Obituary: Verner Panton

Magdalen Vanstone
Sunday 13 September 1998 23:02 BST

VERNER PANTON, the legendary Danish architect and designer, was one of the most dynamic and creative figures of post-war design. "The main purpose of my work is to provoke people into using their imaginations," he said, and he did this with a vengeance with his attention-grabbing furniture and lighting and his mind-blowing textiles.

One of the reasons Panton will be remembered is that he was always one step ahead. Who was the designer of the first piece of inflatable furniture? Not the Italian team of Scolari, Lomazzi, D'Urbino and De Pas with their Blow chair of 1967, but Verner Panton with his inflatable stools for Unika Vaev as early as 1962. Who was the man behind all those Space Age spherical lampshades in the 1960s? Again, not an Italian, but Panton with his Moon lampshade for Louis Poulsen dating back to 1960. And who changed the course of pattern design at the turn of the 1950s from abstract expressionism to the geometric "look"? Not Heal Fabrics in Britain but Panton in Denmark with his remarkable Op Art-inspired Geometry rugs and fabrics for Unika Vaev, produced from the start of the decade.

He was born in Gamtofte in Denmark in 1926, and attended the Odense Technical School (1944-47), and the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen (1947-51). The early post-war period was a time of unparalleled optimism in international design, particularly in the Nordic countries where the concept of Scandinavian Modernism reached full maturity during the first decade after the war. This buoyancy was crucial to the shaping of Panton's mindset, as was the opportunity he was given between 1950 and 1952 to work in the office of Arne Jacobsen, Denmark's premier architect and designer.

By 1955 Panton was ready to establish his own design office, and during the second half of the decade, following in Jacobsen's footsteps, he began to design furniture for the Danish furniture manufacturer Fritz Hansen. His early designs were spirited creations in the prevailing spindly-legged international "Contemporary" style, made of narrow-gauge tubular steel slung with leather, canvas or, more daringly, with a zig-zag arrangement of plastic strings.

Panton had a fascination with modern materials, and felt compelled to explore these rather than relying on tradition. In this respect he was more in tune with international trends than with fashions in his native Denmark, where the prevailing trend was for finely crafted, elegant wooden furniture. "Steel tubes, foam, springs, and covers have been so developed technically that we can create forms which were unthinkable just a few years ago. Designers should use these materials to create objects which up to now they could only see in their dreams."

This is exactly what the irrepressible Panton did, inventing a brave new world of design which had previously been limited to the realms of fantasy. In 1958 he created his first truly radical design, the Cone chair, which dispensed with conventional legs and pivoted on a circular or cross- shaped base. It was produced in several different versions, the most dramatic being an open wirework structure.

By this date Panton was becoming increasingly fascinated by the potential of plastics. Visits to factories to watch the manufacture of fibreglass crash helmets and plastic buckets convinced him that one day it would be possible to make a chair entirely from rigid plastic. By 1960 he had evolved a prototype for the cantilevered stacking chair which would eventually become known as the Panton chair. It took a further eight years, however, before he was able to find a manufacturer - the enlightened German company Vitra - who shared his vision and possessed the technical know-how to put the chair into production.

Feeling the need to break away from the constraints of Scandinavian design, Panton moved to France in 1962 , and a year later to Switzerland, where he remained for the rest of his career. This move prompted partnerships with a number of German and Austrian factories, including Thonet, Metzeler- Schaum and Alfred Kill, and Bisterfeld and Weiss, while enabling him to maintain links with manufacturers in Denmark, namely the furniture-makers Fritz Hansen, Erik Jorgensen and France & Son, the lighting company Louis Poulsen, and the textiles firm Unika Vaev.

Although it was not until the 1970s that Panton was to work with an Italian manufacturer (Cassina), the Italians were clearly receptive to his ideas from the early 1960s onwards, and by the second half of the decade there was a strong affinity between Panton's work and that of leading Italian designers such as Joe Colombo, Vico Magistretti and Sergio Mazza.

Panton was the enfant terrible of Danish post-war design. Even now some people still find him hard to take, the main reason being his fearless use of colour. "Most people spend their lives dwelling in dreary, grey- beige conformity, mortally afraid of using colours," he said. "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 fantasy and make their surroundings more exciting."

Panton conveyed this message most effectively through his interiors, particularly his showrooms for Unika Vaev where he juxtaposed his wire furniture against the backdrop and floorscape of his striking black-and- white geometric textiles; and later in the decade through his zingy orange and red canteen for the headquarters of Der Spiegel in Hamburg in 1969.

It was through his exhibition installations, however, that Panton was able to throw caution completely to the wind. An alliance with Bayer proved very fruitful and led to his two memorable Visiona installations at the 1968 and 1970 Cologne Furniture Fairs. The first was a dream-like interior veiled with Dralon, specially printed with giant-sized photographic images of lips, hands, feet, eyes and ears, symbolising Panton's desire to overload the senses; while on the floor were giant rubber balls upholstered with Dralon towelling. The design writer Svend Erik Moller described the installation as "a firework of light and colours; sound and fragrance", and characterised Panton's furniture as "visions of a future, more emancipated way of life, sculptures made in air and foam".

Panton's Visiona II installation for Bayer in 1970 was another visual triumph. The interior was crammed with Pantowers, a revolutionary new piece of furniture he had designed in 1968, lit internally with psychedelic lighting to create a surreal and magical furniture "happening". The Pantower was a piece of organic sculpture which you could either sit on or inside. Large enough to accommodate at least four people concurrently, and designed to encourage varied postures, it was a communal seating cave which perfectly complemented the aspirations of the hippy era in which it was conceived. One of the most enduring images of Panton is a multiple exposure shot of the long-haired, bearded designer lounging nonchalantly in various positions inside his creation.

Panton was so far ahead of his thinking when he embarked on his career that it took the international design community at least a decade to catch up. From the 1960s onwards, he was lauded with honours all over the globe, and he remained a highly esteemed figure for the next 30 years. Last year he created a colourful new installation at Erco's London showroom, and he was on the panel of judges at 100% Design. Currently he is the subject of an exhibition at Kolding in his native Denmark.

Verner Panton was both the catalyst and the lead protagonist in the design revolution of the Sixties. He remained true throughout his career to the spirit of continuous revolution which characterised that decade.

Magdalen Vanstone

Verner Panton, furniture and interior designer: born Gamtofte, Denmark 13 February 1926; married 1964 Marianne Pherson (one daughter); died Copenhagen 5 September 1998.

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