The Danes of February: Jacobsen and Panton

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Verner Panton and Arne Jacobsen in 1970, the year before Jacobsen’s death.

Both were born in Denmark. Both left significant marks on 20th Century modern design. And both even worked under the same roof together for a brief time.

Yet they could hardly be more different.

In terms of furniture design, Arne Jacobsen was a star of the 1950s, when wood and upholstered furniture took on organic shapes with the application of new manufacturing technology. Verner Panton, on the other hand, was a star of the 1960s, when organic shapes were extended beyond wood and upholstery by the application of new materials and even newer technology.

Both were born in February, Jacobsen on Feb. 11 and Panton on Feb. 13, giving us the pleasant excuse to celebrate their lives and work here. But they were born a generation apart, in 1902 and 1926 respectively. By 1950, Jacobsen was a renowned architect, approaching his 50s, while Panton was just out of school and getting his first job, which happened to be in Jacobsen’s drawing office.

Panton, and others in that office, who tended to be young bachelors able to work long hours, found Jacobsen to be a taskmaster and a penny pincher to boot.

A legendary tale has Panton complaining about low pay after working a long night on a project. Jacobsen is said to have responded, as he often did to such complaints, “It ought instead to be you paying extra for all those things you are learning.”

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Jacobsen’s Ant Char, a revolutionary chair that had a profound effect on Panton.

Panton was indeed learning much.

He worked in the office from 1950 to ’52, a time when Jacobsen was intensely focused on designing the Ant Chair. The Ant, with its one-piece seat and back of molded plywood, paid homage to a trend in modern design toward organic forms, also seen in the work of Charles and Ray Eames. And its three legs followed a drive for reduction of form to its barest function.

The chair’s few parts and simple design lent themselves to the assembly line, and the Ant became the first chair in Denmark to be completely made with factory methods, ushering in a new era of manufacturing techniques. It has been continuously produced by the Republic of Fritz Hansen since its design in 1952. A four-legged version was introduced after Jacobsen’s death in 1971 at age 69.

No doubt Panton was paying attention, and he would say many years later that he had “learned more from Arne Jacobsen than from anyone else.”

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Jacobsen’s Swan, Egg and Series 7 chairs, all descendants of the Ant and children of the 1950s.

The Ant Chair was a breakthrough for Jacobsen, for Panton and for a whole industry. Jacobsen would go on to use the ideas developed with Ant to create the Series 7 Chair, the Grand Prix Chair and the Lily Chair. And even though they were upholstered, the Egg and Swan chairs continued the idea of organic shapes, as did the Drop Chair while pushing the envelope of chair materials to plastic. The latter three were created specially for the SAS Royal Hotel in Copenhagen, which Jacobsen designed top to bottom, from furnishings, dinnerware and cutlery to the cigar-box shape, reinforced-concrete frame and exterior facade. It opened in 1960.

Jacobsen hated the term “designer” and preferred to be thought of as an architect, but his work in both areas has stood the test of time.

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Panton and wife Marianne sitting in Cone Chairs in 1965. The Cone was a milestone on the journey to a one-piece chair.

After Panton left Jacobsen’s office, it wasn’t long before he had designed two chairs, the Tivoli and Bachelor, both eventually produced by Fritz Hansen after demand outstripped the production capacity of Panton’s small company.

They borrowed from the Ant’s breakthrough in mass production but lacked its organic fluidity and leaned toward functionalism. They stand in stark contrast to the sweeping curves that would become a hallmark of Panton’s later work.

With the Cone Chair, in 1958, came perhaps the first hint of Panton’s career-long quest of building a chair in a single piece and with a single material.  The idea of the Cone was that you could make a strong chair by rolling a piece of relatively thin steel into a cone.

“Take the Cone Chair,” Panton said years later. “You can sit in an idea.”

In the early 1960s, Panton’s life changed in good ways with his marriage to Marianne Oertenheim, who became a partner in every way; their move to Basel, Switzerland; and the birth of daughter Carin. Marianne tracked Panton’s ideas in great detail and also became a fetching model in product photos.

The design world in the 1960s was leaning toward Pop art and drawing influence from dreams of space travel. Panton’s drive for the one-piece chair fit perfectly into that changing aesthetic.

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Panton’s daughter, Carin, on a row of Panton Chairs in 1968.

First came the S Chair, made of a single piece of plywood bent in three places, a technological marvel. The developer of the chair was at first skeptical.

“You cannot bend plywood in two directions like that,” said German manufacturer A. Sommer, who eventually proved that you could indeed bend plywood like that.

The S Chair set the stage for what would become Panton’s most famous design, the Panton Chair, that almost resembles a draped swatch of fabric more than something to sit in.

It began in concept in the mid-1950s but took 10 years of anguished experimentation before its introduction in 1967, a Vitra-Herman Miller production. And even after that, many changes were made as newer and newer materials and techniques became available. The first models had to be hand finished and painted, and had internal fiberglass reinforcement. Later models, with advances in molding, could finally be made in a single piece, and a dream was realized.

Panton died in 1998 at age 72.

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The Pantons on a Living Tower in 1971. Originally produced by Herman Miller, the Living Tower is emblematic of the wildly organic direction of Panton’s work in the late 1960s and beyond.

Some photos here were provided courtesy of  The official reference portal of Verner Panton.