Design icons of the 1960s

The 1960s marked a certain break in the history of design. After the interwar period and its dominant Art Deco style, and after the post-war reconstruction in which European countries rebuilt their cities and housing in general, the decade of the 1960s opened with greater carefree spirit and the desire to enter the consumer society. Across the Atlantic, the economic development based on the boom in consumer goods and equipment led artists to formulate a response adapted to their time: Pop art.

Gone were the days of rationalism; new lifestyles led architects and designers to invent a new language. Colourful, joyful, inspired by advertising and driven by the development of new materials, the design of the period was immediately recognisable, with certain pieces of furniture achieving iconic status.

The 1960s marked the triumph of plastic and its derivatives. Designers made good use of ABS, a thermoplastic polymer that was impact resistant, relatively rigid, light and, above all, mouldable; or the incredible properties of polyurethane foam. The Panton chair or S chair, named after its creator, the Danish designer Verner Panton (1926-1998), is perhaps the most iconic piece of furniture of the decade. It was the first plastic chair to be moulded in one piece.

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Verner Panton, Panton chair (1959-1960), famous for its S-shaped silhouette. In the late 1950s, Verner Panton designed a one-piece seat (base, seat and backrest in one piece). Originally made of reinforced rigid polyurethane foam, the model evolved with the technology. It has been marketed by the Swiss company Vitra since 1967.

FireShot Capture 004 - Chaises Panton chair classic, laquées noires, Verner Panton pour Vitr_ -

Black lacquered Panton chairs, publisher Vitra.

In France, the designers Pierre Paulin (1927-2009) and Olivier Mourgue (1939) fully symbolise the colourful and imaginative design of the time in their creations. The Djinn armchair by Mourgue, which became a cult item when it appeared in the film 2001, A Space Odyssey, comes to mind. But also the famous Mushroom chair, or the ABCD sofa by Pierre Paulin.


Djinn armchair in yellow, designed by Olivier Mourgue for Airborne, 1960s. The tubular steel frame is upholstered in polyester foam and covered with a stretch jersey cover.


Mushroom armchair, design by Pierre Paulin for Artifort, 1959. Both Paulin and Mourgue used a new material at the time: jersey, which allowed them to cover their creations with a stretch fabric cover.


Pierre Paulin, F560 Mushroom armchair, publisher Artifort.


Caption: Red ABCD sofa, design by Pierre Paulin for Artifort, 1968.

Another iconic piece from the 1960s is the Malitte seating module with 5 foam elements by Chilean painter, architect, sculptor and poet Roberto Matta (1911-2002). Malitte is a seating system consisting of 5 polyurethane blocks covered with a slightly elastic fabric. The blocks, coloured organic shapes, fit together and can be assembled into a single sculpture, a real piece of pop art!


Malitte seating system, design Roberto Matta, 1966. The system here “folded” forms a “wall” that divides the environment with its formal and conceptual presence. This unique piece, a symbol of the sixties, was published by Gavina from 1966 to 1968 and by Knoll International NY from 1968 to 1974.


Sofa known as “Malitte” in the “unfolded” version, design: Roberto Matta, 1966. The result is a complete living room: a 2-seater sofa, 3 seats and a footstool.


Advertisement for the Malitte system, 1960s.

From 1957 to 1977, the Italian architect and designer Marco Zanuso (1916-2001) collaborated with the German architect-designer Richard Sapper (1932-2015). Their favourite material: plastic! They designed a design MUST: the K1340 (or K4999 model) stackable plastic children’s chair. In 1961, it was the first mass-produced chair made entirely of plastic. Zanuso and Sapper used injection-moulded high-density polyethylene to design it.

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Marco Zanuso & Richard Sapper, K1340 plastic stacking chair for children. The chair is available in several bright colours, published by Kartell from 1964.

Verner Panton was long misunderstood in his own country, Denmark, because he worked with new materials such as plastic, fibreglass, foam and other synthetic materials, in contrast to the Danish tradition of furniture made of natural wood. However, he was not the only Scandinavian to do so. The Finnish designer Eero Aarnio (1932) became famous for several pieces with a terrific pop feel: the Ball Chair, the Bubble Chair (both in 1968) and the famous Pastille armchair in 1967.

