The Legacy of Verner Panton

The 1960s. What sort of images do they conjure up? The summer of Love and Flower Power? Or think about music and the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and psychedelic rock? Possibly the pop art of Andy Warhol or the wackier stuff from Jackson Pollock or late Pablo Picasso. Maybe the new fashion in both men’s and women’s clothing. Any way you look at it, they were revolutionary years. Some ideas are still with us; some sank, but of those some bounced back. The legacy of Verner Panton is one of the ones that is still with us.

He was one of the many trailblazers of the time, a man who knew no limitations in shape or colour as long as the design worked. Occasionally, the ideas were so futuristic it took the world time to catch up. Others were an instant hit. New materials, new shapes, new colour schemes all flowed from his restless creativity. They are just as striking today as the day he thought them up.

Who was Verner Panton?

The key thing about Verner Panton is that he was a designer. Not an interior designer, or a furniture designer, or any other speciality within the design process. He could, and did, do it all. The Verner Panton style captured the rebellious spirit of his age and harnessed it into iconic shapes and colour schemes. He recognised the opportunities of the new materials flowing onto the market and showed how to use them.

Verner Panton was born in 1926 in the village of Brahesborg-Gamtofte on the island of Fünen, Denmark, where his parents ran a small hotel. The youngster graduated as an architect from the Royal Academy of Arts, Copenhagen and started in the design business working with Arne Jacobsen, one of the most important personalities in the field in the post-war era.

He was soon branching out on his own. To start with, he made his office in a converted camper van, and some of his best-known designs originate in this period. The vehicle allowed him to tour Europe, soaking up inspiration, making contacts and gaining commissions.

He had already played a part in designing the Ant Chair with Arne Jacobsen, as well as designing the Bachelor and Tivoli Chairs in his own right. Then his breakthrough came close to home, and the Verner Panton legacy began in earnest. He had a design philosophy and was not afraid to use it, however outrageous it may have been.

Cones Turn Iconic

The brief was to design the refurbishment of his parent’s hotel, Kom-igen in the Langesø Park. It gave Verner Panton the chance to abandon the safe and more straightforward designs of his younger days. He packed the public rooms with fresh concepts, none more original than his revolutionary chair.

He came up with the idea of using an inverted cone standing on its tip as the base of a chair, using a moulded frame to give it strength. With new materials, he could embrace the bright, vibrant colour schemes of the era, using five different shades of red in different places round the hotel and restaurant. A design classic was born.

New materials were essential. After all, a cone standing on its top is inherently unstable. Since people wriggle as they sit, there are enormous pressures going through that point. So, to cope, he had to come up with new ways of attaching the body of the chair to the base. It was just one innovation in a growing catalogue of creativity.

The designs were an instant hit. Customers rushed to see this vibrant expression of contemporary thinking. Though the staff complained they were being rushed off their feet by the sudden demand, it was a triumph for Verner Panton. That seemed to cut the final restraints. He began to cut loose on the potential of the new synthetic materials that were becoming available.

In keeping with the spirit of the Swinging Sixties, nothing was so wacky it had to be ruled out. Psychedelic was in. It was not just imaginative ways to use shapes that inspired Verner Panton, but he could also let rip with all the new colours and materials. Plastic, fibreglass, moulded metal and a long list of new textiles all found their way into his designs.

The 1960s

The joke is that if you remember the 1960s, you weren’t really part of it. After a century that had started with two World Wars and the Great Depression, this was when Westernised society ripped off all the shackles and exploded into a frenzy of creativity. Plastic redefined what was possible; new manufacturing techniques allowed the mass production of ideas that had once been pipe dreams.

Carnaby Street and Mary Quant redefined fashion; The Beatles reimagined pop music, the Rolling Stones rethought the blues; the Who rebelled. In science, it was the era of the space race and the moon landings, while others were working on ideas that would end up as the microchip. Vast swathes of 21st century culture has its roots in the various revolutions of that era.

