Pop goes the world

Escaping the tyrany of good taste

Verner Panton pop Visiona 2 modern Cologne
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Above: Verner Panton’s exhibit at the ‘Visiona II’ Cologne Furniture Fair in 1970.

For a brief and bright period of modern design there was a movement that bore many names but today is usually referred to as ‘Pop’. Whether it’s labeled ‘Pop’, ‘Mod’, ‘Space Age’, or even ‘Contro-Disegno’ many of the pieces were the result of playful or intellectual exercises rather than functional pieces of furniture. With new materials and mediums some designers chose to experiment and attempted to broaden the parameters of modern design. New and emerging designers made names for themselves in this new design landscape and even established designers and manufacturers dabbled a little in the plastic fantastic when the world went pop.

The 1960’s were a time of social unrest. In the United States, following the assassination of John F. Kennedy and with the Vietnam War, people were looking for an escape. Escapism was easy to find in TV and the movies but to bring this ‘alternate reality’ into ones real life was obviously not something seriously considered. But with a growing counter culture movement, a loosening of social norms, and even the drug culture of the time, a bold response began to emerge. With new, fast-drying acrylic paints – available in exciting, vivid, and even garish color – the response from the art world were pieces that were immediate, quick, and even disposable. Whatever  underlining social commentary that came with these artworks was suddenly lost behind the new mediums and the ‘message’ was replaced with a simple, “Just because.”

As in the art world, textile and furniture manufacturers began exploring new synthetic materials that – like the new paints – could be made in a range of colors previously unknown. Thin, durable nylons could be stretched over any shape or bold form. Sinuous, even nonsensical forms could now be easily fabricated through injected foam-molding processes and designers (and some architects) worldwide experienced a new liberty with creations that often put form before function. But like society, itself stretching its anti-establishment muscle, for designers it was also a rebellion, a movement that noted French designer Pierre Paulin described as, “Breaking free of the tyranny of good taste.”

Previously only considered a utilitarian product, plastics, while used in some earlier furniture like Saarinen’s Tulip chairs, made an audacious entry into the world of furniture design. The Italian and French designers in particular were quick to embrace the new plastics, like ABS, and turned it in into lighting, seating, and decorative accessories. Fiberglass, which was almost exclusively a military/industrial material previously, found its way into the designers and architects hands and got refashioned as high end design pieces, many of which are still sought after today by collectors.

Brief, bold, and bright the pop movement was quickly dismissed as being silly and soon replaced with the less energetic brown, tan, and burnt orange style palette that dominated most of the 70’s. Some called Pop a knee-jerk reaction to the darker social times. Some critics called it nonsensical and even egotistical. “How dare a designer create a piece simply for his own pleasure and not for a greater social purpose?” others opined. And Pop was silly, reactionary, and nonsensical but its stands uniquely alone in the history of design. These works were truly original; not always practical, but original. One could argue the merits and cite phrases from the various Modernist manifests to defend these Pop pieces but in the end they exist, just because.

While hardly definitive, a taste of pop. Click image bellow to see full photo and information.


Video showing the Verner Panton Exhibit at the Cologne Furniture Fair.


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Kathy Baird Cora
Kathy Baird Cora

Far Out! I loved the 70’s space age era. Well done.