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    Panton's Plastic Universe
by Marc Spiegler
The Panton chair
"Verner Panton" installation at the Vitra Design Museum
Panton's "Luminaires" lighting fixtures
Panton's Flying Chairs (1963)
At the Vitra Design Museum, Panton's illuminated ring lamp wall panels and textile and enamel wall coverings.
Panton's Geometri IV pattern (1960) and his Heart Love Chair.
A reproduction of Panton's 1970 Phantasy Landscape
"Verner Panton," Feb. 5-June 12, 2000, at the Vitra Design Museum, Weil am Rhein, Germany.

Perhaps no other designer captured the '60s zeitgeist better than Verner Panton. In 1967, the Danish designer introduced the Panton chair, a single piece of molded plastic that is nothing if not sexy. This streamlined, slinky but sturdy bit of seating quickly became a mainstay of glossy magazine spreads, often serving as a perch for some naked pre-Raphaelite beauty.

Panton's brainchild quickly touched off a flood of plastic mass-market imitations. Today it counts among the few true icons of '60s furniture.

It's natural, then, that the chair holds pride of place in the Vitra Design Museum's current Panton retrospective. With mockups and market iterations arranged on three tiers of a towering display case, the chair is traced from prototype to recent re-editions.

But the late Panton's ambitions extended far beyond chairs. Trained as an architect, he preferred to create integrated environments. Few things held such horror, Panton once said, as striding into a room to find a sofa, two chairs and a coffee table. Fighting that traditional grouping, he designed furniture such as the Living Tower, a massive foam rectangle within which five people sat in a horizontal stack, each facing the knees of the next person higher.

Panton also used foam extensively in creating interior landscapes swirling with curved shapes, most offering little indication of which body part was meant to rest against them. Often these pieces were designed as modules, meant to be rearranged as the situation demanded. In short, Panton aimed to short-circuit the scripts of social interaction by flooding people with new sensations.

From that standpoint, the highlight of the exposition is a recreation of Panton's Phantasy Landscape installation from the 1970 Visiona 2 design show in Cologne. Doffing their shoes, visitors can enter the space, an experience akin to walking down a corrugated culvert while tripping on peyote. Sponsored by the Bayer chemical company as a vehicle for displaying its new fabrics, Panton's room had 13 parallel sections, each roughly a foot wide, spaced between two large porthole doors at either end of the room.

Colored in deep pinks, blues, oranges and reds, the sections vary in form, curving this way and that to create sitting spaces, shoulder-height outcroppings to lean on, and low, level areas fit for a long nap. The room seems a realm of infinite possibility. As one sober Swedish art magazine recently noted, "It would be possible to try all kinds of [sexual] positions…thanks to the furniture's organic and unexpected form." (The critic went on to lament the difficulty of cleaning the woolen fabrics covering Panton's pieces.)

There is that adult-funhouse quality in much of Panton's work. Given the Scandinavian reputation for graceful but dispassionate design, Panton might seem an odd purveyor for such psychedelic love-fest settings. But from early in his career he rebelled against the dominant Danish design esthetic that revolves around smoothed beech and great craftsmanship. In the tradition of American designers such as Harry Bertoia, Eero Saarinen and the Eameses, he turned to man-made materials such as chrome, foam and polyurethane.

Still, Panton's work is not devoid of Nordic influence. The elements making up his over-the-top designs tend toward a sort of spare elegance. His 1959-60 series of foam-and-cotton "cone chairs," for example, all derived from a simple concept -- a cone-shaped base with a curved back and round, slightly raised seat cushion. It takes close examination by a visitor to spot the slight twists he put on each one to create a whole line.

Likewise, in the late '70s and '80s textile-design work on display -- executed in cretonne and velvet for maximum color saturation -- Panton often started with a simple shape, such as a diamond or circle, and a few colors, then toyed with their permutations until the pattern clicked.

The Vitra Design Museum is a dramatic setting for this show. Though it is a bastion of furniture design and Frank Gehry's first European museum, the building's planes of smoothed white concrete join together at seemingly haphazard angles that foreshadow Gehry's even more abstract Guggenheim Museum Bilbao.

True, the building has a sense of fun, but that fun is of a more intellectual genus than Panton's rich shades, trick lighting and sensuous undulations. Gehry's work twists and turns, forcing the mind to follow hard in order to grasp it, while Panton's flies at you with its dazzling multiples and color. Panton might well have hated the white walls that serve as Gehry's primary material, but the museum's irregular spaces undoubtedly reinforce the surreal nature of the show.

What is one to make of such designs today, 30 years after the wilting of Flower Power and free love? On the one hand, today's '70s retro wave makes Panton's work seem ever more relevant; Panton's work has been reissued by Habitat, Innovation Randers of Denmark and Vitra itself.

On the other hand, this retro wave has been cloaked in deep irony, a sentiment completely absent from Panton's creations. With hindsight on the decades of greed that followed, it's easy to mock his work's exuberance and idealism. But it's just as easy to envy it.

After closing in Weil am Rhein, "Verner Panton" is scheduled to appear at the Vitra Design Museum in Berlin, July 1-Oct. 7, 2000.

MARC SPIEGLER covers culture from Zurich.