By Brittany Chevalier

Published on July 3, 2015

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Photography by Brittany Ambridge

A master of modern furniture, Panton created designs—such as his Panton, or S, chair—that combined avant-garde style with cutting-edge materials.

1

Born on February 13, 1926, the child of an innkeeper in a small Danish village, Panton cherished dreams of becoming a painter. His parents, however, encouraged a more practical course, urging him to become an architect. In 1944, he enrolled at the Technical College in Odense, where he also joined the resistance against the German occupation.

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2

In 1947, Panton moved to Copenhagen, where he studied at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts. By the time he graduated, he’d become the apprentice of Arne Jacobsen, a leading furniture designer, whom he assisted in the creation of the iconic Ant chair. From Jacobsen, Panton adopted the aim of designing innovative, inexpensive items that were widely available to the public.

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Between 1953 and 1955, Panton motored throughout Europe, familiarizing himself with the latest in design and industrial production methods. Through these travels, he made the acquaintance of furniture manufacturer Fritz Hansen, who developed Panton’s earliest designs, the Tivoli and
the Bachelor chairs.

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4

Throughout the 1950s and ’60s, Panton’s style bridged organic modernism and pop. He confounded expectations by incorporating such materials as wire, acrylic, and even inflatable plastic into his pieces. He also engaged in numerous collaborations, most importantly with Herman Miller/Vitra in 1963. That same year, he received what would be the first of his three International Design Awards.

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5

In the ’60s, Panton’s creation of his eponymous plastic chair—the first ever to be made in one piece entirely from a synthetic material—was a seminal moment in the history of design. Panton was praised as a genius. His sales, though, were somewhat disappointing. The public’s perception of plastic furniture as flimsy led to the discontinuation of the Panton chair in 1979. But it was back on the market in 1983, produced by a new manufacturer (the Horn company) after advances in plastics permitted Panton to reinforce his design. Now marketed through Vitra, it’s become a staple of midcentury design.

Panton passed in 1998; his estate is maintained by the Vitra Design Museum, located in Weil am Rhein, Germany. Open daily, the museum offers guided architecture tours every Saturday and Sunday. Visit design-museum.de for more information.

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The first publication of the Panton chair, in Mobilia, cover page, no. 145/1967.