That's Classic

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.

"Flat bread is global, much the same way American, but particularly Californian, culture has become, and California often predicts these food trends," Cool says. "Wraps from flat bread can be Thai or Mexican or Ethiopian or Israeli. The fillings can come from anywhere, and people of all ethnic groups can eat them on the run or at leisure." Then again, even Cool admits that one man's wrap is another's good old burrito.

As personal computer use becomes almost universal, people may well be looking for software that will be both utilitarian and elegant.

Nicholas Petreley, of InfoWorld magazine, posits that Lifestreams, a prototype developed by Yale professor David Gelernter, may just be the classic-to-be in software. Lifestreams replaces the usual files and folders with Windows and the like and uses a chronological stream of the user's work. Your newly created document will pop up after the e-mail you read last night, which will be right after the program you downloaded yesterday afternoon.

It is, as Petreley notes, "a seemingly endless diary of all that you create, modify, send or receive while using the computer."

In the realm of sports, the classic of the future may well be the snowboard, invented a generation ago but only recently an icon of hip sports. The snowboard's lines are elegant, its use is defined, and it is on the road to becoming an international standard--a future classic?

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There are other products that may stand a chance, but most seem to fall short right now in one way or another.

The miniature computer toy Tamagotchi will have to stay around for a while longer to prove itself more than just a fad. The compact disc appears on its way to becoming a classic, but the recording industry may find digital tape to be the future standard. Rap music has thrived a lot longer than most had predicted, but it still hasn't made enough inroads among older listeners. The minivan and the sports utility vehicle seem to be in a runoff for early 21st century domination, but until one fades, the other cannot be promoted to classic-dom.

In the end, sadly, the coming era may well be one without the classic designs earlier eras cherished.

"Everyone who comes to us wants new technology. You have a tape measure, and people want to enhance it with electronics," says Kelley. "In essence, it is ruining classics. Instead of having a good fundamental product, manufacturers don't want the same thing over and over. It's the reason why the design business is booming.

"We're now being asked to continue the Swiss army knife tradition too. You know, a Swiss army knife is a bad set of tweezers, a bad knife, a bad can opener and a bad scissors, but you have them all together, so people think that is good," he explains.

"It's like people want a refrigerator with water in the door and a stereo messaging system so, I don't know, they have a freezer with cold water and a home security alarm, even if it's silly.

"This may be the Anti-Classic Period," says Kelley. "Barbie--eternal Barbie, I guess--may be the last one to live forever."

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