You probably know his famous chair; the first chair to be made completely out of plastic in one single piece. But have you ever taken a deep dive into the trippy design world of Danish design icon, Verner Panton? His influence is all around us in today’s interior design trends, but chances are, you’ve only just touched on the full scope of his groovy brand of futurism. Zooming in on his boldest designs from the 60s and 70s, let’s make ourselves comfortable in this “Clockwork Orange”-meets-Austin Powers fantasy that we could probably all use right about now…
Verner Panton would have been famous had he only designed his futuristic Panton Chair, but before and after his most famous creation, he explored many applications for his unusual and immersive concepts. His designs were decades ahead of plastic technology, when the word itself, plastic, was still largely an adjective, as in plastic art.
So how did the son of a farmer-turned-restaurateur become a world famous designer? Born in 1926 on the Danish island of Funen, before qualifying for study, he trained and worked as a bricklayer. In 1944 he enrolled in the Technical University on the island and also in military service in the largely demobilized neutral Danish army, while the country was under Nazi occupation. He spent the last year of the war in hiding, since he had joined a resistance group. According to one account: “The Germans got wind of this and searched his student room where they found a variety of weapons – luckily though Panton was not at home.”
While studying architecture in Copenhagen, he attempted to enrol in courses for color psychology. “By the way, red and orange,” the colours most famously associated with his designs, “were not his favourite colours”, according to his wife Marianne. Blue was. “And he would only wear blue: blue socks, blue underwear, blue suits. But for his designs, he liked to use colours that sizzle, colours that pull you in.”
From the beginning, his obsession with large geometrical forms and bold colors began early and established him as a bold new voice in the already famous field of Danish designers. “Most people spend their lives in boring, grey-beige comfort, deadly afraid of using any colors,” Panton said. “By experimenting with lighting, colors, textile and furniture but using brand new technologies as well, I want to show people new methods and encourage them to start using their imagination in order to make their surrounding more exciting.” (quote source: halfway through).
After graduation he went to work with famous designer, Arne Jacobsen, assisting in the process that produced the Ant Chair. When his own cone chair was presented in a New York City shop window, it caused traffic chaos due to it’s unusual look and had to be moved to a less distracting position.
The 1950s years between working for Jacobsen and the debut of the Cone Chair were spent living out of a converted VW van that functioned as a design studio, traveling Europe with another student to immerse himself in all the art and design trends emerging in the post-war period. It’s said he designed a shirt without buttons and sold the rights to pay for his mobile lifestyle. He produced an inflatable stool (eat your heart out, 90’s kids) that in 1954, was decades ahead of the plastic technology needed to mass produce something durable enough for large scale production. A problem he would encounter many times.
In 1962 after a few years of successful exhibitions, projects, and launches of production lines in various companies, Verner took what he claimed was his first vacation. In Tenerife he met the love of his life, Marianne Pherson-Oertenheim. Both had experienced “student marriages” that ended in divorce.
Later she visited his apartment, still unaware that he had already made a name for himself as a designer and architect. “No, I had no idea. And the first time I visited him in Denmark, I was very disappointed. I expected a designer and architect to have an impressive house and lots of nice furniture. When I saw his place on the Øresund coastline in Copenhagen, it certainly was a nice house, with large windows that offered a beautiful view of the water. But he didn’t own any furniture at all. He had a Cone Chair, and four or five boards resting on painting trestles for his drawings. And old wooden beer crates, which he used as furniture.” Panton had also become known for unusual large scale projects such as a collapsible weekend house, the Cardboard House (both 1955), and even a Plastic House (1960), which brings to mind the ultra-modern house in Mon Oncle.
At the time, Danish modern design was focused on traditional materials in new applications, but Panton took it further and wanted to explore the potential for new types of plastic. He began to obsess with producing a plastic single piece chair.
Verner and Marianne drove around Europe with a prototype. Marianne remembers “many people thought it was interesting – but nothing more. They didn’t regard it as a chair. It looked like an amoeba! Besides, you couldn’t even sit down on the prototype… “Plastic was only used to make buckets and that sort of thing. The idea of sitting on it was a very risky undertaking.”
It could be argued that the unveiling of the Panton chair was the turning point of the word plastic from the adjective it had been for 600 years or more to the noun associated with water bottles, straws, and cheap outdoor furniture.
The greatest challenge, as with the inflatable stool, was the state of plastic technology. Marianne worked as Panton’s business manager from the beginning of their marriage, and her advocacy for the project was essential. She was there for every step of his exploration of plastic as furniture material and still manages his legacy and the production of his works.
The production of the Panton Chair had been a multi-year challenge, as it was rejected by many manufacturers who felt the chair would be too laborious and expensive to produce. The couple ultimately settled in Basel, Switzerland and married in 1965. There they worked with the owner of the company, Vitra, who would produce the iconic Panton Chair.
Just after the release of the Panton Chair, he designed the Living Tower which offered Dr. Seuss style seating, and was part of an exhibition mounted at the Louvre.
Meanwhile other designs such as the flying chair, the Shell Lamp and Flying Chairs were wildly popular at various furniture fairs throughout Europe and America.
Throughout the rest of the 70s and 80s, he received many awards, designed many pieces of furniture and lighting, and completed commissions from large companies’ for buildings and renovations. In the 90’s, he designed a chair for ikea and a Swatch clock tower for the ’96 Atlanta Olympics. In 1998, Verner Panton was awarded the Knight’s Cross of the Order of Dannebrog by Queen Margrethe II, a famous lover of bold colors. He died later that year while yet another exhibition was being mounted of his latest work.
Panton found deep meaning in color and in plastic he found a medium to create immersive and powerful statements that showcased the color’s message. Even his favorite color had personal meaning: “Blue expresses relaxed sensibility, calmness and satisfaction, faithfulness; blue symbolizes confidential friendship, love… Dark blue stands for depth, light blue for width. Goethe lets blue symbolize intelligence.”
Sounds like we could all do with a dose of the Verner Panton blues.
We’ll leave you with a few more of our favourite Verner Panton moments…