Design icon: Vitra Panton Chair
If we asked you to name a chair from the 1960s, chances are you’d pick Vitra’s Panton Chair. Designed by Verner Panton, the chair perfectly encapsulates everything that’s great about the mid-century era - it’s bold, bright, fun and exceptionally innovative.
An icon of the 20th century, the Vitra Panton Chair is a sculptural cantilevered chair that has won numerous international design awards. It’s anthropomorphic shape and slightly flexible polypropylene shell give this chair great comfort, but it took years of innovation to develop the chair we know and love today. We revisit its history.
Who designed the Panton Chair?
There’s only one designer who could have created a chair as extraordinary as the Panton Chair, and that man is Verner Panton.
A Danish architect and furniture designer, he had a passion for colour and pattern and was one of the first designers to really see the potential of plastic in furniture design.
It was this forward-thinking approach that allowed him to create some of the most revolutionary designs of the last century, including the FlowerPot Pendant Light, named after the 1960s Flower Power movement, innovative seating system Living Tower, and of course his eponymous Panton Chair.
How is the Panton Chair made?
All authentic Panton Chairs are made at the Vitra factory. They’re made by injecting fibreglass-reinforced polypropylene into a specially created mould which is left to cool and dry.
The chairs are then finished by hand by expert craftsmen, before being individually wrapped for transportation.
What makes the Panton Chair so special?
Though Panton designed dozens of products during his lifetime, it is arguably the Panton Chair that was his most influential, and there are many reasons for this.
Firstly, the design was way ahead of its time when it was released, let alone when it was first conceptualised back in the 1950s. Made from a single, continuous piece of plastic and with no legs to speak of, there was nothing like it on the market at the time. It was a true first. It was exciting. And it still is today.
Many manufacturers turned down Panton when he was looking to put the chair into production in the early 1960s. The process of producing a cantilevered chair like this was simply too problematic. It wasn’t until Panton met with Vitra’s Willi Fehlbaum in the mid-1960s that things started to progress.
“Rolf (Fehlbaum, son of the Vitra founding family) came to visit us one day and spotted a prototype of the Panton chair. It wasn‘t stable enough to sit on. Rolf asked: “Why isn‘t this chair being manufactured?” I answered, “Fifteen to twenty manufacturers have tried it but have all rejected the project for different reasons.” A well-known American designer – not Eames – even declared that something like that shouldn‘t be called a “chair” – claiming it was not suitable to sit on. Rolf was immediately on the phone to a Vitra technician, Manfred Diebold. Without Rolf there would have been no Panton Chair.” – Verner Panton
In 1963, Vitra decided to take on the challenge of producing the Panton Chair, investing in several years of research, testing and discarded designs. Verner Panton and a team of developers at Vitra were so dedicated to the project, they even sacrificed their evenings and weekends to find the right solution. Vitra eventually launched the first Panton Chair in 1967, and haven’t looked back since.
Over the years, the unique S-shaped chair has been modified to reflect the advancements in plastics technology. The original was made from a fibreglass-reinforced polymer, a second version was created out of rigid polyurethane foam, a third from injection-moulded Luran S, and finally a fourth from polypropylene, which the chair is still made from today.
Bold and unusual, the chair received a lot of media attention and became a symbol of the progressive Sixties era. It was even featured on the front cover of Vogue, in a now-legendary shoot with British model Kate Moss.
Which Panton Chair should I choose?
The Panton Classic stays true to the material used to make the design back in the 1980s - rigid polyurethane foam. It is exceptionally sturdy, has a glossy lacquer finish and comes in the original colours of black, white and red.
The standard Panton Chair is made from polypropylene, a more advanced form of plastic that became available in 1999. It’s lightweight, has a matte finish and is available in a wider range of colours. Polypropylene is easier to produce too, so the standard Panton Chair is cheaper than the Panton Classic.
Since 2007, the standard Panton Chair has also been available in a children’s version, the Panton Junior. Identical in terms of material and shape, the Panton Junior is around 25% smaller than the standard Panton Chair, making it the perfect size for children of nursery or primary school age.
How to tell if a Panton Chair is real
Unfortunately, a lot of imitation Panton Chairs are produced worldwide, but a replica is relatively easy to spot. After all, you can’t fake quality.
One of the key tell-tale signs of an imitation piece is the presence of ‘fins’ on the underside of the chair. These are a series of plastic strips that all lesser quality chairs need for stability. They are immediately visible from the rear side.
Another thing to look out for is the presence of a signature. All original Panton Chairs have Verner Panton’s signature clearly marked on them, imitation ones do not. On the Classic, this is positioned on the base of the chair and it is indented and embossed. On the standard Panton Chair, this is on the back of the chair and is raised.
Other things to look out for is a shiny finish on the standard Panton Chair - authentic chairs are made from polypropylene and therefore have a matte finish. Any scratch that reveals a different colour is also a warning sign as polypropylene is dyed through and holds a continuous colour throughout.
What's your favourite version of the Panton Chair? Let us know by tagging us on Instagram at @nest_co_uk.