The Plastic Fantastic Panton Chair
Verner Panton’s smooth tongue-shaped chair, a development on from his plywood S Chair of 1956, was inspired by a factory visit where he saw safety helmets and buckets injection-moulded in one piece.
He started drawing chairs with no rear legs while a student at the Royal Academy of Art in Copenhagen and had a prototype ready by 1960.
But it would be several years before he could find a manufacturer brave enough to produce it in plastic. Without a relatively unknown company spotting its star potential it could have been designated to the elephant’s graveyard of design.
But Vitra, back then a fledgling Swiss family-owned interiors company (who had recently become European licensee for Herman Miller), was willing to take the risk and worked with Panton to develop his idea for seven years, just as plastic was coming of age and going through so many metamorphoses it was hard for designer and producer to keep up.
Panton and his partner Marianne Pherson-Oertenheim moved to Basel to begin a long collaboration with Vitra.
Panton launched the Flying Chair at the Cologne Furniture Fair in 1964, and the world’s first cantilevered chair made from a single piece of plastic, his Panton Chair, in 1967. Only just over 100, moulded from cold-pressed fibreglass reinforced polyester, were created after the chair’s launch, despite rave reviews.
Vitra’s first independently developed product was not ready for mass production until a new high-resilience polyurethane foam came to the market in 1968, produced by Bayer in Leverkusen, Germany.
Vitra boldly produced it, varnished in seven vivid colours, and by 1970, the sexiest plastic chair ever designed had sealed its iconic status in a sequence of shots, its glossy red incarnation the focus of a fashion shoot for British fashion magazine Nova entitled “How to undress in front of your husband”.
Production was halted in 1979 as it was found the chairs were becoming shabby with use but it was reintroduced as Panton Chair Classic in 1983.
A more expensive, durable, polyurethane version was launched in the nineties and Kate Moss was photographed naked on it for the cover of British Vogue in 1995.
However, it was not until a year after Verner Panton’s death in 1999 that Vitra was able to realize the designer’s dream and hit the ground running with a mass-market, fourth series, recyclable coloured polypropylene Panton Chair.