossible Project (now called Polaroid Originals) stepped in to keep the analog products alive.
14. Amager Bakke Plant
Copenhagen’s Amager Bakke, also known as Copenhill, offers a new vision for the future of industrial buildings. The Bjarke Ingels Group–designed waste-to-energy plant doubles as a public attraction with a ski slope, hiking trails, a climbing wall, a restaurant, and an après-ski bar, and is a bold step toward Copenhagen’s goal of becoming the world’s first carbon-neutral city by 2025. The plant treats 400,000 tons of waste each year and can provide electricity to 550,000 people and heating to 140,000 households. The building is both eco- and community-friendly, giving residents outdoor adventures and cleaner energy.
15. Akari Light
With his Akari light, Isamu Noguchi created a modern icon rooted in tradition. The designs were inspired by the lanterns illuminating night fishing boats on the Nagara River in Japan. The sculptor began creating the paper and bamboo lights in 1951 after a trip to the town of Gifu, which is known for its production of paper lanterns and parasols. He designed more than 100 models, including pendant lights, table lamps, and floor lamps. The lights are still made by the family-run Ozeki workshop in Gifu and remain a go-to for interior designers.
16. Amazon Kindle
The Amazon Kindle, introduced in 2007, allowed consumers to carry an entire library in a device smaller than most books. The first release sold out in five and a half hours and remained out of stock for months. The Kindle boosted the sales of e-books and created a new market for self-published e-books, allowing authors to sidestep the traditional publishing industry and the high cost of self-publishing analog books. After over 10 years on the market, the Kindle has overcome competitors and changed the way we read.
Financial services and payment processing and design don’t normally go together, or at least they didn’t before Square. Founded in 2009 by Twitter cofounder Jack Dorsey and Jim McKelvey, Square gave small businesses the ability to accept credit card payments—something that had previously been out of reach for many—though a small white square-shaped card reader connected through the headphone jack of a phone, tablet, or laptop. Since then the company has expanded to include chip readers, payment terminals, and registers, and their payment processors have become a frequent sight everywhere from the farmers market to Blue Bottle Coffee.
In 2011, Apple unveiled the iPhone 4 and gave users their own personal assistant, Siri. Just by calling her name, users could have Siri search the internet, send a text, turn up the thermostat, solve math problems—and much more. The feature was developed by SRI International, a research lab in Menlo Park, California, and was eventually added to Apple’s other products, including MacBooks, Apple watches, and HomePods. Siri became a part of users’ everyday routines and offered a glimpse into the future of living with artificial intelligence.
Pedometers were big in Japan in the 1960s, but the craze never made it to America—that is, until 2007, when James Park and Eric Friedman ignited the activity tracker craze with Fitbit. The wearable devices got people moving in hopes of reaching the exalted 10,000 steps. The company has sold 96 million devices and has more than 27 million active users across the globe. Fitbit has expanded to include other types of tracking including heart rate, sleep, and female health.
The Nest Learning Thermostat warmed consumers up to the idea of a smart home and the Internet of Things. The thermostat, which launched in 2011, learns the user’s temperature preferences, can adjust itself to save energy and money, and can be controlled via WiFi. Founders Tony Fadell and Matt Rogers, both Apple alums, eventually added smoke and carbon monoxide detectors, security cameras, doorbells, and locks to the lineup. Nest was purchased by Google in 2014 and is now known as Google Nest.
The hourglass-shaped coffee maker that pour-over fans still swear by was invented by Dr. Peter Schlumbohm in 1941. Schlumbohm, who developed over 300 patents, was inspired by glass labware and Bauhaus design. The wood collar, which is held together with a rawhide tie, allows the pot to be held while the coffee is hot. Today the simple design is still sought after and is featured in the permanent collections of MoMA, the Brooklyn Museum, and the Corning Museum of Glass.
22. Bic Cristal Ballpoint Pen
In 1938, László Biró invented a ballpoint pen that would free writers from the hassles of fountain pens. But it was Marcel Bich who brought the pen to America and to the masses with the Bic Cristal. Bich, along with his partner Édouard Buffard, bought a writing instruments factory in 1944, then bought Biró’s patent and set out to improve the design. In 1950, the Bic Cristal, with its clear hexagonal barrel, was introduced, offering consumers an inexpensive, disposable writing utensil. As of 2005, more than 100 billion Bic Cristals had been sold, and the design is in the permanent collection of MoMA and Paris’s Musée National D’Art Moderne.
23. S’well Water Bottle
As plastic water bottles became a common convenience, they also became a scourge on the environment. In 2010, entrepreneur Sarah Kauss took on the problem by creating an attractive reusable water bottle. Her solution, the S’well bottle, combines a fashionable design with practical features, such as triple-walled insulation and BPA-free materials, and has become a familiar sight everywhere from gyms to office cubicles. The company is committed to reducing the number of single-use plastic water bottles consumed by 100 million by the year 2020.
24. Hope Poster
During the 2008 election, a poster by Los Angeles–based graphic designer and street artist Shepard Fairey become a cultural phenomenon. The poster featured a blue, red, and beige image of Barack Obama with a simple, yet impactful tagline: HOPE. Fairey did an initial print run of 750 (with the tagline PROGRESS); by the end of the campaign he and Yosi Sergant, a publicist who connected Fairey with the Obama campaign, had printed and distributed 300,000 OBAMA HOPE and OBAMA CHANGE posters. A version of OBAMA HOPE was acquired by the Smithsonian Institute for the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.
25. Poäng Chair
One of the most popular and enduring pieces from Swedish furniture company IKEA is the Poäng chair. Designed in 1976 by Japanese designer Noboru Nakamura, the chair features a bentwood frame with a cantilevered seat. The chair got a slight makeover in 1992, when some parts were changed from steel to wood and the design’s width was reduced, which allowed the chair to be flat-packed and therefore more affordable. Ikea sells approximately 1.5 million Poängs each year; as of 2016, when the design celebrated its 40th anniversary, IKEA had sold 30 million. The company’s most famous chair helped democratize design, bringing modern style to the masses.
Originally Appeared on Architectural Digest