The Unlikely Beauty That Is Beige

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Square in beige 1 by glasseyes view on Flickr: http://bit.ly/1BVQCPn

Square in beige 1 by glasseyes view on Flickr: http://bit.ly/1BVQCPn

Beige is the color of evil,” begins Andrea Codrington’s 2001 essay for the “Colors” column in Cabinet Magazine. She’s quoting blogger Aaron Priven, who feels sufficiently exercised against the color beige that he’s written a vehement – and much-linked-to post – on the subject. “The most evil color has to appear benign.”

As further evidence of the color’s malign side, Codrington cites military khaki, also known as “drab.” British Indian Army troops began dyeing their white uniforms with tea and curry in the mid-nineteenth century—neutralizing themselves into the beige-colored landscape while (presumably) easing the military’s stiff laundry bills. What could be more sinister than the color cloaking a colonial sniper, dissolving him neatly into the landscape? (I wrote a visual history of camouflage for The Believer, starting here.)

Beige: Current Events Brief 16 by Hector Alejandro on Flickr: http://bit.ly/1z1UDUA

Current Events Brief 16 by Hector Alejandro on Flickr: http://bit.ly/1z1UDUA

Even more pointedly, Codrington conjures up Nazi war criminal (and subject of Hannah Arendt’s classic book Eichmann in Jerusalem: clad in beige uniform, dryly factual, blandly bureaucratic, a logorrheic river of beige spilling from his lips. She also recalls the Great Depression’s plaintive nickname, the “Taupe Age” – grinding poverty as gunny-sack-colored.

Even UrbanDictionary.com backs up the conundrum that is beige. Definition 2 of “beige” refers to “a description of a county / suburb / neighborhood / restaurant, etc. that has no personality.” Fair enough, except definition 1 says “beige” can mean “super-exciting, not run-of-the-mill”. (Example: “How was the party?” “It was beige, mate, beige.”) Which is it?

Beige: Bean Dune Okay? by JD Hancock on Flickr: http://bit.ly/1ASGIAT

Bean Dune Okay? by JD Hancock on Flickr: http://bit.ly/1ASGIAT

Similarly, my book ROY G. BIV: An Exceedingly Surprising Book About Color contains an entry of astronomers tussling over the average color of the universe. While the first calculation yielded a brilliant turquoise, later corrections amended this view: the universe on average is beige, or more precisely “Cosmic Latte” as the astronomers dubbed it. Why is that such a letdown?

Modernity, it seems, hates all liars, and the over-spreading message conveyed by beige embodies a certain violence to its ideals. Conformity. Unobtrusiveness. Mass production. Plainspokenness, or so the color too overtly promised. What lies behind the nubbly curtain of beige?

Beige personal care products. Creation and branding by Josep Puy, via Behance.net: https://www.behance.net/gallery/18202685/BEIGE

Beige personal care products. Creation and branding by Josep Puy, via Behance.net: https://www.behance.net/gallery/18202685/BEIGE

Fourteen years since Codrington’s essay, beige’s polarizing effects have softened. Nowadays, while beige-haters still stalk the landscape, I’d argue that beige-hating has officially jumped the shark. Why keep tiring yourself, punching at a color that so rarely punches back? (Sidebar: beige-hating can still be damn funny. Witness the character Tom’s remarks on Parks and Recreation: “Ben, stop! This is like listening to a Ted Talk by the color beige!”)


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Today beige conveys a slightly different range of ideas: naturalness and a welcome return of texture; universality of human experience across race and culture; a sense of respite in a visually hectic landscape; even nostalgia and the patina of age. The world according to Instagram is now beige-tinted.

For a cool $3,499, you can buy a limited-edition MacBook Air in Retro beige. Via Brand New: http://bit.ly/1A94uTL

For a cool $3,499, you can buy a limited-edition MacBook Air in Retro beige. Via Brand New: http://bit.ly/1A94uTL

Pine-resin wood, raw cork, unbleached canvas, pristine cardboard: indeed, all the raw materials of the creative class are colored beige. They beg completion with color, ideas, cuts, nuance, vivacity. Beige is inviting. Even when pixelated, its bland depths can reveal infinite nuances of shadow, line and detail that more vivid shades would obscure. Consider my new favorite Flickr photo-group, the Pavement Patterns Museum. The collection is awash in chiaroscuro, grittiness, everything a photographer hankers after – and it’s nearly exclusively beige.

Beige Pavement Patterns Museum on Flickr: https://www.flickr.com/groups/pavementpatterns/

Pavement Patterns Museum on Flickr: https://www.flickr.com/groups/pavementpatterns/

Beige: Craft, a fall 2014 exhibit about experimental craft in Stockholm. Via Under Consideration: http://bit.ly/1Ca6Y6Z

Attention: Craft, a fall 2014 exhibit about experimental craft in Stockholm. Via Under Consideration: http://bit.ly/1Ca6Y6Z

Beige is less a color externally applied and more a natural emanation. Raw cardboard or thin wood can convey the right touch of neutrality that makes bolder colors pop: nature and artifice happily comingled. Consider Restaurant Spirit, a vegetarian restaurant in Rotterdam, who got their the restaurant interior, concept and branding re-imagined by – you guessed it – Studio Beige of the same city.

Restaurant Spirit, a vegetarian restaurant in Rotterdam, with concept and branding by Studio Beige. Via Behance: http://on.be.net/YQF5Od

Restaurant Spirit, a vegetarian restaurant in Rotterdam, with concept and branding by Studio Beige. Via Behance: http://on.be.net/YQF5Od

Another Studio Beige project I like: Goliath Sportswear’s re-branding. The catalog’s nubbled cardboard cover is haptic at its most glorious, and the the footwear photographed within exists in the past (in sepia) and boldly punched-up for the future in jewel tones. Beige, baby: it’s the chromatic mike-drop of a classic.

Goliath Sportswear re-branding by Studio Beige, via Behance: http://on.be.net/1yc4ZQA

Goliath Sportswear re-branding by Studio Beige, via Behance: http://on.be.net/1yc4ZQA

Goliath Sportswear re-branding by Studio Beige, via Behance: http://on.be.net/1yc4ZQA

Goliath Sportswear re-branding by Studio Beige, via Behance: http://on.be.net/1yc4ZQA

As a modern color, beige is discreet, sly, knowing: a color to watch closely but also learn volumes from. Minimalist artist Robert Ryman, whose perhaps best known for his all-white paintings, says of that color: “White has a tendency to make things visible. With white you can see more of a nuance; you can see more.” You can easily pay the same comment – or compliment? – to beige.


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Color & Design, Design Inspiration, Jude Stewart
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About Jude Stewart

Jude Stewart is a PRINT contributing editor. She has written on design and culture for Slate, Fast Company, The Believer, I.D., Metropolis, and Design Observer, among many others. She has authored two books, both published by Bloomsbury: ROY G. BIV: An Exceedingly Surprising Book About Color (2013) and Patternalia: An Unconventional History of Polka Dots, Stripes, Plaid, Camouflage and Other Graphic Patterns (2015). Follow her tweets on color at twitter.com/joodstew.

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