Probably best known for his one-piece injection-molded plastic design, the Panton ‘S’ chair of 1960, designer Verner Panton was sketching ideas for one-piece, self-supporting, cantilevered stackable chairs made of a single material as early as 1955. Panton’s 275 S chair is the first one-piece cantilevered chair made of molded plywood. It was among his entries in the 1956 European Competition for Furniture Design sponsored by the German furniture firm WK-Möbel. None of Panton’s creations won any prizes, but the seminal 275 S chair was put into production in 1966 by the furniture firm, Gebrüder Thonet. Started in 1853 by Michael Thonet, the firm had a long history as an innovative manufacturer specializing in bentwood furniture.
While Panton’s 275 S chair resembles the 1933 Z-shaped cantilevered Zigzag chair by Dutch designer, Gerrit Rietveld, Reitveld’s chair is constructed of four separate solid wood panels. Panton has stated that he was not aware of Reitveld’s design in the mid-1950s, but was inspired by the molded forms of a fiberglass helmet and a plastic bucket. Panton was struck by the concept of molding a material for seating, the economy of such production and, in the case of the bucket, low cost for the consumer. The 275 S chair shows Panton’s understanding of the potential of molded plywood. The compound curves of the sinuous form–made of fourteen layers of laminated wood–are a technical tour de force, creating an all-in-one self-supporting cantilevered form contoured for the sitter’s comfort. The warm tone and wood grain in this example accentuate the flow of the chair’s curves. The chair is stackable as well. Thonet produced the 275 S chair in a natural finish and in several lacquered colors. The chair won the Rosenthal Studio Prize within a year of its launch, but due to its high price was marketed only in limited numbers.
Cynthia Trope is Associate Curator of Product Design and Decorative Arts.