The incredible stories behind five cult classic designs

Game-changing kitchen appliances, fashion and furniture.
Noguchi Table

This is article is sponsored by Omega.

Cult designer items earned their cult status due to their fusion of timeless style and practicality. We take a closer look at five of modern design’s greatest feats.

1. Hermès Birkin Bag

In 2016 it was announced a Hermès Birkin bag was officially a better investment than gold, the bags having seen a 500 per cent rise in value over the last 35 years.

The coveted carryall was originally designed for English actress and chanteuse Jane Birkin. The story goes; Birkin had a chance encounter with the Chief Executive of Hermès on a flight and mentioned she found the Kelly — another Hermès bag that Grace Kelly famously carried throughout her marriage to Prince Rainier III of Monaco — too small and rigid for everyday life. Soon after, the Hermès Birkin was created.

The iconic and capacious shape of the Birkin has made it one of the most recognisable handbag designs. Each bag takes a single artisan up to 48 hours to craft. While the bag wasn’t an instant hit, it has since become a cult classic of celebrities (Victoria Beckham is said to own more than 100 iterations).

Looking to buy in? A Hermès Birkin bag will set you back anywhere between $17,000 and $300,000.

Jane Birkin (left) and Gwyneth Paltrow carrying a Birkin in film ‘The Royal Tenenbaums‘.

2. OMEGA Speedmaster

Introduced in 1957, the OMEGA Speedmaster was originally designed as a high-precision sports and racing timer.

The watch’s initial design (the CK2915 Speedmaster) by Claude Baillod included an engraved tachymeter scale on its bezel, a feature OMEGA coined the ‘Tacho-Productometer’. This design feat freed up face space and made the timepiece more legible than other watches; the engraving traditionally located on the perimeter of the dial. This, combined with other innovative features (it featured the first 12-hour totalizer to be included on a chronograph) earnt it a reputation as a highly capable watch. The model was known as the ‘Broad Arrow’ due to the shape of its hands and remains in as high demand today as the first model of the Speedmaster series.

Superseded in 1959 by the 2998, the reworked Speedmaster included a larger face and new sword-like hands. While only on the market for a short period, the 2998 sparked OMEGA’s abiding relationship with NASA, the brand now intrinsically linked with the burgeoning age of space exploration. Astronaut Wally Schirra wore the timepiece in 1962 aboard the Sigma 7 during his nine-hour, six-orbit Mercury-Atlas mission. The watches were not flight-qualified, yet performed perfectly.

In 1962, OMEGA unveiled the new-gen 105.002 Speedmaster. It was selected and tested by NASA in preparation for its first moon mission, competing alongside models manufactured by other well-known watch brands. After arduous testing, the OMEGA 105.002 was the only gadget to survive. OMEGA went on to develop its 105.012 in 1966, in preparation for the first moon landing.

Both Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were issued a model by OMEGA prior to their 1969 mission, however Armstrong was forced to leave his in the command module due to a failed electronic timer, making Aldrin’s watch the first to be worn on the moon.

Four months after Apollo 11 reached the moon in 1969, OMEGA held a special ‘Astronaut Appreciation Dinner’ in Houston, Texas, where the gold Speedmaster BA145.022 was presented to NASA’s astronauts. Only 1014 of these models were produced between 1969 and 1973, and they remain hugely sought-after by collectors.

This year the Speedmaster celebrates 50 years since its moon landing. To mark the occasion, the brand has released a commemorative Speedmaster limited to 1014 pieces and driven by the manual-winding OMEGA Master Chronometer Calibre 3861.

Crafted with 18-carat Moonshine™ gold, the watch has an inner decorative caseback ring that features a partial world map of the American continent and a domed lunar meteorite inlay that represents the true proportions of the Earth and the moon.

Wally Schirra wears his Speedmaster on a pre-flight watchband in 1968 (left) and the Omega Speedmaster Moonwatch Apollo 11 50th Anniversary Moonshine.

3. Alessi 9093 kettle

Italian kitchenware brand Alessi is known for its playful take on everyday household items, transforming tabletop necessities such as salt and pepper grinders into objects d’art.

