The definition of the icon, and what justifies an image as iconic, posits a question which has both driven and inspired artists, portraitists, architects, innovators, and figures of power and influence for millennia. From the original classical icons to the age of mass media, the internet, and the most potent symbols of modern times, icons provide an evocative visual concept, via which the identity of a culture might be revealed. The notion of the iconic is one which shifts across eras, and yet one which remains, in certain senses, static and unmoving. Nonetheless, it continues to fascinate, intrigue, and provide the utmost goal for creatives to this day.


The word ‘icon’ is derived from the Ancient Greek eikenei, meaning ‘to seem to resemble’, and the classical world provided us with, arguably, the first iconic images to be widely distributed across civilisations. Over the centuries, both the word itself and its definition has shifted considerably, stretching from Byzantine paintings to the symbols we find on the screens of the latest smartphones.

Through the prism of 20th century art, the nature of the icon was imagined anew, with figures such as Mondrian and Rothko creating iconic images which defined a century of progression. Warhol later successfully redefined the icon, utilising repetition, familiarity, and instantly identifiable images, which took on new meaning within the context of his exhibitions and the ubiquity his work provided.

Modern philosophy, too, played a role in the defining of icons in contemporary life. Roland Barthes, the French writer and semiologist, presented an enduring idea of iconography in the mid 20th century, inferring the idea that an icon must not only closely resemble whatever it is signifying, but it must also be impactively recognisable, and symbolic of something greater than the sum of its parts. Barthes identified various icons of French identity, which ranged from recipes to fashion, and from habits to design, encouraging us to recognise the iconic as a part of everyday life and as a mirror via which we see the world and ourselves.

Detail of Piet Mondrian’s painting Composition De Lignes Et Couleur: III, 1937.
Photo: credit ©2020Mondrian/Holtzman Trust.
Close-up of a typewriter with Helvetica letters. Photo: ©Matthias Kretschmann, Getty Images.

To design something truly and enduringly iconic is, without a shadow of a doubt, the utmost aim for the majority of creatives. However, knowing what will capture the public’s imagination, and ignite both consumer and industry passions, is something notoriously difficult to predict. In fact, many 20th century icons struggled at first to achieve their lofty status, and indeed fell, often disastrously so, at the first hurdle. The Helvetica font, a mastery of Swiss design, was roundly rejected and ignored at its first emergence in the early decades of the last century. However, as the landscape of design shifted around it, and its Bauhaus-inspired minimalism found an eager new audience, it went on to become the most iconic 20th century font, and a hugely influential design classic in its own right.

There are many who would convincingly argue that, in order for a design to gain iconic status, dividing opinion and facing opposition is an essential component for success. The Bauhaus is a potent example of this, as the interiors and architectural idioms of this most icon-creating school were often reviled by conservative art lovers. The same was true of Frank Lloyd Wright’s monumental New York Guggenheim, which faced enormous opposition, often by those who later went on to recognise the iconic impact that only the most innovative approaches wield..

Conversely, however, there are those iconic designs which seem to appear fully-formed, instantly sparking their impact and shaping industries around them. The Vitra Chair, released to the world via a MoMA competition in 1950, would be a clear example of this. Optimistic, forward-thinking, utilitarian, and stylish, it represented the idealism of a post-war America, keen to combine innovation with home comforts, and even keener to mould a mid 20th century aesthetic of pioneering creativity.


When seeking out the most compelling aspects of the creation of iconography, the impact that architecture provides is impossible to overlook. Truly iconic buildings don’t merely offer a snapshot of design idioms of their time, they outlive much of what surrounds them, and go on to act as enduring symbols of whole industries, cities, or even nations. Through architecture, we see living proof of history, how that history has been protected and preserved, and the creation of a visual future which will one day represent today for generations to come.

Frank Gehry claimed that great architecture should ‘speak of time and place, but yearn for timelessness’. To achieve this, a certain number of rules were laid out, ascertaining what might assist a building in becoming an icon of time and place. These included the building requiring an instantly recognisable silhouette, an ability to express a challenge to its context, make honest use of materials, and possess a poetic significance that takes on symbolic importance. Evidence of such notions can be seen in those buildings which have become truly synonymous with the cities which house them, such as the Petronas Towers of Kuala Lumpur, the Guggenheim of Bilbao, and London’s Shard.

In the internet age and in an era of accessible world travel, our exposure to potential iconic designs, and to iconic architecture in situ, is broader and more dazzling than ever before. It is fascinating, therefore, that the number of buildings and designs which manage to become definitively iconic hasn’t risen accordingly, with only a precious and significant few ever attaining that accolade. In many ways, this speaks volumes of the impact and importance of the iconic, and how its power has, in these times, been strengthened rather than diluted. No matter how far our civilisations reach, and no matter what wonders they create, the iconic, as a status, remains the utmost echelon of excellence.

The Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. Photo: ©cavallapazza, Istock.
La Prairie’s Skin Caviar Liquid Lift.

La Prairie’s Skin Caviar Collection, created more than 30 years ago, is the epitome of audacity. It was this audacity that saw the emergence of an icon – Skin Caviar Liquid Lift in 2012. La Prairie’s first gravity-defying serum, Skin Caviar Liquid Lift was conceived as a tribute to the iconic caviar beads of the Skin Caviar Collection. Now, in 2020, La Prairie reimagines Skin Caviar Liquid Lift, merging the house’s two most potent and advanced caviar ingredients, Caviar Premier and Caviar Absolute, for the first time in one unequalled serum.