Design & Shopping: Orange and red and purple and blue

In the minimalist, beige-tinted Nineties, Verner Panton's flamboyant, clashing colours may come as a shock. By Annabel Freyberg
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The Independent Culture
I am not fond of white," the Danish designer Verner Panton once declared. "The world would be more beautiful without it. There should be a tax on white paint."

Panton's love-affair with colour was long and enduring - from his student days in the late Forties until his death last year at the age of 72. He used strong, clashing colours on everything - Op-art carpets, plastic chairs, and the pink, green, yellow and blue lights that decked every wall and ceiling of one room in his home in Basel. (As he put it: "One sits more comfortably on a colour that one likes.") He lectured on colour, and wrote books on it. He believed that colours, like music, "can generate an echo in the soul and influence the entire body".

It was perhaps inevitable that Panton's first major show in Britain, which opens next week at the Design Museum, should be called Verner Panton: Light and Colour, though it is, in fact, named after the installation in his final exhibition in Denmark, in which eight rooms were each painted different colours - red, blue, green, yellow, orange, purple, magenta and turquoise - and furnished accordingly with pieces from throughout Panton's career. Alongside this tour de force is a retrospective curated by one of Panton's biggest fans, Tom Dixon, who was himself an enfant terrible of the furniture world before he took up his current, ultra-respectable post as creative director of Habitat.

What Dixon most admires about Panton are his daring and his experimentation. He was prepared to think in ways no one else had thought, to engage fully with the new materials and technologies of the post-war world. He bubbled over with ideas; knowing that the first trade fair he took part in would be overcrowded he stuck his furniture on to the ceiling - that way everyone could see it.

Among his other coups were the first inflatable stool, prototypes for the first ever spherical TV, a hemispherical house designed to be built in just one day, a three- dimensional carpet - to make sitting on the floor more comfortable - the Pantower, a furniture environment in which several people could sit or lounge at the same time, and a restaurant whose walls, floor and ceiling were covered in his own geometric-patterned fabric. He exhibited a tendresse for geometric shapes - circles, squares, cones - as well as a thoroughly Pop-art sensibility, and most surprising of all, his wacky-looking furniture worked: it was both ergonomically sound and comfortable.

Panton had trained as an architect, and his first job after graduating in 1951 was in the drawing office of the father of Danish design, Arne Jacobsen. While there, he worked on the design of the classic three-legged "ant" chair, the first mass-produced item to combine seat and back as a single element; it went on to become Denmark's biggest-selling chair. After two years there he set off round Europe, turning his minibus into a mobile drawing office. For his first interior decorating project - at his father's Komigen ("Come again") inn on the island of Funen - he upholstered the furniture with the same red fabric as the Danish Life Guards' full- dress uniform.

He also designed a revolutionary chair for the hotel, in the shape of a metal cone; when displayed in a New York gallery Panton's Cone chairs caused so many crashes outside, as people craned their necks to see them, that they had to be removed from the window.

At about the same time, in 1960, he evolved the free-flowing and inviting Panton chair, the first chair ever to be moulded from a single piece of plastic. It is an extraordinary creation, defying logic with its cantilever construction and lack of conventional legs. It was way ahead of its time, too; it took Panton eight years before he could find a manufacturer, Vitra, to make it.

In the early Sixties Panton left Denmark and moved first to France and then to Basel. Here he remained for the rest of his life, a European designer collaborating with a large number of European manufacturers including Thonet, Cassina, Fritz Hansen, the lighting company Louis Poulsen and the textiles firm Unika Vaev. His fabrics and lights were as futuristic as his furniture (vast "Fun" chandeliers made of shell discs, multicoloured helmet hanging lamps); his decor for a galaxy of restaurants, offices and other buildings was mind-blowingly bright.

He never lost sight of the joys of colour: "Most people spend their lives dwelling in dreary, grey-beige conformity, mortally afraid of using colours," he maintained.

"By experimenting with lighting, colours, textiles and furniture, and utilising the latest technologies, I try to show new ways to encourage people to use their fantasy and make their surroundings more exciting." In this exhibition his colour crusade may just begin to work its magic on Nineties Britain.

Verner Panton: Light and Colour, Design Museum, Shad Thames, London SE1, 17 June to 10 October, 11.30am-6pm daily (pounds 5.50 adults, pounds 12 family ticket); 0171-378 6055