VERNER PANTON (1926-1998) was a master of the fluid, futuristic style of 1960s design which introduced the Pop aesthetic to furniture and interiors. Born in Denmark, he made his name there before settling in Switzerland in the 1960s.
During the ‘Beat’ years of the mid-1950s, young European artists and writers bought battered old camper vans to travel across the continent. One of the oddest-looking of these vans was the Volkswagen belonging to Verner Panton, a young Danish architect, who had customised it into a mobile studio.
Every few months, Panton set off from Copenhagen in the Volkswagen for a trek across Europe dropping in on fellow designers as well as any manufacturers or distributors which he hoped would buy his work. Famed like the rest of Scandinavia for its organic modernist designs, Denmark was then at the centre of the contemporary design scene. Yet Verner Panton’s style could not have been more different from the soft, naturalistic forms and materials which were the hallmarks of Danish modernism. He knew that he would have to look further afield to win acceptance for his work.
Panton had close links with many of the most important Danish designers of that era. P?ul Henningsen, the lighting designer, had taught him at Copenhagen’s Royal Academy of Art. After graduating, he had worked for Denmark’s architectural grandee, Arne Jacobsen. Panton also enjoyed a close friendship with designer-craftsman, Hans Wegner. But whereas Wegner was famed for his skill at modernising classic Danish teak chairs, Panton’s passion lay in experiments with plastics and other rapidly advancing man-made materials to create vibrant colours in the geometric forms of Pop Art.
Nothing in Verner Panton’s childhood suggested that he might become a designer. Born in 1926 to innkeeper parents in Gantofte, a tiny village on the island of Fünen, he longed to become a artist, but showed little talent for painting or drawing. Despite this, he won a place at the technical college in Odense, the largest town on the island, in 1944. Denmark was then occupied by the Germans and Panton joined the resistance. Towards the end of World War II, he spent several months in hiding after a cache of weapons was found in his room. After completing his studies in Odense, Panton moved to Copenhagen in 1947 to enrol as an architecture student.
Meeting P?ul Henningsen at the Royal Academy of Art, introduced Panton to product design. Best known for his bold, abstract lighting, Henningsen had a crisp, clean, unapologetically industrial aesthetic which appealed to Panton. (In 1950, Panton married Henningsen’s step-daughter, Tove Kemp, but soon split up from her). An equally important influence was Arne Jacobsen, whom Panton assisted from 1950 to 1952 on various projects including the famous 1951-52 Ant Chair. Panton later claimed he had "learned more from him than anyone else". Behind the gentle elegance of Jacobsen’s work lay obsessive research in new materials and technologies which inspired Panton.
After leaving Jacobsen, Panton eked out a living from freelance design and architectural commissions, notably a patented shirt ironed with a rotary iron. He used the proceeds of that patent to buy his Volkswagen van. In 1955, Fritz Hansen began production of Panton’s Bachelor Chair and Tivoli Chair. But it was not until the Cone Chair’s introduction in 1959 that Panton came into his own with a truly distinctive style. A thinly padded conical metal shell placed point-down on a cross-shaped metal base, the Cone was originally designed for Komigen, his parents’ new restaurant on Fünen. A Danish businessman, Percy von Halling-Koch, spotted it at the opening and offered to put it into production for Panton. When it was photographed for Mobilia, the Danish design magazine, in 1961, Panton draped naked shop mannequins and models on the chairs, which caused a minor scandal. The Cone Chair even attracted controversy in New York, after the police ordered that it be removed from a shop window where large crowds had gathered to see it.
Having made his name as a visionary designer, Panton was given license to experiment. He developed the first inflatable furniture – made from transparent plastic film – in 1960 as well as a "total environment" for the Astoria Hotel at Trondheim in Norway where the walls, floors and ceilings were covered in an Op Art-inspired pattern in variations of the same colour. This was the precursor to the later, more fantastical "total environments" which Panton was to create at the Hamburg headquarters of Spiegel magazine in 1969, for the Visiona II exhibition at the 1970 Cologne Furniture Fair (the centre of which was a vividly coloured cave-like space for reclining) and for Grüner & Jahr’s publishing offices in Hamburg in 1973.
