What’s the most iconic piece of 21st-century design? It depends on who you ask. We surveyed some of the most influential creative thinkers and designers to get their take on what will stand the test of time and came up with intriguingly disparate answers—from Instagram to the Tesla Model 3. Despite their surface-level differences, we’re betting that each of these buildings, objects and technologies created since the dawn of the new millennium has the potential to become a design icon.
Its name—“vertical forest” in Italian—says it all. A model for both sustainability and biodiversity, Stefano Boeri’s 2014 project features 800 trees, 15,000 plants and 4,500 shrubs growing on the terraces of two residential towers in the center of Milan. Crunch the numbers and that’s 215,000 square feet of forest—a leafy, green testament to nature’s ability to coexist with a bustling metropolis.
“These two towers represent the will to reintroduce nature into everyday life. The impact of walking in Milan and finding yourself in front of an actual forest—which climbs from the street all the way up to the sky—envelops you with a sense of peace and wonder. Its colors and scents are so unexpected in an urban context. In an age like ours, where the exploitation of natural resources has greatly increased, it marks a real turning point.”
Monique Zappalà, creative director, Bentley and Bugatti Home
Tesla Model 3
Designed by Franzvon Holzhausen, the Model 3, which made its debut in 2017, quickly became the electric car of choice for many, a feat due in no small part to the superb handling and battery range it had at launch. Its 2019 update integrates Tesla’s autopilot as a standard feature, cementing the model as the all-time best-selling plug-in electric car in the US.
“The Tesla Model 3 is the first affordable, enjoyable and truly sexy electric vehicle. Reading about the car is one thing. Driving it is another. All who do immediately walk away saying, ‘This is the future.’ Unlike the super-fast but heavy Model S, the Model 3 handles like a dream, with responsiveness and performance characteristics similar to the BMW 3 Series. We can contemplate a future of emissions-free driving as Tesla develops solar roof panels for home charging. This technology will be especially transformative when it evolves from personal cars to urban fleet vehicles like taxis, buses and trucks.”
Vishaan Chakrabarti, founder of Practice for Architecture and Urbanism
National Museum of African American History and Culture
A museum dedicated to African American life and culture had been talked about in D.C. for decades, but it wasn’t until 2016 that one opened its doors. Working on a site smack in the middle of the National Mall, architect David Adjaye designed the building to stand out among the marble monuments: Its imposing exterior is of bronze-colored aluminum lattice—an homage to African American metalwork and craftsmanship—and architectural elements such as a front porch nod to the African diaspora.
“The museum will stand the test of time. Its architecture is inspired by the past and includes traditional West African influences but built from modern materials—such as bronzed, lightweight aluminum—which are completely different from other museums in D.C. It’s a unique monument and memorial to diversity, and bridges our past with the present.”
David Yurman, co-founder and CEO, David Yurman
Originally developed for military purposes in the 19th century—its earliest incarnation was a series of pilotless hot-air balloons that the Austrians used to bomb Venice—the modern drone, or unmanned aerial vehicle, has since become a mainstay of contemporary warfare and has been cleared for commercial use, with the first license granted in 2006. Now it has applications for everything from filmmaking and photography to home security and package delivery.
“Because of its purpose and aerodynamic design, it’s without a doubt here to stay. It will definitely be marked as one of the most influential objects of the 21st century.”
James de Givenchy, Taffin Jewelry
In 2010, Instagram was a plucky four-person startup—its first post an unassuming snap by co-founder Kevin Systrom of a dog in Mexico. Now the photo-sharing platform averages 500 million users per day and boasts one of the most engaged communities of any social network. Not one to miss out on all the Insta-worthy fun, Facebook acquired the brand in 2012 for $1 billion.
“Instagram is something I look at every day. It’s a way to connect to our guests no matter where they are or what time zone they’re in, but it’s also a place for discovery. It’s the things that have nothing to do with food that fascinate me the most: I’ll look at a video of nail art and observe the techniques they use to create such intricate details, or watch ceramicists carve designs into clay. Even reading about technologies—like 3-D printing and thermoformers—can later be applied to pastry. It’s endless.”
Dominique Ansel, chef/owner of Dominique Ansel Bakery & Kitchen
Sony Wena Wrist Pro
A wristband that makes any timepiece an Apple Watch of sorts, Wena Wrist Pro (“wear electronics naturally”) is a stainless-steel “smart” bracelet that, according to manufacturer Sony, attaches to 90 percent of watch heads. The smart element is discreetly housed in the clasp and can receive text-message notifications, track exercise activity and make wireless payments with a tap of the wrist. It debuted in Japan in 2015 and was released this year in the UK.
“It’s a remarkably simple concept and allows the owner to add health and payment functions to a timeless, stainless-steel watch [design]. It was originally a crowdfunding project—very 21st century. I voted with my wallet and have the strap mated to a 2008 Breitling Emergency.”
Tim Heywood, yacht designer
The National Memorial for Peace and Justice
A sobering monument dedicated to African Americans who have been victims of racial terror—whether by slavery, lynching, segregation or police brutality—the memorial was conceived by human-rights lawyer Bryan Stevenson’s Equal Justice Initiative and designed by MASS Design Group. Completed just last year in Montgomery, Alabama, the memorial features a haunting centerpiece: 800 rusting steel columns—each representing a US county where a lynching took place—suspended from the ceiling and engraved with the names of more than 4,000 victims. Even more shocking: The surrounding fields hold hundreds more columns waiting for counties to claim them—and own up to their part in American racial injustice.
“The memorial has a terrible beauty. It has this tonal match between program, structure and site that’s not easy to achieve—it retains austere and forthright qualities, with a shift from lightness in the landscape to rhythmic heaviness as you get closer to it.”
Thomas Woltz, landscape architect
The structure, which resembles a gleaming white rib cage, houses the World Trade Center’s transportation hub and the Westfield shopping center. Designed by Spanish-born architect Santiago Calatrava and completed in 2016, it cost a staggering $3.9 billion to build. Its sculptural columns are meticulously aligned to let light into the space, and every year on September 11, weather permitting, the Oculus’s skylight opens at 10:28 a.m.—the exact moment when the North Tower collapsed in 2001.
“Calatrava’s World Trade Center station thrilled me the minute I saw it, the way that [Frank] Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum Bilbao did. Electrifying.”
Alexa Hampton, interior designer
Heydar Aliyev Center
In the wake of the Soviet Union’s dissolution in 1991, Azerbaijan found itself a new country—with all the stark, brutalist architecture of the old regime. In an effort to give the nation a more contemporary makeover, governing bodies appointed architect Zaha Hadid to design a new cultural center in the heart of Baku, the capital. Completed in 2012, the curvaceous building pays homage to the fluid forms found in traditional Azeri architecture, with equally twisty interiors housing exhibitions that celebrate both the nation’s history and its future.
“The center embodies the future-looking direction of Azerbaijan and pushes what a building is capable of achieving. The way the interior, exterior and location all blend together is nothing short of miraculous. It’s a contemporary classic—a true testament to Zaha’s unique vision.”
Francis Sultana, interior and furniture designer