The 1960s was all about cultural change and rebellion, this was true in all aspects of life including pop music, fashion and design. Historical influences were rejected by many new modernist designers who adopted new ways of thinking, they looked forward rather than backwards and the results are still extremely distinctive, half a century later.
Interior and furniture designers like Verner Panton, Terence Conran and Giancarlo Piretti were riding the crest of this upheaval. They created twisted and colourful chairs and tables for mass production and were very much a part of the pop culture that the decade cultivated. As new materials were being utilised by designers, they moved towards moulded plastics and futuristic aesthetics and very much dismissing the principle of ‘form follows function’, which was associated with the functional modern designs of the early 20th century.
Gone were the old guard, and gone were the rich businessmen who had been in charge of production ever since the industrial revolution. It was a culture coup, this radical cultural transformation really did overthrow the establishment.
The years following World War II had been difficult, with rationing and struggling economies. The sixties was a new decade, there was growth in Europe, Japan and the United States and this resulted in a new optimism which was mirrored in the consumer goods production. Mass produced electronic goods, cars, new technologies and materials, along with the developing space race and new hollywood movies, injected some much-needed promise into young peoples lives.
Designers reflected the consciousness of those in the modern world, architects created space-age looking buildings, interior designers crafted clean living spaces with cool new plastics, modular shapes and chrome materials. New manufacturing methods and new design ethics gave birth to geometric designs, with more curves or straight lines. Innovation was in, cultural boundaries had been blurred, people had finally had money which they were rushing out to spend on these new-fangled consumer products.
The decade’s revitalisation was everywhere, furniture designers created many iconic chairs, tables and lamps to sit in homes. Designers became household names, they were celebrities in their own right and families across Europe and the USA now wanted to sit on the chairs which they saw on their new televisions (another design revolution for another day). They bought the accessories, pop culture had now taken over everyday life, it had truly infiltrated the living room.
Many of these furniture designs are now housed in places like the British Design Museum, and they are revered by collectors and designers alike. I want to now look at the most iconic chair designs from the 1960s:
Egg Chair – Arne Jacobsen
After banging on about the 1960s for five hundred words or so, I am now going to talk about a chair designed in 1958. Stick with me though, as there is a reason for this! The Egg Chair, which was designed by Arne Jacobsen for the Radisson SAS hotel in Copenhagen, optimises all that was great and original about the 1960s and the design of the time. Okay, so I am cheating, but the Egg Chair really did come to fruition in the sixties – its production took off over that decade and Jacobsen’s icon is still firmly entrenched in modern culture.
The Egg Chair is a timeless classic, built for comfort and functionality whilst sheltering the user and cocooning them. The chair has been featured in a wide number of memorable productions, it plays a big role in the 6th book of the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy and the diary room chair in Big Brother is also an Egg!
The steel frame and fabric cover of the chair was available in green to begin with, but is now available in several different colours. For a limited period, there was an egg couch available, but there were difficulties in its design and manufacture. The Egg really did crack the market and its concept optimises the era from which it came.
Jacobsen was one of Denmark’s most influential 20th century designers and architects, he also designed the famous Swan Chair and combined modernist ideals with his love of Nordic traditionalists. His design classics made him a prominent figure in Danish cultural circles, and his furniture was loved by movie director Stanley Kubrick; cultural boundaries had officially been eroded.
Panton Chair – Verner Panton
The Panton was a stackable plastic cantilevered S-shaped chair which was made in one singular piece of moulded plastic. Before Verner Panton, designers had experimented with stackable chairs since before the Second World War. Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe was a pioneer in the idea, while Verner Panton was also dreaming up ideas. He drew his sketches for the Panton Chair in 1960 before he went into partnership with Willi Fehlbaum in the mid sixties, they were both fascinated with a chair with no legs which was designed in one piece.
Panton was a huge contributor to the pop movement, his chair was popular because it was sleek and curvaceous; years after its design, the Panton Chair appeared on the front cover of Vogue in Britain with Kate Moss (1995). Verner Panton was one of the most influential figures in the 1960s and ‘70s, his experimental approach to colours and materials were hailed in Europe and America. One of the earliest models which was made of a rigid polyurethane foam is now a part of the collection at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. It may well be my favourite design on this list, but we must move on!
Donna Up5 and UP6 – Gaetano Pesce
The Donna was really in tune with the entire spirit of what Pop Art was about, the chair was designed by C & B Italia (Cassina & Busnelli) and was meant to resemble a prehistoric female fertility figure. Gaetano Pesce’s lounger was made from polyurethane foam and coal foam molded nylon-jersey, its oversized foam structure was the result of new design technologies designed by C&D. The Up5 is light and its foam design means that it slowly returns to its original shape after the user has stood up and got off it; despite its size the Donna can be picked up with one hand.
