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29.10.18

A chair like a bucket, an accusation of plagiarism and the five longest seconds in history

The world learned about the Panton Chair for the first time in the August 1967 issue of the Danish magazine Mobilia, which carried it on its front page and dedicated an exclusive graphic report to it. But the history of its design goes back at least eleven years prior and does not end until in 1999, a year after the death of Verner Panton, Vitra put on the market its latest injected polypropylene version. Panton, in fact, argued that the idea assaulted him even earlier, when he worked in the studio of Arne Jacobsen and saw for the first time a fiberglass shell and a plastic bucket, and what impressed him most of all was the low price of the bucket. The impact of the publication was obscured in the following issue of Mobilia, which published an article by Axel Thygesen, which questioned the originality of Panton's idea of a full cantilever chair showing two designs by Gunnar Asgard Andersen and Poul Kjaerholm from 1953 and 1955, respectively, that were never produced. Thygesen claimed for these two projects the condition of Panton's inspiring background, but Andersen, a professional of great prestige on the Danish scene at the time, went further by directly arguing that Panton had stolen the idea. Mobilia, however, did not conform to that halfway vice of today's journalism according to which truth is the arithmetic mean of two lies and, without depriving its readers of the data of the problem, put things in place with another article in the same issue from its editor Svend Erik Møller in favor of the deployment carried out in August.

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Møller argued that the shape of the Panton Chair was inseparable from its production method, the result of "a process of industrial development in which the work of the designer is only one aspect of a costly and risky investment". Certainly, the Andersen and Kjaerholm prototypes, never before disseminated or patented, had obvious similarities with Panton's formal solution - which he always denied any knowledge of them -, but they had arrived too soon, when there was no factual and technological possibility of developing them. Panton, however, pursued that possibility with a perseverance and a bombproof patience, which did not surrender to eventual and sound failures, such as in 1979 Vitra discontinued the chair due to the insufficient performance of the model that had begun to manufacture in 1971 with Luran S, a thermoplastic polystyrene from BASF that cheapened and facilitated production but, in the long run, showed unsatisfactory resistance to weathering. From the initial 1967 version, of fiberglass reinforced polyester, only about 150 copies were produced. There is a long way to the hundreds of thousands made of the latest version, and only Panton and Vitra did it hand-in-hand. Jens Bernsen, director of the Danish Design Center in Copenhagen once told Panton that most of his designs were "basically five-minute jobs", to which Verner replied negatively: "Rather in about five seconds." Bernsen adds with wisdom that, sometimes, reaching those five seconds takes one’s entire life, which is precisely what Møller and Mobilia had taught their readers as early as 1967. At a time when there were still magazines. And they served for something.

 
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