Visiona 2 is nothing short of a psychedelic dreamscape. Constructed inside of a ship, the labyrinthine installation is a series of rooms decked out in prismatic hues and touchable textures. After descending down a crimson spiral staircase, visitors proceed through mirrored spaces; a womb-like cavern with undulating walls wrapped in ultramarine blue, scarlet red, and golden orange fabric; a den covered in violet shag carpet; and a room clad in spheres and bathed in color-changing light. It’s designed to astonish and excite visitors.
While this sounds a lot like the maximalist, immersive, photo-friendly installations as of late—looking at you Color Factory, Dream Machine, and Museum of Ice Cream—Visiona 2 is nearly 50 years old and it’s one of dozens of projects featured in Verner Panton, a new monograph from Phaidon.
With an interest in immersive spaces, color theory, systems, and sensory perception, the midcentury Danish designer Verner Panton created sculptural furniture that framed the body, interiors that evoked visceral reactions, and patterns that teased the eye. Panton was all about the total environment, and he anticipated Instagram bait before Instagram was a thing.
Like other radical practitioners from the post-war era, Panton was preoccupied with inventing the future, but he approached it with a pop sensibility. As the book’s co-authors Ida Engholm, an associate professor at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, and Anders Michelsen, an associate professor at the University of Copenhagen, argue, Panton worked in ways that were closer to his time and to the people who would see his work. Instead of the walking cities of Archigram or the organically shaped decentralized urbanism of Archizoom, he “created practical objects that were of use, even though he enjoyed exaggerating and pushing the boundaries recognized by ordinary people.”
Panton was interested in industrial production for the mass market. While his contemporaries were interested in craft, he embraced the machine and new modes of production. They worked with natural materials like wood; he preferred plastic, Plexiglas, foam rubber, and synthetics. His most recognizable designs are the c. 1967 S chair, the world’s first chair made entirely from molded plastic, and the Panthella lamp, a molded plastic lamp that looks like a mushroom cap.
But Panton’s one-off designs weren’t nearly as exciting as his interiors, which could be understood as “new systematic options for experiencing life,” Engholm and Michelson write. Panton got his start working for furniture designer Arne Jacobsen and his first major commission came from his father, who owned an inn and tasked him with revamping its restaurant in 1958. Panton was in charge of designing furniture, lighting, textiles, and even the staff’s uniforms. He used five shades of red inside, which earned the space the nickname the “Red Ruby.” After the renovation, the restaurant’s business grew.
As time progressed, Panton’s interiors became more lively and raucous. He worked with psychologists to understand how color affected moods and perception and, like other artists of the time, was deeply interested in psychoanalysis. He wanted his environments—wholly manmade and artificial—to impact people deeply through a total work of art. This wasn’t a new concept—designers have attempted to create total works of art since the late 1800s—but he amped it up exponentially, like in the Visiona installations, which were really showcases for a German textile company.
His immersive spaces were like sculptures you walk into. Nothing inside feels “rational” or “functional,” two of the guiding mantras for modernists. Furniture was designed to put you in a certain mood, like reclining leisurely or sprawling out. A ceiling could be composed entirely of lamps and the colors were rich and saturated, like the offices Panton designed for Der Spiegel, a German newspaper, in 1969.
Panton was the ultimate designer of atmospheres that you wanted to be in, like Restaurant Varna, completed in 1971 in Aarhus. A food critic at the time celebrated the space’s “architectural theater” and suggested people visit even if they weren’t going to order any food. This sentiment feels eerily similar to how many of the photogenic spaces of today are consumed. An Instagrammable bathroom is reason enough to try a new restaurant, which is why the same images of the accent wall or the picture-perfect vignettes or the immersive installations keep recirculating. Panton figured this out decades ago.
As Engholm and Michelson write in their book: “[Panton’s universe] has now been absorbed by the processes of globalization, which in this context simply means that a growing number of people seek almost the same thing that appealed to Panton back in the 1960s and 1970s: an essentially exciting and challenging life, but also a socially mobile life; a comfortable life as embodied by Panton’s first chair, the Bachelor chair—simple, light, elegant, and eminently portable.”