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Thonet, Panton and Van der Rohe- A Critical comparison of 3 modern chair classics

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This essay aims to evaluate and contrast the influence of 3 classic chair designs in modern history by evaluating the social, political and cultural influence upon the chairs. These 3 chairs will be the No.14 chair designed by Michael Thonet (figure 1), the Barcelona chair of Mies Van der Rohe (figure 2) and the plastic bent chair design of Verner Panton (figure 3).

Figure 1- Thonet No.14 (V&A Museum, n.d.)
Thonet was a German born carpenter, who lived in the mid-19th century. He introduced his No.14 chair in 1859, after moving to Austria.

Figure 2- Mies Van der Rohe Barcelona Chair (Blogger, 2013)
Van der Roe was an architect born in the era of Thonet (1886) but introduced his chair in the 1920s. He was also German born.

Figure 3- Verner Panton’s iconic chair (Julia grup, 2015)
Panton conversely was a 60s designer from Denmark, he introduced his chair in 1965.
Research for this essay was conducted using Loughborough University’s library resources and some internet research. This was mainly done by searching for the designer’s names and for the time periods they lived in to build up historical knowledge.
Cultural influences
The designers created their chairs in very different eras; however, both Panton and Thonet changed the ways people thought about furniture. Before Thonet, the major furniture designers in Europe were the Roentgen’s who made bespoke complex furniture designs for the wealthy. Conversely, Thonet’s no.14 chair was simple yet functional, unlike the elaborate designs simply used to project wealth and power of his time.; he revolutionized furniture production as he began to mass produce furniture and started a transition from craftmanship to manufacturing, mirroring the industrialization in Vienna at the time. Thonet also sold his chairs disassembled and it can be argued that he pioneered the flat packed furniture market of business giants such as IKEA. “Thonet furniture……was shipped in parts to agents throughout the world a furniture concept that anticipated by a century what some people thought was a new idea in the 1960’s.” (REIF, 1980) 1. This shows that Thonet’s approaches were modern and significantly ahead of his time, they helped shaped the furniture world of today over 100 years ago. Conversely, Van der Rohe’s chair was the opposite, a power symbol and has been described as “the rolls Royce of furniture” (Huxtable, 1977) 2. This arguably suggests Van der Rohe’s ideas did not change furniture traditions as he designed his chairs to show wealth and power just like designers of Thonet’s time. This may have been influenced by the end of WW1 in 1918, where the idea of power and dominance had been key. This could be implied by a comment from Van der Rohe “It was only after the war, in the 1920’s, that the influence exerted by technical developments on many aspects of life became increasingly apparent” 3 (Blasser, 1972). This suggests he had been influenced by the new rule of technology and so projected this idea of this control into his chair design. Panton however, influenced furniture ideologies in his time as he blurred the line between function and art. His curvy colourful forms had many features of Pop art and therefore were iconic in shaping 60s culture. He allowed people to see furniture as fun and exciting by experimenting with plastic, an uncommon material for making chairs before his time, but a material now very commonly used.

Another arguable cultural point to make about the chairs is that Van der Rohe and Thonet’s designs were timeless, whereas Panton’s chair was a design of the era. With the simplistic curves and elegance, Thonet’s no.14 chair works well in many interiors and is still in mass production today. The design, aimed at the mass market, is questionably a functional and ordinary design, “It was spared from the fate of great exclusiveness that eventually caught up with most modern furnishings and fixtures of the 1920” 4 (Candalis et al., 1980). This suggests that Thonet’s chair is seen as a classic, a design which was untinged by trends of its era, very unlike Panton’s chair which strongly emulates the 60s. The word ‘exclusiveness’ arguably is the opposite of the no.14 chair as the chair was accessible to all levels of society from its cheap price and was available worldwide due to its ability to be packed into small crates. Although less accessible to the many, Van der Rohe’s chair was also a timeless design. This is due to him focusing on the basic principles of construction in his designs. He quoted “It is absurd to invent arbitrary forms, historical and modernistic forms, which are not determined by construction, the true guardian of the spirit of the times.” (Blasser, 1972) 3. This suggests he was opposed to movements of his era and wanted his design to be well executed rather than fashionable or unique and for this reason it could be reasoned why his chair is a cult object for collectors and is still in many office interiors today. On the other hand, Panton’s rule was “form follows fantasy” (Johnson, 2005) 5. The word ‘fantasy’ really sums up Panton’s childlike designs. They can be described as childlike due to there illogical shapes and bright colours, very much like exploratory culture of the 60’s. His designs were very fashionable and directed at consumer culture. However, like the weather, the trends soon changed and in the 1970s, with the economy worsening, Panton’s career worsened to as his design did not have the timeless features of Thonet and Van der Rohe.

