DIDI+Vitra chair design challenge for Dubai Design Week

Verner Panton 1999

Much of the public activity of the Dubai Institute of Design and Innovation, which opened its doors to students this term, has been around fashion – the background of DIDI’s dean and most of its Board members. True, there has been a nod towards design in schools that focuses more generally on practice; but there hasn’t been too much promotion for other aspects of design.

There will surely be more of that in the future – it’s implicit in the ‘design and innovation’ bit of the name, after all. And the announcement that DIDI has partnered with international furniture brand Vitra on a challenge to design a chair for the future is an indication that DIDI will have a broad approach to self-promotion.

The collaboration, titled Kursi, marks the 50th anniversary of Vitra’s iconic Panton chair design. DIDI students and faculty (so not the general design community, which is a shame) have six weeks to come up with alternatives that take inspiration from the lengthy design process involved in creating the Panton chair; the results will in an exhibition at this year’s Dubai Design Week.

Hani Asfour, Associate Dean of DIDI (right) observed that DIDI aims to provide its students with “design skills that take inspiration from the past but are firmly focused on the future. This includes considering key design drivers, such as sustainability, user experience and innovation”.

The official Vitra line is that “the challenges, learnings and innovation required to bring a product to market require patience, dedication and learnings” as much for today’s design students as for Verner Panton in the early 1960s.

Vitra has a longstanding reputation for working with great designers to create innovative products, many of which have become furniture icons – the Eames chairs are probably the best known, but Vitra is responsible for many concepts whose look and feel are instantly recognisable (not least because they have been widely “emulated” by discount producers outside Switzerland).

The story of the Panton chair illustrates this perfectly. Verner Panton is still regarded as one of Denmark’s most influential furniture and interior designers from the second half of the last century; Arne Jacobsen, with whom he worked in the 1950s, is another key name. Panton was an innovative designer, responsible for the Cardboard House and the Plastic House among his many designs. And towards the end of the 1950s he produced a series of increasingly radical designs for chairs, culminating in the first ever single-form injection-moulded plastic chair.

Rolf Fehlbaum, son of the Vitra founding family, spotted a prototype while visiting the Panton studio. It was obviously stylish but had the unfortunate characteristic that it was too unstable enough to use. “A well-known American designer even declared that something like that shouldn‘t be called a ‘chair’ – claiming it was not suitable to sit on,” said Verner Panton later.

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1963 marked the start of a collaboration between Vitra’s technicians and Panton that eventually fixed the instability, pushed the physical limits of plastics technology and manufacturing requirements, and after several years’ work resulted in one of the most iconic chair designs of the 20th century – one of the earliest models is now in the collection of MOMA New York, and several design museums show the Panton chair.

Groundbreaking use of manually laminated fibreglass-reinforced polyester meant Panton’s swooping design for a stackable, cantilevered chair could be realised in production quantities.

Then in the 1990s Vitra and Panton revisited the project in the light of advances in plastics technology and injection moulding. A new version of the Panton chair was developed in polypropylene, meaning that the goal of an affordable industrial product was finally realisable (it’s currently sold at $310, with the original rigid polyurethane foam classic still available at an eye-watering $1,675). Verner Panton died shortly before the new chair was launched in 1999.

There’s more about the Panton chair story here, and it’s an object lesson in how designers can (and/or should) work with a committed client.

The Kursi exhibition will be in d3’s Building 4 throughout Dubai Design Week, 12–17 November. As well as the DIDI ideas, you’ll be able to see Vitra’s latest Pantons, the limited edition 50th anniversary Chrome and Glow chairs.

These new editions hark back to Verner Panton’s fascination with mirrored surfaces, though at the time the reflective coatings available were just too susceptible to scratching. Now Vitra has come up with a process in which metal particles are embedded in multiple layers of varnish, the result being resilient enough to cope with movement of the cantilever chair while in use and sufficiently robust to protect the surface.

Panton Glow uses a similar process; five layers of a varnish containing phosphorescent pigments are applied by hand and sealed with a high-gloss protective coating. The luminous pigments absorb daylight and emit an atmospheric blue glow in the dark.


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