Verner Panton’s colorful visions

by Jeff Hammond and Jeff Michael Hammond

Experimentation, playfulness, adventure. Through the example of maverick Danish designer Verner Panton, these words have entered the lexicon of many designers today.

In the first half of the 20th century, design schools were rare, so Panton trained as an architect, as did many future designers of his day, including his mentor, Arne Jacobsen. For many, Jacobsen’s work is synonymous with Danish design for its craftsmanship, sense of style, good taste and its use of natural materials and Panton learned much from him, particularly while helping him on his signature “Ant Chair” of 1952. However, Panton went on to explore ideas at odds with the Danish design tradition, trying out synthetic materials, such as plastic, and new industrial and mass-production techniques.

Although he did work in Denmark, his vision led him to travel around Europe in search of companies sympathetic to his design and production concepts. His long-term collaborations with the Swiss company Vitra led him to base himself in Basel for the majority of his career, which explains why this exhibition, currently at the Tokyo Opera City Gallery and being shown in 15 countries worldwide, is organized by the Vitra Design Museum.

Simply titled “Verner Panton,” this exhibition provides an overview of the designer’s career, bringing together many of his most important works. At a talk held at Opera City, former guest-curator of the Vitra Design museum, Mathias Remmele, described Panton as “one of the first internationally known star designers in history,” adding that “what makes him interesting is his constant seeking for novel design solutions and the radical zeal with which he approached his work.”

The exhibition opens with two examples of Panton’s “Cone Chair,” which became one of his signature designs. In the shape of upturned cones, the chairs, manufactured in 1959-60 by the Danish company Plus-Iinje, miraculously stand on tapered bases. One is red and the other is orange — two colors that, along with blue and purple, were to become the core of Panton’s intense palette. Adjacent is his wire “Trumpet Chair” in white and gray — one of Panton’s rarer subdued color moments — while nearby is a selection of chairs that include the stylish peacock chair, consisting of connected circular shapes, and a square design in transparent plexiglass.

The innovative designer is perhaps most well known for his self-named “Panton Chair,” which is unique for being made from a single piece of molded plastic. Remmele pointed out that the “gently flowing contours that underlie its sculptural character” — curves that fit the human form perfectly — mark the chair as an early ergonomic design. According to Remmele, its elegance and dynamism also make it “one of the most important design icons of the 20th century.”

The chair went into production in 1967 after many years of experimentation, but even then Panton was not satisfied with the material it was made from and it was changed four times to simplify the process to reduce the price. Panton had an idealistic view of good design and wanted to take it out of the hands of the elitist bourgeoisie by making it affordable for all.

J ust as significant as his furniture pieces was Panton’s work in lighting, textile and interior design. He created thousands of fabric designs, including the Optical Art-influenced “Geometry One,” comprising the interrelationship of repeated circles and squares. This pattern has become a design classic and appears in several variations throughout the exhibition. His lighting designs ranged from the simple (for example, the two semi-circles, one slightly smaller than the other, of his “Flower Pot” design of 1968) to the sculptural and highly decorative (whole clusters of small lamps forming huge futuristic chandeliers).

Panton excelled when he was able to bring together his design concepts in lighting, furniture and textiles in spaces unified by color. While few of the restaurant, office and shop interiors he created across Europe still exist today, an extensive photo archive allows us to still appreciate many of his original visions. His scheme for the interior of the Varna restaurant on the sea front in Aarhus, Denmark, is one of the strongest examples of his work. The circular patterns of the carpet and draperies unite the floor and walls as they echo the circular shape of the two end-rooms. As always, he uses color, here shades of his signature red, blue and purple, systematically throughout the overall design scheme. The chairs, which are made from wire and thus partially transparent, open up the space, and a similar wire-frame S-shaped sofa can be seen in an installation in the exhibition, as part of an entire interior ensemble of furniture.

P anton was also fascinated by the idea of module furniture with interchangeable units. A video of his “Wohlnlandschaft” set of seats and a model replica of his visionary two-level “multi-functional living unit” from 1966 show off the versatility of his work. What really comes across in these pieces is Panton’s sense of playfulness and fun, further illustrated by his 3D carpet, whose camel-like humps and bumps encourage a more creative and relaxing use of space than the standard sofa and chair set-up.

The exhibition’s highlight is a full-size replica of Panton’s “Phantasy Landscape,” originally created for the Cologne Furniture Fair of 1970. Any notion of separation between floor, wall and ceiling is renounced as all three dimensions morph together in a unified field of curves and waves, the source of lighting hidden by the unit’s fabric membrane. This piece is a perfect summation of Panton’s approach to interior design and one that visitors can themselves climb inside and enjoy.

Exemplifying the swinging ’60s, Panton’s designs went out fashion in the late 1970s but enjoyed revived interest in the years before his death in 1998. This exhibition shows that the principles behind them — experimentation, adventure, color and more — are timeless.

“Verner Panton” at the Tokyo Opera City Art Gallery runs till Dec. 27, closed Mon.; admission ¥1,000; open 11 a.m.-7 p.m. For more information visit www.operacity.jp/ag/exh111