Sex and the Sixties: Verner Panton's Pop Fantasia

Retrospect

Verner Panton is known as the 'enfant terrible' of Danish design. Breaking away from the airy neutrals of typical Scandinavian design, Panton worked in Pop colors, simple geometries, and trippy organic shapes. His work is perfectly of its time — sexy, informal, tongue-in-cheek, space-age, and bold — while still feeling totally current today. Let's step into his environment and feel our way around his oeuvre.Panton (1926-1998) began his career in Arne Jacobsen's office. Like Jacobsen, Panton was interested in bright colors and new materials, and saw the sculptural potential of furniture forms. But Panton was a generation younger, and soon struck out on his own.

From his earliest pieces, Panton was playing freely with shape and Pop colors. Panton's Cone Chair (1958) balanced perfectly on its point (image 3), while his C1 Armchair (1959) reduced the chair to a basic circle, while still considering the comfort of the sitter (image 4).

Panton was also playing with materials, pushing the limits of new technologies. He developed the first transparent plastic inflatable furniture (image 5). And his "S" chair, first designed in 1956, could not be manufactured until the mid-1960s, when the innovative maker Gebrüder Thonet finally figured out how to produce a ribbon of cantilevered molded plywood strong enough for someone to sit on (image 6).

The "S" chair prefigured Panton's most famous piece of furniture, the Panton Chair, designed in 1960 but not produced until 1968, the first chair made of one piece of injection-molded plastic (images 7 & 8). This chair has proven to be his most popular and enduring piece. Produced in a rainbow of colors, the Panton chair is playful and fun, informal, stackable, eminently practical. But it is also elegantly sculptural and sexy, echoing the curves of the human form. We can still see it in stylish interiors today.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Panton began exploring the idea of creating alternate living environments, a preoccupation of many designers at the time. His designs reflect his radical rejection of the old ways of doing things. He wanted to make furniture for how he felt people really wanted to sit, which is to say informally and comfortably reclining, and sharing with friends (image 9). This reflected an interest at the time in the imagined implications of the Space Age, living in new holistic environments in a new kind of reality. His designs also clearly fit into the groovy sex-and-drugs culture of the time; the total environments he designed for the 1970 Visiona exhibition (images 1 & 2), which took place on a boat, and for the Varna restaurant in Aarhus, Denmark (images 10 & 11), are like living inside a lava lamp. His works from this era are like playgrounds for grownups, tactile, colorful, and requiring a certain amount of dexterity to use (image 12).

Most of his designs are still in production today, and even the more daring ones can still be seen in interiors, maybe because Panton's designs are fun, cheeky, sexy and playful. They bring back a fresh youth culture of the '60s and '70s that we still dig (hello, The Who at the Super Bowl?), but without any signs of age.

Further reading: There are some great websites devoted to Verner Panton, including the Verner Panton Blog and the Verner Panton "Official Reference Portal". I didn't discuss Panton's lighting designs, but most of them are still produced by Verpan, which has a beautiful online catalogue.

Shopping: Vitra produces many of Panton's furniture designs. You can find them here or at their showroom in the Meatpacking District. Unica Home has several Panton designs, as well, including a couple accessories that won't break the bank.


Images: 1 & 2 Two images from Panton's Phantasy Landscape II (1970/2000), the first via the Saatchi Gallery, the second from dexigner.com via Arteplastikoak; 3 Panton Cone Chair (1958), via Vitra; 4 C1 Armchair (1959), via Vitra; 5 Inflatable footstool, the first transparent inflatable plastic furniture, produced in 1960, via Verner-Panton.com; 6 Panton's S chair (designed 1956, manufactured from 1965 by Thonet), with the Cadiz shell lamp (1964), via furniture-love; 7 Hot pink Panton Chair as desk chair, via Apartment Therapy Chicago; 8 Panton chairs around a dining table, photo by Emily Gilbert for DesignSponge; 9 Panton's Two-Level Chair, with Panton and his wife in it, via Arteplastikoak; 10 & 11 Two images from Panton's 1971 design for the restaurant Varna, in Aarhus, Denmark, via Verner-Panton.com; 12 Panton's Living Tower (1969), via Dwell.

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