Embodying the 1960s ethos with his optical drama and playful futurism, Verner Panton was a world apart from cool Scandinavian modernism. At the crest of the retro-60s wave, his legendary designs have found a new global audience.
By Poul Hvidberg-Hansen
Verner Panton (1926-98), who graduated as a designer from the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts School of Architecture in 1951, spent most of his professional life in Basel, Switzerland, from where he collaborated with leading German, Swiss, French and Danish manufacturers of furniture, lighting, textiles and carpets.
Far from being an exponent of restrained Scandinavian modernism with its streamlined look and traditional craftsmanship, the Danish designer grew to international prominence in the 1960s with a playful idiom of bouncy plastics, space age sheen and optical drama.
The zenith of his career was no doubt the environment he created for the *Visiona II* exhibition at the 1970 Cologne Furniture Fair, which was to showcase textiles manufactured by Bayer AG. The most celebrated aspect of the environment was his fluid *Phantasy Landscape* featuring a lounge area of soft seating illuminated from within. This psychedelic roomscape was a colour-go-round of every shade of Verner Panton’s palette, a rainbow of eight saturated primary colours and eight additional shades inspired by the mood-altering chromatology of the German natural philosopher and romantic poet, Goethe.
Verner Panton’s own favourite colour was blue. He always dressed in blue and worked in blue studios and his motto was: “You are better seated if you are sitting on a colour you like.”
Verner Panton’s eye-catching designs were most often based on the circles and squares of Euclidean geometry and drew on the classically proportioned scales of 1:2, 1:4 and 1:8.
One example of his geometrical wizardry and perhaps the most famous of his designs is the cantilevered *Panton Chair* from 1958, whose sinuous form is generated from circular shapes. The chair was one of the world’s first single-cast plastic chairs and was originally produced in fibreglass reinforced polyester to give a sense of elasticity when seated. The chair has been an icon of design ever since it was launched in 1967 and is still produced by the Swiss manufacturer Vitra, now using polyethylene and available as children’s playroom seating.
One of Verner Panton’s numerous environments was the 1960 interior design for a restaurant at the Astoria Hotel in Trondheim, Norway. Apart from the Op-Art inspired wall panels *Geometry 1* and his famous *Cone Wire Chair*, fittingly manufactured by makers of shopping carts, the restaurant interior featured his orbicular porcelain enamelled *Topan Pendant* from 1959, which was the first of his lamp designs to be put into production.
Verner Panton designed a wealth of lamps for the legendary Danish lamp manufacturer Louis Poulsen of which his 1968 *Flower Pot* is the most famous and commercially successful. It was originally conceived to hang in groups or clusters but soon became design fixtures of many Danish kitchens as singular pendants. This design along with its twin *Topan Pendant* became synonymous with 1960s design. The hemisphere-shaped design is available in 60s retro colours such as red, orange, azure and white.
The recent revival in 1960s design has given Verner Panton’s milestone icons a veritable renaissance. Many of his designs have been commercially relaunched and can be spotted in such trend-setting ambiances as MTV studio sets. In addition, leading design museums, such as the MoMA in New York, the Design Museum in London and the Vitra Design Museum in Germany have included Verner Panton designs in their permanent collections.
Shortly before his death in 1998, the 72-year-old Panton designed a large exhibition entitled *Light and Colour* for one of Denmark’s leading museums, the Trapholt Museum of Modern Art and Design in the Jutland town of Kolding. The exhibition environment featured all his most famous designs and was widely acclaimed.