Beyond the chair

ONLY A HANDFUL OF DESIGNERS-Eames and Breuer, for example-are so inextricably linked with the word “chair” that their names immediately spark images of chairs in our minds. Since it hit the market in 1967, the Panton Chair has been one such indelible image of furniture design: a deep-colored, plastic cantilever, cast in a single piece, a long train that seems to grow out of the ground, the bold dynamic curve of the ergonomically shaped seat. Its form is as elegant as it is extravagant; its gently flowing contours underline its sculptural character. Verner Panton’s plastic pile-chair is one of the most important designs of the 20th century. . But the Danish-born, Swiss-based Panton had already stopped traffic-literally-once before with a remarkable chair design. His 1958 ConeChair, taking its form from a cone placed on its point, caused traffic jams when it was first exhibited in a Manhattan shop window in 1960. Panton’s extensive and innovative oeuvre continued to excite international attention in the 1960s and early ’70s with innovative furniture pieces and experimental interior designs. In the last two decades, however, Panton’s work and his importance to 20th-century design have been neglected. . Now a new exhibit is rekindling interest in Panton and his design legacy. Building on a renewed interest in Panton’s work-which is fueled by the recent revival of ’60s-era objects and designs-the Vitra Design Museum in Weil am Rhein, Germany, organized a comprehensive retrospective on the designer earlier this year. The exhibit, which celebrates Panton’s fertile imagination and love of experimentation, will tour Europe (Vienna in spring 200 and Lisbon next fall) before reaching U.S. shores in 2002.

BORN ON THE DANISH ISLAND of Fynen in 1926 and educated at the Academy of Art in Copenhagen, Verner Panton based his work in Basel, Switzerland, from 1963 until his death in 1998. What makes Panton so interesting for a new generation of designers is his experimentation and the radical zeal with which he approached his work. Experiments were Panton’s passion–the goal and most important method of his work. He took chances with forms and materials, manufacturing technology and construction, interior design, color and light. Both of his famous chairs were results of his experimental inclination and eternal search for novel design solutions.

The Cone-Chair marked the beginning of his collaboration with the Danish furniture manufacturer Plus-linje, for which he created what is still considered an avant-garde furniture collection. Panton’s work with Plus-linje also showed his interest in trying new industrially produced materials. He developed the first inflatable furniture out of transparent plastic foil, several years before such designers as Scolari, Lomazzi and De Pas popularized the idea at the end of the ’60s with their “Blow” armchair. Panton’s cubeshaped inflatable seat pillows could be combined into a couch; they were light, flexible and could be stowed away to save space. But his inflatable creations were stymied by the reservations of a public skeptical of furniture that strayed too far from traditional forms and materials. More critically, these designs were plagued by inadequate materials; the plastic foil produced at the time was brittle, leaked and quickly lost its elasticity.

It wouldn’t be the last time an idea of Panton’s came before its time. The designer was also tempted by Plexiglas, a material scarcely used in furniture production in the ’60s, but which provided transparency and the impression of lightness. He designed two chairs in Plexiglas: a lounge chair and a basic chair, both drawing strength from the optical illusion in which a person sitting on a Plexiglas chair, in the right light, seems to float on air. But in contrast to their optical lightness, his Plexiglas chairs-as produced in the 1960s-were physically heavy, prone to scratches and not very comfortable. Because only a small number were manufactured, the Plexiglas chairs carried a high price tag, which also contributed to their failure on the market.

With the creation of his inflatable seat pillows, Panton realized his design vision for light, versatile, easy-to-store furniture. Unfortunately, the furniture’s success was compromised because the plastic foil available for manufacture was brittle, often leaked and quickly lost its elasticity.

Panton’s Plexiglas chairs are nonetheless seminal in design history because he was one of the first designers to work with the idea of a modular system. By having a number of standardized parts that could be combined for individualized solutions to a design problem, the modular approach offered a flexibility in responding to different kinds of needs. Functionalism in a pure form, though socially motivated, also allowed for less expensive production costs.