Tiring of Denmark, Panton moved to Cannes in 1962, but settled in Basel the following year with his future wife, Marianne Person-Oertenheim. There he began a long collaboration with Vitra, the European licensee of Herman Miller, the US furniture maker. They launched the Flying Chair, a playful piece of fantasy furniture, which was the hit of the 1964 Cologne Furniture Fair, and developed the 1967 Panton Chair, the first cantilevered chair made from a single piece of plastic. Sleek, sexy and a technical first, the Panton was the chair of the era. A glossy red Panton featured in Nova magazine’s 1970 shoot in which a model demonstrated "How to undress in front of your husband".
Although he won numerous awards during the 1970s, Panton gradually lost his place at the centre of the design scene. In the cynical post-Vietnam era, the politicised designs of Alessandro Mendini and Gaetano Pesce, seemed more salient than Panton’s playfully optimistic faith in Pop and technology. Whereas other designers of his generation, notably Ettore Sottsass, revitalised their work and ideas by reaching out to younger collaborators, Verner Panton appeared increasingly isolated in self-imposed Swiss exile.
All that changed in the mid-1990s, when mid-20th century modernism in general - and Verner Panton in particular - returned to vogue. Graphic designer Peter Saville chose a 1964 Shell Lamp as the centrepiece of his much-photographed apartment in London’s Mayfair. A 1995 cover of British Vogue featured a naked Kate Moss on a Panton Chair. Panton won yet more awards, his 1960s pieces were put back into production and he was invited to design an exhibition, Verner Panton: Light and Colour, at Trapholdtmuseum in Kolding, Denmark. The exhibition opened as planned on 17 September 1998, but Verner Panton had died in Copenhagen 12 days earlier.
1926 Born in Gamtofte on the island of Fünen, Denmark to innkeeper parents.
1944 Moves to Odense, also on Fünen, to enrol at the Technical College. Becomes involved with the Danish resistance against the German occupation.
1947 Starts an architecture degree at Copenhagen’s Royal Academy of Arts.
1950 As an assistant to the architect, Arne Jacobsen, works on the Ant Chair.
1955 Fritz Hansen launches Panton’s first mass-produced pieces of furniture, the Tivoli Chair and Bachelor Chair.
1957 Designs a self-assembly weekend home to be sold as a limited edition.
1958 Opening of Komigen restaurant, designed by Panton for his parents, is an instant hit, as is the Cone Chair he created for it.
1960 Develops first inflatable chair and designs the Astoria Hotel in Norway.
1961 Panton’s furniture, textiles and lights published in Mobilia’s "Black Book".
1963 Moves to Basel (after a short stint in Cannes) with Marianne Person-Oertenheim. Begins collaboration with Herman Miller-Vitra in Basel.
1964 Flying Chairs and Shell Lamps create a furore at Cologne Furniture Fair.
1965 Unveils S Chair, first cantilevered moulded plywood chair, for Thonet. Starts work on the Panton Chair with Herman Miller-Vitra launched in 1968.
1969 Living Towers unveiled in Paris. Spiegel headquarters completed.
1970 Designs fantastical Visiona II exhibition for Bayer at Cologne Fair.
1973 Completes work on the interior of Grüner & Jahr’s offices in Hamburg.
1990 Vitra puts the Panton Chair back into production.
1994 IKEA produces Panton’s Vilbert Chair as the Panton revival takes off.
1995 Panton Chair appears on the cover of British Vogue.
1998 Verner Panton dies in Copenhagen 12 days before the opening of his Light and Colour retrospective at the Trapholtmuseum in Kolding, Denmark.
2000 Verner Panton: Light and Colour opens at Vitra Design Museum, Weil-am-Rhein, and the Design Museum.
Alexander von Vegesack and Mathias Remmele, Verner Panton: The Collected Works, Vitra Design Museum, 2000
Verner Panton, Verner Panton: Liset og Farven (Light and Colour), Kolding, 1998
Verner Panton, Lidt om Farver (Notes on Colour), Copenhagen, 1997
Svend Erik Mller, Verner Panton, Copenhagen,1986