Art & Design Interiors & Design

Iconic Items: 5 Classics that Have Shaped Modern Design

From architecture to accessories, homeware to technology, great design can change how we experience life—here, we round up five items that do just that

Le Corbusier believed that design is “intelligence made visible”—although the very smartest designs are those we rarely stop to think about. Stylish, yes, but so well made that they seamlessly elevate our everyday lives. So, this selection, curated by Editor of Christie’s International Real Estate magazine Steven Short, offers a moment to appreciate these often-unsung heroes. Read on for iconic items that have withstood the test of time, as well as those that have been pivotal in raising the bar of modern design.

1. The Bubble Chair

Designer Eero Aarnio seated in the iconic design of his bubble chair
Designer Eero Aarnio in his Bubble Chair—said to be his favorite piece—in 1968, around the time of its creation, with the original silver cushions. Image: Eero Aarnio Originals

The Bubble Chair wasn’t originally meant to hang from the ceiling. Its designer, Eero Aarnio, originally wanted to produce a completely transparent chair but couldn’t find a way of making a clear base that satisfied him. “There is no nice way to make a clear pedestal,” he observed at the time, so he decided the chair needed to be suspended by a chain instead.

In a 2016 interview with The Irish Times, the Finnish innovator said that the iconic design of the Bubble’s seat came from his childhood, when he would lie in his pram on the balcony of his family’s Helsinki flat and see the blue sky above captured in a circle. Although, there are also reports that when he was a child, the designer used to love blowing soap bubbles and watching them float away into the sky.

Like many classic designs, the chair has been much imitated, and many variations remain on sale today, though authorized Bubble Chairs can only be found at

2. A String of Pearls

beautiful white pearl beads on a velvet gray and pink fabric with pleats
Pearls have been worn since ancient times, with the earliest piece of pearl jewelry discovered in the sarcophagus of a Persian princess dating back to 520 BC. Image: Getty Images

Coco Chanel believed that a woman needed “ropes and ropes” of them, while Jackie O declared that they were “always appropriate.” They, of course, are pearls—perfectly round, opalescent and worn as a continuous string around the neck. These prized spheres are produced in the mantle (soft tissue) of oysters; wild natural pearls are the rarest and most desirable, but most contemporary jewelry is produced using cultured or farmed pearls from pearl oysters, and sometimes freshwater mussels.

The momme—approximately 0.13 ounces (3.75 g)—is a measure invented by the Japanese to weigh pearls, and it remains the standard unit used by dealers. While most necklaces are referred to by their physical measurement, pearls are named by how low they hang when worn. A collar traditionally measures 10 to 13 inches (25 to 33 cm) and sits against the throat; a matinee is 20 to 24 inches (50 to 60 cm) and falls to the chest; and an opera length, at 28 to 35 inches (70 to 90 cm), will reach the wearer’s sternum. Any string of pearls that hangs lower than an opera is called a pearl rope.

3. The Flatiron Building

A view of the Flatiron building down 5th Avenue
The Flatiron Building’s triangular design is as practical as it is iconic, allowing it to fill a wedge-shaped lot located at the intersection of Fifth Avenue and Broadway. Image: Getty Images

New York City’s Flatiron Building, originally named the Fuller Building, was never the tallest structure in Manhattan, but it has always been one of the most photogenic.

The steel-framed, 22-story landmark, which opened at 175 Fifth Avenue in 1902, now stands 285 feet (87 m) tall—the top floor wasn’t added until three years later. Designed as a vertical Renaissance palazzo by Chicago architect Daniel Burnham, the Flatiron originally featured water-powered elevators and a tavern in its basement. One thing it did not have when it opened, however, was women’s restrooms—these came later, when management introduced them on alternate floors, where they remain today.

For a while, the building was referred to as “Burnham’s Folly” because its detractors doubted it would be stable enough to survive. It has proved them wrong, and 120 years later it is one of the most loved, and photographed, landmarks in the city.

4. The Teapot

An antique silver teapot and milk jug on a black background
In 2015, a silver teapot marked Paul Revere Jr., Boston, 1783, realized $233,000 at Christie’s New York.

Long before the existence of glossy, coffee-table tomes, Chinese writer Lu Yu graced the world with the monograph Ch’a Ching or The Classic of Tea. Published around 780AD, the book celebrated the beverage, widely drunk in China at the time, which for its writer, “symbolized the harmony and mysterious unity of the universe.”

The tea that he eulogized would most likely have been boiled in a cauldron and served in bowls, but that cauldron was the forerunner of the iconic teapot as we know it today—a design that dates to the Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368). As the wider world developed a taste for tea and exotic luxury goods from the East, porcelain pots were shipped from Asia to Europe along with tea leaves.

Mass production of porcelain teapots in the West began in the early 17th century in France and Germany, while in colonial America, silversmiths began making versions that—as the above image shows—are ultra-collectible today.

5. The Apple iMac G3

Five brightly colored iMac G3s
The G3 was designed by Danny Coster, with input from Jonathan Ive, who would later change the world with the iPod, iPad, and iPhone. Image: Getty Images

You can have any color—so long as it’s lime, strawberry, blueberry, grape, or tangerine—might have been the marketing slogan for Apple’s iMac G3. The toylike computer was the first consumer-facing Apple product to debut under the recently returned Steve Jobs in 1998, and was key in turning around the then-ailing fortunes of the California-based behemoth.

The now iconic G3, originally available only in Bondi Blue before the launch of other eye-catching design options, was controversial for removing the floppy disc drive, which had been present in all Macintosh models since 1984, and replacing it with now-ubiquitous USB ports. The Mac was easier to set up than many personal computers—as Jeff Goldblum explained in the advert of the time, plug in the iMac, plug in a phone line, and that’s it, “There’s no step three!” It was also ultra “transportable”, thanks to an inbuilt handle.

Banner image: Getty Images