By the end of the ’60s, Panton had created a modular furniture system based completely on a square grid for Kaufhof, a German department store. Besides different seating elements, the system included different colored carpets and wall coverings in pyramidal shapes, all of which could be combined to form various interior landscapes.

Panton was a pioneer in search of new forms that could provide a more relaxed way of living, far from the stiff bourgeois conventions that were being questioned by the rebellious culture of the ‘ 60s. As he once said, “I can’t bear to come into a living room and see the sofa with its coffee table and two armchairs and realize that I’ll be stuck there all evening.” So he created furniture on wheels, which could be moved easily throughout a room. He designed 3D carpets out of long wave-like shapes, which invited people to lounge on them directly on the floor, halfsitting and half-lying down, but always comfortable.

He sought to activate the entire space of a room for living purposes-even the space off the floor. His Flying Chairs-banana-shaped, upholstered aches hanging from the ceiling on ropes-could be moved up and down using a pulley block. His explained, was to give the chairs’ occupants s different view on the surroundings and on life in general” Presented for the first time to the public at the Cologne Furniture Fair in 1964, the Flying Chairs caused a media sensation. In spite of thie press popularity, they never went into series production.

Phanton continued to explore the idea of a seat that could open up and make a vertical line of space accessible. The Living Tower, introduced to the market in 1968, was his most mature disign on this theme. An organically shaped furniture sculpure, it consisted of two parts that could be combined to create seating in different positions on four levels. It was recognized as one of the most ingenious furniture designs of its time. Produced up until the mid1970s in limited edition, the Living Tower has since become a sought-after collection piece.

AT THE HEIGHT OF HIS POPULARITY, Panton was known not only as a designer of innovative and spectacular single objects, but also for his interiors. Although they were a central aspect of his work, his interiors have long been overlooked. Panton’s interiors represent the climax and synthesis of his entire career, fusing elements of every discipline he exploredfurniture, light, accessories and textiles-into a kind of gesamtkunstwerk, or total work of art.

Panton’s interiors have been neglected in part because today most of them can be experienced only through pictures and plans. Some ofhis important designs, including the two Visiona exhibitions for the Bayer chemical company, in 1968 and 1970, were perceived as temporary. Others, like his Restaurant Astoria in Norway and the Restaurant Varna in Denmark, were destroyed years ago. Another factor sidelining Panton’s interiors has been his preference for deep colors in large square dimensions, a style that didn’t fit with the changing tastes of the 1980s.

This style was part of his approach to interiors known as “entirety,” first realized with the design of the Astoria restaurant in the Norwegian town of Trondheim in 1960. Panton covered the entire room with an op-art-inspired pattern in similar tones of single color. Abolishing the classical tripartite division of domestic space-floors, walls, ceilings-he created a total, homogeneous environment in which the dimensions fused together. It was a radical concept, unmatched in the history of modern design, which Panton applied with a variety of means in his later interior designs.

For these later works, he initially translated the 2D geometric patterns into 3D figures-turning the wall surface into a plastic relief. A good example is the modular lighting elements called “Spiegel amatures” with which he covered some of the walls and ceilings in the Spiegel publishing house in Hamburg in 1969. In the ’70s, Panton created designs for carpets and fabrics, developing a 3D optical effect through a aD medium. In 1973, for instance, he covered the floor and walls of the canteen of the Gruner & Jahr publishing house in Hamburg with a rippling “wave” design.

Color was important to Panton not only for blending spatial dimensions but also for its impact on mood. His virtuosity in dealing with the emotional impact of colors was demonstrated in a colorroom installation in a Basel gallery in 1996. Panton immersed the viewer in a bath of color through a series of eight round chambers, each painted in a strongly glowing tone, demonstrating the varying degrees color could radiate and the moods each could create. Although this installation appeared late in his career, it showed how experimentation remained at the core of Panton’s work.

“He’s different. He’s just like a big kid,” the great Danish designer Hans Wegner once said about his friend Verner Panton. “He’s like a glimpse of the sun in the humdrum of everyday life.”

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