Political influences
It can be seen in all chairs how they have been influenced by the politics of there time. Germanys government at the time of Van der Rohe was weak and there was much pessimism throughout the country (Fershtman and Nitzan-Shiftan, 2011). Van der Rohe was given an important role of representing his country through designing a German pavilion for the International Exposition of 1929 in Barcelona. It is suggested in the powerful design that Van der Rohe was trying to show Germany to be a strong country. Some people say the chair was designed “as a kind of throne…… for the king and queen of Spain” 2 (Huxtable, 1977), this further suggests the way Van der Rohe wanted to shadow power through his design. There is less evidence to show Thonet or Panton were influenced as much by politics or their time. However, Thonet’s chair is said to have been use in Johannes Brahms salon and Lenin, the Russian communist, supposedly talked to his comrades seated on No.14 chairs. This suggests that although Thonet was designing more for his society, political leaders and the famous were affected by the chairs to.
Social influences
It is argued that Thonet had the most impact on the everyday person. For example, “The Thonet chairs, by its wide distribution, penetrated all levels of society from the end of the 19th century to the present day” (Candalis et al., 1980). This is very true for the chair as due to its cheaper price and mass production it was available to many people, in fact over 50 million have been sold, and sat on by many more people. Arguably, the chair allowed for non-upper-class citizens to begin to experiment with interior design and customization of their homes. “The chair No.14 different from other high-calibre incunabula of modern design history- has become a “piece of public design” that has been and is still used and appreciated in almost all spheres of society” (Candalis et al., 1980). This suggests that most iconic designs have been less widely available to the everyday person, Thonet chairs therefore are unique in their accessibility. Panton was also of great influence on society, he was a designer who allowed a 60’s society to start exploring their passions and dreams. His chair was new and unique, allowing people to embrace modern aesthetics whilst society was also: embracing sexuality; fighting for rights and in general rebelling against social norms. Ideologies of the 60s are a clear influence in Panton’s designs, the curvy shapes could be compared to the exploration of sexuality, the bright colours representing the optimism of the era and the use of plastic as a new type of material is comparable to the many new ideas of the era.
It is clear the design of the 3 chairs was very much influenced by the eras they were designed in, but the key features from each of the chairs were carried forwards through many more. It can be concluded that all the chairs had new uninfluenced features compared to other furniture available at the time, as well as features clearly shaped by the eras in which they were created. Panton’s chair, in its design, is arguably the most tainted by its era, whilst Panton and Van der Rohe were less so. Concisely, all three chairs are embodiments of the many stimuli the designers had in their lives.

1 Blasser, W. (1972). Mies Van der Rohe. 1st ed. Thames and Hudson Ltd, page 10.
2 Blogger, G. (2013). Barcelona Chair. image Available at: Accessed 3 Nov. 2018.
3 Candalis, G., Blomstedt, A., Frangoulis, T. and Amorin, M. (1980). Bentwood Furniture. Stuttgart: Karl Kramer Verlag, p.18 p.46 p.5
4 Fershtman, D. and Nitzan-Shiftan, A. (2011). The politics of historiography: Writing an architectural canon into post-war American national identity. National Identities, online 13(1), pp.67-88. Available at: Accessed 12 Nov. 2018.
5 Huxtable, A. (1977). Enduring splendour of Mies Van der Rohe. The New York times, online p.1. Available at: http://file:///C:/Users/Louis/OneDrive/Documents/University/Research/Essay/Van%20der%20rohe/Design_Enduring_splendor_of_M.pdf Accessed 5 Nov. 2018.
6 IOVINE, J. (1998). Verner Panton, 72, Is Dead; Dane Designed Stacking Chair. New York Times, online p.A27. Available at: http://file:///C:/Users/Louis/OneDrive/Documents/University/Research/Essay/Panton/Verner_Panton,_72,_Is_Dead;_Da.pdf Accessed 12 Nov. 2018.
7 Johnson, K. (2005). You’ve Sat in Panton’s Chairs; Now See Them as Artwork. The New York Times, online p.1. Available at: http://file:///C:/Users/Louis/OneDrive/Documents/University/Research/Essay/Panton/You’ve_Sat_in_Panton’s_Chairs;.pdf Accessed 5 Nov. 2018.
8 Julia grup (2015). #DESIGN FURNITURE: PANTON CHAIR BY VERNER PANTON. image Available at: Accessed 3 Nov. 2018.
9 REIF, R. (1980). 150 Years of Thonet’s Bentwood Furniture. New York Times, online p.C8. Available at: http://file:///C:/Users/Louis/OneDrive/Documents/University/Research/Essay/Thonet/150_Years_of_Thonet’s_Bentwood.pdf Accessed 5 Nov. 2018.
10 V;A Museum (n.d.). Chair, model no. 14, image Available at: Accessed 3 Nov. 2018.


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