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Pastille chair, designed by Eero Aarnio for the Finnish publisher Asko (1967). Inimitable with its offbeat shape that makes it look like a pastille, this chair is as much a work of art as a simple armchair. The Pastille is made entirely of fibreglass and focuses on comfort.


Another icon of the 1960s: the Ball Chair, designed by Eero Aarnio (1968). A triumph of plastic as the Ball Chair’s shell is made of fibreglass, the cushions are made of polyurethane foam covered with Kvadrat upholstery fabric.

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Bubble Chair, design Eero Aarnio (1968). This is the little sister of the Ball Chair, a cocoon with unique acoustic qualities. Since 1990, the Finnish publisher Adelta has been the exclusive manufacturer of Eero Aarnio’s furniture.

Unlike his compatriot Verner Panton, Hans Wegner (1914-2007) is part of the Scandinavian modernist furniture tradition. In 1967, he created a little marvel: the Shell chair or Fauteuil CH-07, so called because its shape is reminiscent of a shell. A piece that has become cult, the CH-07 has a very sculptural appearance with its large arched seat.


The Shell chair, designed by Hans Wegner for Carl Hansen & Son, 1967. Hans Wegner made full use of the flexibility of plywood. Otherwise known as the “smiling chair” for its appearance.


The Shell chair with its three-legged base looks great! The seat and backrest are upholstered with foam and covered with fabric, leather or skai.

Marked by the use of plastic and synthetic materials and the use of bright colours, the 1960s also opened up a new chapter in indoor living. From then on, consumers liked to be in a space that could be transformed according to their needs.

In the United States, the American office furniture and equipment company Herman Miller understood this development and translated it into the workplace. The designer and researcher Robert Propst (1921-2000), together with George Nelson (1908-1986), who headed the company’s design department, developed the Action Office System or Cubicle, the first concept of flexible, semi-enclosed workspaces, which continued to evolve throughout the 1960s.

The first series of theAction Office offered desks and workspaces of varying heights that allowed the worker to move around freely and to have the necessary flexibility to occupy the workstation best suited to the task at hand. A small revolution in the air of time, the open space before its time, a concept that has since become cult.

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George Nelson and the Action Office 1, circa 1964. Design: Robert Propst, design: George Nelson for Herman Miller. Promotional photograph by Herman Miller

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Action Office 1, 1964. The system consists of a raised desk, a Perch stool, a separate telephone set and free-standing shelves. Action Office 2 incorporates spatial demarcation by using integrated wall panels. Herman Miller invents the modular workspace (or “box”).

The 1960s were a time of innovation, driven by brilliant designers who imagined and designed furniture for a new way of living. Joe Colombo (1930-1970) was one of them. This Italian designer, who died prematurely at the age of 40, was an outstanding visionary. He ‘felt’ the times and designed multifunctional furniture, such as his combi-center.

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Combi Center furniture, design: Joe Colombo for Bernini, 1963-1964. This was the first container furniture. Clever and innovative, the Combi-Center consists of several rotating units.

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Combi Center furniture, details. Design: Joe Colombo for Bernini, 1963-1964.

But Colombo’s piece that became an icon of those years is the extraordinary Tube chair made in 1969 for the Italian publisher Flexform. It is THE symbol of modularity: 4 cylinders of different diameters, assembled to form either a low or a high armchair – the backrest and its seat being interchangeable. The tube chair is made of PVC (a relatively new material at the time), incorporating polyurethane foam and other synthetic materials. Joe Colombo introduced some of the most innovative techniques of his time.

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Tube chair, design by Joe Colombo for Flexform (1969). At the time, the Tube chair was also an experiment in modularity and flexibility of form in interior design. A futuristic vision that inhabits its creator.

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Tube chair, designed by Joe Colombo for Flexform (1969). Detail on the joints which are made of metal, and form hooks, with rubber balls at both ends. The concept symbolises the freedom of the time: the owner can carry the seat in a bag and assemble it wherever he wants. The Italian publisher Cappellini has been reissuing the Tube chair since 2016.

The 1960s were extremely rich in terms of design. In happy, forward-looking societies, designers imagined and conceived furniture that was colourful, modular and in some ways nomadic, reflecting a liberated era. The social unrest of 1968 marked a turning point and the end of a carefree era. Starting in Italy, a protest movement described as “anti-design” began..

François Boutard.