One of the brand’s most iconic designs, the Alessi 9093 kettle, has sold more than 1.5 million units since its release in 1985. Designed by Princeton architecture lecturer Michael Graves, the stainless-steel kettle fuses influences from Art Deco, Pop Art and cartoon, featuring a colourful handle, embossed chrome body and ‘singing bird’ fixture that sits at the end of its whistle.

Graves’ design was a revised take on the Alessi 9091 designed by Richard Sapper (the man behind the Tizio desk lamp) and released two years earlier in 1985. The 9091 took inspiration from the Art Deco period and featured a simple polished dome body and chunky copper-based handle. Though its most striking element – the heavy brass spout whistle – made this design distinguishable.

The 9093, however, continues to find popularity despite the introduction of newer, easier-to-use kettles. The recognisable silhouette received a facelift for its 20th anniversary, which has resulted in a new herald: the mythical tea dragon.

Alessi 9091 by Richard Sapper (left) and the Alessi 9093 by Michael Graves.

4. Burberry trench

While both Burberry and Aquascutum lay claim to inventing the trench coat worn by officers in WWI the design was, in truth, an updated take on a waterproof coat invented in the 1820s by Scottish scientist Charles Macintosh and British inventor Thomas Hancock.

English draper Thomas Burberry founded his company in 1856 in Castleford. Two decades later, the brand released its ‘gabardine’ fabric. Made by waterproofing individual cotton strands and wool fibres, the textile was the most breathable yet and found popularity among explorers and adventurers.

Burberry and Aquascutum adapted the ‘Mac’ for military use and due to their high cost, were reserved for the upper classes. The name was derived from the war trenches and specifically designed to keep officers protected from the elements while in combat, each feature designed with a specific function. Pleats were designed for ease of movement while running or on horseback, and epaulettes (ornamental shoulder pieces) were added to display officer ranks.

Today the trench coat is continually revisited by designers worldwide, yet Burberry’s considered design process ensures it remains a choice producer. Today, coats remain manufactured at the Castleford factory where brand standards remain intricately upheld: 127 processors are followed in the creation of one coat and it takes a year for each specialist tailor to learn the stitching of the Burberry trench collar. Realised in vivid colourways, bold patterns and branded script, the Burberry trench has become a fashion classic for both women and men.

Print advertisement for Burberry’s Service Outrigs (left) and Duchess Meghan in a Burberry trench in October 2018.

5. Noguchi table

Released by Herman Miller in 1947, the Noguchi coffee table was designed by Japanese-American artist Isamu Noguchi. An influential sculptor, Noguchi channelled his interest of the surreal into his works, creating organic, physics-defying pieces; the Noguchi table perhaps his best-known design. However, despite its popularity today, the Noguchi table almost never came to be.

Originally designed in 1939 as a commission from the president of MoMA, the Noguchi table featured a glass top and was balanced on three legs. After brief commercial interest in the design, Noguchi was asked to pitch to British architect T. H. Robsjohn-Gibbings. Never hearing back from the client, Noguchi resumed other projects.

In 1941, during WWII, President Roosevelt ordered all Japanese-Americans living on the West Coast to relocate to internment camps. As a Japanese-American living on the East Coast Nogushi was exempt, yet the artist wanted to help those interned and decided to try and improve the living conditions of the camps. Noguchi volunteered to go inside the camp and was invited to stay, with officials promising he’d receive perks such as art supplies and private living quarters.

After his requests for living improvements were ignored and art materials never sent, Noguchi felt discouraged. One day looking through a magazine (one perk Noguchi did receive), the sculptor saw an ad for a similar table to the one he’d pitched to Robsjohn-Gibbings. Noguchi wrote to Robsjohn-Gibbings asking for compensation but Robsjohn-Gibbings refused to credit him.

After his initial requests to leave were ignored, Noguchi was finally granted release in November of 1942. Returning to New York with a strong desire to show-up Robsjohn Gibbings, he began working on a series of biomorphic sculptures which became some of his most iconic works. In 1947, Noguchi presented his Noguchi table — which had undergone small tweaks since its first design in 1939 — to the Herman Miller furniture company. Released the next year, the table was an instant hit and remains one of interior design’s greatest success stories.

Isamu Noguchi in his New York studio in 194 (left) and the Noguchi table at MoMa.

Brought to you by Omega

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