The chair was unconventional in both its aesthetics and the process / materials which were used in its development. It is renowned as being one of the pieces of design which is both unique and outstanding in its expressions, there is really no other piece of furniture like it.
Knoll – Warren Platner
Warren Platner Knoll chairs embraced a more luxurious side to modernism, he combined the use of new materials with older elegance. His Knoll range adopted an almost art deco aesthetic when they were first produced in 1966, they are a timeless design and are both exclusive and in-keeping with the space age designs of the era.
Warren Platner earned his reputation across the world when he developed his elegant yet understated furniture during the 1960s. He became an icon of ’60s modernism for designing the Knoll, and he also worked within architectural and interior design disciplines. The steel wire designs are still very popular, they are a combination of sleek materials and are curvaceous yet linear in their form.
Curved Chaise – Adrian Pearsall
Adrian Pearsall was a leader in early modernist furniture, he designed many original pieces of furniture throughout his career. After graduating with a degree in architectural engineering Pearsall founded ‘Craft Associates’, which became one of the most prominent design houses in the United States.
His daring designs brought luxury to the general public and he is renowned for his creation of long and low sofas and glass tables. In 2008 he was inducted into the American Furniture Hall of Fame, partly due to his work in designing chaise longues, such as the Curved Chaise (pictured).
The Curved Chaise was developed in 1965, its curvaceous and languid look was well known mostly for its sublime lemon yellow colour and its lazy shape. Pearsall’s design is a classic, it lends itself to those who want to lean back and have a read or take a quick break. Many love its easy shape and how it transcends both classic and modernist aspects of furniture design.
Bertha Schaefer – Walnut Armchair
Bertha Schaefer worked in New York City for many years after she graduated from Mississippi State College and the Parsons School of Design. She opened the Bertha Schaefer gallery in 1955 and exhibited work by American and European artists, designers and sculptors.
She was known for her work with different types of soft and hardwoods and the many variations of the Walnut Armchair. The Walnut Armchair, which is pictured, was designed for Singer and Sons in the 1960s and it is comprised of both the curves associated with ’60s design and the innovative usage of new materials.
Bertha Schaefer was known as an innovator; she may not be as famous as Ray Eames or Ernie Jacobson, but she designed many pieces of furniture and is very well thought of. She was obsessed with the beauty within wooden forms and had her own distinct style, but for some reason did not receive the recognition she really deserved for her beautiful works.
Polyprop – Robin Day
There is probably not a bum in Britain that has not plonked itself on a Polyprop, actually… make that the world. Forty years after its initial production, the Polyprop is still being manufactured. They are popular in schools, hospitals, restaurants and canteens and it is the best selling chair in the world!
Its full name is the Polypropylene stacking chair and it was designed by British designer Robin Day in 1963; in 2009 the Polyprop was named as a “British Design Classic.”
It’s an iconic chair because of its purpose – Hill was instructed to design a low cost, mass produced chair which was able to be stacked. It is not a flashy design compared to the rest of the list, but in terms of its impact on popular culture it is a real icon. The Polyprop is a fantastic piece of furniture design.
Solus – Gae Aulenti
Tubular steel came to prominence during the 1960s when manufacturers and designers began to use it in their works, including furniture designers. The new steel designs mirrored in architectural works from Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret. The Solus is full of stylish references to early 1920s modernist movements, but also uses very similar materials such as leather and steel for its frame.
Italian designer Aulenti designed the Solus in Zanotta in his home country of Italy, his futuristic looking Solus looked both forwards and backwards in its aesthetic influences and it really cemented his position as one of Italy’s most well known designers.
Model No. GF 40/4 – David Rowland
Last but not least in my game of 1960s musical chairs is David Rowland’s GF 40/4. It is one of the most commercially successfully chairs ever produced, it was designed for its practicality as well as aiming to be comfortable and easily stackable.
Rowland looked to design a chair which was stripped back to be as easy to manufacturer and as lightweight as possible when he was developing it in 1963-64. The GF 40/4 is much like Robin Day’s Polyprop as it is used in classrooms and offices across the world. Rowland even won a gold medal at the Milan XIII Triennale for his efforts!
Are you are still sitting comfortably? I have covered the chairs from the swinging sixties which are considered to be the most iconic chairs of their era, and in the entire history of furniture design. A chair is more than just something to sit on, designers have been thoughtfully creating these stylish and practical loungers with ever more innovative processes and materials ever since modernism revolutionised 20th century design.
The 1960s changed a lot – mass produced chairs which borrowed attributes from works of art were manufactured in large numbers, they were produced for a new generation of young consumers as culture really forced the old guard to stand up and take notice.