Verner Panton has his place in the field of design. He fitted right into the mood of the period as a revolutionary thinker whose ideas are still reverberating in the design world today. That is the legacy of Verner Panton.
He was a larger-than-life personality with an imagination to match. “The main purpose of my work is to provoke people into using their imagination. Most people spend their lives living in dreary, grey-beige conformity, mortally afraid of using colours. By experimenting with lighting, colours, textiles, and furniture and utilising the latest technologies, I try to show new ways, to encourage people to use their imagination and make their surroundings more exciting,” Panton commented in one interview.

Owning the Space

If you want an idea of just how original he could be, look at the designs for the Spiegel Publishing house in Hamburg. They are outstanding examples of his work. More than 50 years after he produced them, they are one of the few examples of his interior designs that still survive – at least in part.

The news magazine moved into the Hamburg building in 1969. Staff and visitors walked into his entrance – with its courtyard and lobby. There was also the canteen and the bar areas shown at the top of the page. Also the basement swimming pool, pictured above, for the employees, rooms for the editorial conferences, and lounges.

Fire later destroyed the swimming pool area, and the magazine redesigned other areas in the 1990s. There is still enough left to get a good image of the legacy of Verner Panton.

The colour schemes were iconic, helping to mould each area into an identifiable whole. He went further, though. He designed the lamps, the coverings, the wall cladding. There was novel mirror lighting on the walls and ceilings to help create the atmosphere. The only slight regret is that the contract forced him to order the furniture from outside suppliers.

Onwards and Upwards

In furniture, Verner Panton continued to set his legacy as revolutionary ideas kept coming. The next chair, for example, was the Panton Chair, conceived in 1960 and put into production by Vitra seven years later. It was another 32 years, however, before it was possible to make it exactly according to the original design with a dyed-through plastic and a matt finish.

The stroke of genius was working out how to manufacture the chair in one piece. Once the public got to see it, the demand was immense and the iconic design helped secure the legacy of Verner Panton. It brought international design awards and recognition within the industry. Nowadays, you can see examples of his work on show in museums around the world, though you can also go out and buy one of your own.

The cantilevered structure, body-fitting shape and the soft plastic all go to make it not just a pleasure to look at but comfortable to sit in as well.

Verner Panton’s Light Touch

It was not just in furniture and interior design he made his mark, either. Some of Verner Panton’s best-known works are his lighting projects. He produced standing lamps and wall fixtures, as well as chandeliers and other pendant lights meant to hang from the ceiling. Wherever he placed the light source, he put his stamp on it. He used new materials to reimagine how the structure could be used to reflect light and show how to shine from all kinds of different angles.

The key thing was his understanding that light does not have to come from a single point. He could make walls so that they shine with a light of their own. Or he designed the stem of a standing lamp in reflective material so that it looks as though the light is coming from every point on the object.

Lights can be hidden and mysterious or visible examples of his virtuoso design.

All Power to the Flowerpot

So there is the Verner Panton flowerpot – not what it says on the tin, but a lamp made with several concentric hemispheres, some angled up, others down. The business end, where the light sits, has a larger hemisphere holding the bulb and one half its size pointing the other way to diffuse the glow and cut out the glare.

While the shapes were reminiscent of flowerpots, the name is as much related to the way the idea became associated with the Flower Power movement of his time. Made of a shiny enamel and often featuring a coloured cable as well.

A similar design classic came with the Verner Panton Globe. It is a clear sphere containing the bulb and five internal reflectors suspended on steel chains. The reflectors usually have coloured patches, typically in red and blue, to add a splash of colour to the sculptural design.

A Man Ahead Of His Time

Verner Panton was very much a product of the 1960s. He was a revolutionary thinker at a time when creativity was at its peak in so many fields. He had ideas about just about everything and the skill and understanding to turn them into reality.

So, for example, he designed the Köbestävnet exhibition in 1959. He quickly realised it was impossible to provide lines of sight when the crowds arrived. He wanted to make sure everybody could see everything. His solution? He simply hung exhibits from the ceiling and solved the line-of-sight problem at a stroke. That is the sort of radical thinking that was his hallmark.

Some of his designs have been in continuous production since they were first dreamt up. Some went out of production for a while but were so ahead of their time that they have been brought back. One thing is certain, the legacy of Verner Panton is going to be with us for a long time to come.

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