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That's Classic

Coke is. So are Barbie and the VW Bug. But what about "The Simpsons," mountain bikes and rap music? Only time will truly distinguish the fads from the icons.

March 24, 1998|ROBERT STRAUSS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Several years ago, in the wake of a consumer backlash against its new drink formula, Coca-Cola's wise men renamed its established product Classic Coke.

The move was a study in redundancy, for Coke, whether or not one loves the taste of the drink or the company's corporate stance, is one of the classic consumer products of our age. It is popular, unique and ubiquitous. Say "Coke" and people know its feel, its taste, its style.

The same word, "classic," can easily be applied to other products, past and present. Barbie Dolls and Big Macs; Slinkys and VW Beetles; Underwood typewriters and Boeing 727s.

But what might be the classic products of the next century? What is new on the market today, or maybe in the offing, that will resonate, say, in 2020?? Indeed, can classics even exist in our continually upgrading-for-the-sake-of-it culture?

The first problem to solve is to determine what characteristics a classic product has to have.

"How old does a classic have to be? Does there have to be some nostalgia present? Should classics appeal to a lot of people?" asks Jim Adams, a Stanford engineering professor who teaches a graduate course called "Good Products, Bad Products" which forces would-be designers to think about such things.

"I think a classic has to be elegant and good. People should have appreciated it even when it was hatched," Adams says. "I guess it also has to be successful [commercially]. And there has to be some nostalgia attached too. People remember their VW Bugs reverentially."

Adams' office at Stanford is chockablock with classic detritus. Next to a Tonka Toy steam shovel on one shelf, for instance, is a standard wooden ax handle. ("I had a sophomore products-design class try to improve on the ax handle, and they couldn't," he says. "So is that a classic or just an optimum use?") A colonial "Don't Tread on Me" flag hangs from a rafter, while an old Italian racing bike with thick tires hangs from another--which prompts an idea from the professor.

"A relatively new product that should become a classic is the mountain bike," he says. "They are utilitarian and yet stylish. They are just innovative enough to be different and yet have a kind of retro or nostalgic appeal. College students love them, so they will probably remember them fondly when they are middle-aged."

David Kelley, CEO of Ideo Inc., an innovative Silicon Valley design firm, nominates thePalmPilot, a hand-held minicomputer, known generically as a personal digital assistant, as a possible future classic consumer product, but with a caveat.

"The electronics will probably make this year's version obsolete in a year or two," Kelley says. "The question, of course, is whether any particular brand will last. Certainly categories of things will become classics: personal digital assistants and mountain bikes are two examples."

Martin Smith, chairman of the product design department at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, says that sometimes it helps to refer to classics of the past in forecasting classics of the future.

"It's easy to see the Coke bottle and say that the Evian bottle, for instance, may well be a classic in the same sense. We tried to apply the same thinking to the Snapple bottle, but that fell short," Smith says. "In the past, the Ray-Ban sunglasses were classics. Now it would be Oakleys. Particularly on athletes. It was very interesting to see the speed skaters in Nagano, no matter what country, wearing Oakleys."

Smith also posits the idea of a once-and-future classic. He thinks the Big Wheels kids bicycles, which once ruled sidewalks everywhere, will be making a comeback.

"They created a market that wasn't there before," says Smith. "And I think that will happen again soon."

Folks of the 1990s have become consumers of "classic" rock 'n' roll on oldies radio stations and "classic" television shows on "Nick at Nite." Though the most popular television show of the '90s has been "Seinfeld," it is more likely that "The Simpsons" will someday be looked upon as the touchstone of current TV shows.

The reason? "The Simpsons" is both innovative and cross-cultural. It is one of the few animated shows that has been successful in prime time, and it continues to stay fresh well into its dotage. In its ninth season, it is still the No. 1-rated prime-time show among that hardest-to-reach group--teenage boys and young men, thus assuring it a long, nostalgic lifetime. "Seinfeld" was never all that popular among minority viewers, but "The Simpsons" has been.

Food styles seem to change in a heartbeat, so classics tend to have short lives. The ones that have become classics in the past--Big Macs, for instance--seem to serve a culinary, but also a cultural and leisure, need.

Jesse Ziff Cool, author of "Breakfast in Bed" (HarperCollins), believes the next trend with staying power will be so-called wraps, which grew out of the Mexican burrito and Middle Eastern falafel traditions.

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