T-Online leaps into the future at an Atelier Markgraph–designed showroom in Darmstadt, Germany
Even in this virtual age, you can’t wrap your hand around the Internet. Which makes it a challenging product for a showroom. When Germany’s Internet service provider T-Online required a branded space to cater to partnership enterprises and investors, Atelier Markgraph presented a futuristic plan that actually managed to pin down the intangible.
A platform for the Web-based tools of today and tomorrow—DSL, photo developing, travel services—the T-Online Experience Center is a technological playground driven by interactive activities and the sense of discovery that they impart. “We entertain and educate at the same time, without giving people a headache,” principal Lars Uwe Bleher says.
Carved out of the ground floor of T-Online’s headquarters in the small city of Darmstadt, the showroom is divided in two—but not by choice. A fire wall splits the 3,300-square-foot space uncompromisingly in halves, and each half is further obstructed by a central structural column. Worse yet, the doorway in the fire wall is a narrow 4 feet, just wide enough for wheelchair regulations.
Bleher’s solution, a two-part journey, begins in what seems to be a standard corporate welcome area—until the floor starts moving beneath your feet. (You may have been so focused on the glowing constellation of ovals and circles cut out of the ceiling that you didn’t notice the large turntable set into the plum-colored carpet.) When the floor kicks into gear, the lights dim and a movie on T-Online rolls onto a white wall. The projector is built into a drywall partition standing in the center of the carpeted turntable, so the movie begins on that first wall and finishes, 180 degrees later, on the fire wall.
Another 30 degrees, and you’re dropped off at a 3-D version of the T-Online home page, a transition space where images of nodes and lines dance across translucent white polyester banners, and gelled incandescents bathe everything in magenta, the corporate color. The installation guides you through the gap in the fire wall and deposits you in the interactive Future Zone.
“That’s when you get to explore,” Bleher says. In the center of the moodier showroom, its walls plum and its ceiling black, stands a white linoleum-clad spatial inlay. It’s essentially a platform punctuated at the center by the inevitable structural column and at the edges by three vertically cantilevered integral canopies, one above each of three hands-on vignettes: Home, Home Office, and On the Road.
In the latter, which promotes T-Online’s travel capabilities, panoramic images of Antarctica, Rio de Janeiro, and other exotic locations drift across a 6-by-15-foot screen. You direct the images via user interfaces conceived as a field of giant flowers—white molded-polycarbonate disks mounted on flexible steel stems 4 feet high. To activate an interface, you have to lean on it. “We went immersive, involving the whole body,” Bleher explains.
A jaunt across the linoleum leads to Home Office, where a table of stained oak serves as a screen for overhead projections of everyday objects: a bank statement, a map of Berlin, a meal. Touch the food on the virtual plate, and the recipe pops up. Touch again, and the recipe connects to a wine suggestion.
In the Home vignette, Bleher paired leather-covered seating in beige and brown with a shag rug in ecru and a UFO of a white pendant fixture. Attached to the cantilevered focal wall, a screen displays a bubbling aquarium for “summer” or a flickering fireplace for “winter,” interchanged simply by pressing a button.
A horizon line of informative “thoughts” is Velcro’d to the dark purple walls outside the three vignettes. The blurbs pose and answer Internet trivia questions such as “What is a googol?” (The number 10 raised to the power 100.) Or “Who came up with the first Web cam?” (Students at the University of Cambridge.) How much fun is the T-Online showroom? Lots.