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By the early 1960s a new generation of designers were rejecting the solid values of 1950s organic modernism by experimenting with exciting new materials, particularly plastics, to create new furniture in vivid colours and fluid shapes. The Danish designer Verner Panton and the Italians Joe Colombo and Anna Castelli-Ferreri raced to develop plastic stacking chairs just like the tubular steel pioneers of the 1920s.

Polyprop, 1962-1963

Design: Robin Day

Injection-moulded polypropylene, tubular steel.
Production: Hille International, UK

There can be few schools, factories and village halls in the UK which do not contain at least one Polyprop chair designed by Robin Day (1915-) for Hille International in the early 1960s. Day himself only realised how ubiquitous the Polyprop had become when he spotted the polypropylene seat shells in a makeshift canoe in Botswana. Hille’s objective was to develop a cheaper version of the Eames’ fibreglass chairs for Herman Miller. Day determined to use the new technology of injection-moulding polypropylene to create a single form for the seat shell. The technology – and Day’s design – was so efficient that Hille could manufacture over 4,000 seat shells each week.

Model No. GF 40/4, 1964

Design: David Rowland

Chromed steel rod frame

One of the most commercially successful contract chairs ever produced, the GF 40/4 was developed by the US designer David Rowland with practicality as the prime consideration. Determined to ensure that his chair would be as light and easy to stack as possible, Rowland strove to reduce the structure to its barest elements. He succeeded in developing a comfortable chair for use in offices, conference rooms and other public buildings that could be stacked 40-high at a height of just four feet. Rowland named the chair – 40/4 – after this feat. When the 40/4 was unveiled in 1964 at the Milan XIII Triennale, its designer was rewarded with a gold medal.

Solus, 1964

Design: Gae Aulenti

Tubular steel, leather.
Production: Zanotta, Italy

During the 1960s, furniture manufacturers began to reissue some of the tubular steel pieces designed by emerging modern movement designers, such as Marcel Breuer, Le Corbusier, Pierre Jeanneret and Charlotte Perriand in the 1920s. Gavina reproduced Breuer’s Wassily chair in 1962 and in 1965 Cassina reintroduced some of the chair designs of Le Corbusier, Jeanneret and Perriand. These reproductions influenced the work of contemporary designers, like Gae Aulenti (1927-), by encouraging them to reconsider the principles and approach of modernist pioneers in their own work. Aulenti’s 1965 Solus chair not only evokes stylistic references to 1920s modern movement furniture but uses similar materials – leather and tubular steel.

Hammock PK24, 1965

Design: Poul Kjaerholm

Stainless steel, woven cane

Among the most inventive of the mid-20th century Scandinavian modernists was the Danish designer Poul Kjaerhom (1929-1980) who, like his peers, softened International Style rationalism with naturalistic Nordic influences, but in an unusually ingenious way. Typical is the juxtaposition of colour and texture between the woven cane and stainless steel in Kjaerholm’s PK24, the chaise longue version of his 1955 PK22 day chair. The PK24 is also remarkable for Kjaerholm’s sculptural treatment of stainless steel, a material that, he believed, was as pliable and expressive as the wood favoured by other Scandinavian designers. Like the PK22, the chaise longue is also light, lean and portable: a practical piece of modern furniture.

Universale, 1965-1967

Design: Joe Colombo

Injection moulded ABS plastic
Production: Kartell, Italy

Originally an artist, Joe Colombo (1930-1971) opened a design studio in Milan in 1962 to apply the bold, curvaceous forms – and hatred of sharp corners and straight lines – that had characterised his art to product design. He also strove to apply new technologies to develop new types of furniture. Obsessed by making a chair from a single piece of material, Colombo first tried to develop the Universale stacking chair in aluminium, but then experimented with ABS plastic. Light, portable and easy to clean, the Universale is also adjustable as its legs can be unscrewed and replaced with longer ones. Colombo strove for two years to perfect it for mass-production.

Panton Chair, 1968-1999

Design: Verner Panton

Polypropylene – 1999 version
Production: Vitra, Switzerland

Sexy, sleek and a technical first – as the first cantilevered chair to be made from a single piece of plastic – the Panton Chair epitomises the optimism of the 1960s. Inspired by the sight of a pile of plastic buckets stacked neatly on top of each other, Verner Panton (1926-1998) had struggled with ways of constructing a plastic cantilevered chair since the 1950s. When the Panton Chair was finally unveiled in the Danish design journal Mobilia in August 1967, it caused a sensation. Equally memorable was its appearance as a prop in a 1970 issue of Nova, the British fashion magazine, in a fashion shoot entitled “How to undress in front of your husband.'

Donna Up5, 1969

Design: Gaetano Pesce

Moulded polyurethane foam, fabric.
Production: B&B Italia, Italy

The Donna Up5 was regarded as uncompromisingly radical when it was unveiled by the avant garde Italian architect Gaetano Pesce (1939-) in 1969. Pesce designed it as part of a new series of vacuum sealed upholstered furniture which could be bought in as a flat pack and literally sprang to life once the vacuum seal was broken. Described by Pesce as “transformation furniture", each Up piece is compressed to a tenth of its full size when vacuum-packed in PVC before expanding to its full size after the pack is opened. The Up5 became unexpectedly popular in the UK when it was featured as the diary room chair in the 2002 series of the reality TV show Big Brother.

Birillo, 1969-1970

Design: Joe Colombo

Chromed steel, tubular steel, leather
Production: Zanotta, Italy

In his brief but brilliant career, Joe Colombo (1930-1971) emerged as one of Italy’s most influential product and furniture designers. Combining an exuberant, visually seductive pop aesthetic with technical rigour, he developed many of the most innovative examples of 1960s furniture design. Convinced that technology was transforming modern life, all his work was intended for 'he environment of the future.' Colombo designed the Birillo stool, which takes its name from the Italian word for 'bar stool,' during the development of his ambitious Visiona project to create an imaginary living space. Robust and versatile with castors tucked neatly beneath its base, the Birillo was intended for use in fashionable 1970s offices as well as bars.

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