The Color Revolution, a new book from MIT Press by the design historian Regina Lee Blaszczyk, explores the long and mostly unknown relationship between color and commerce, from the industrial revolution to the standardization of colors across industries. Exposing the central role that color plays in driving consumer desires, Blaszczyk explains how we came to live in this color-drenched world.
It all started with synthetic dyes, an invention attributed to the young British chemist William Perkin (although there were several other inventors working on the same concept). In my earlier post “7 Books About Color Every Designer (and Color Fan) Should Own,” I recommended a great book on this subject: Mauve: How One Man Invented a Color That Changed the World, by Simon Garfield. It must have been startling to suddenly see fully saturated colors on every textile or painted surface.
Inevitably, things got out of hand. Blaszczyk relates a c. 1860 anecdote from the periodical Notes on England, describing the riot of hues filling the streets: “The colours are outrageously crude . . . badly matched, striped, fussed, ovedone, loud, excessively numerous colours each swearing at the others. . . . One sees purple or poppy-red silks, grass-green dresses decorated with flowers, azure blue scarves.” In 1874 a French periodical called a scarlet waistcoat paired to a purple petticoat “un scandale optique.”
Blaszczyk manages to open your eyes to an astonishing set of facts. Utterly new to the prospect of buying bright, strong colors—what 1860s Americans termed “punch”—mass consumers simply ran amok. Not only were consumers unaccustomed to integrating such brilliant shades into their wardrobes, but they faced a second, more enduring problem: nothing exactly matched anything else. As Blaszczyk relates, this problem became increasingly troublesome in the 1920s as ready-to-wear fashions rose in popularity. Ladies matching their accessories had to seek out perfectly coordinated shades of color from several manufacturers. Without color standardization, this was nearly impossible.
Enter the color card, a palette of standardized shades that was circulated among trade groups to ensure better color-matching and, eventually, to forecast trends. Color cards have their own rich history, which Blaszczyk ably explores. American manufacturers and retailers went from greedily awaiting color-card pronouncements from the French couture elite to developing their own, with input from leatherworkers, textile manufacturers, milliners, silk-stocking makers, and others. Color cards promised scientific rigor and better organization management—two prevailing American crazes in the early 20th century—and the excitement of a fresh fashion forecast.
Blaszczyk also describes the early efforts of Albert Munsell, a drawing teacher who attempted to standardize color theory. His Munsell Color System caught on fitfully but never quite took root in educational circles in the way that it did in the mercantile class, which was struggling to standardize colors for products. (I wrote a three-part series, called The Wonderful Color Wheel, that explores Munsell and his color-measuring pals.)
Blaszczyk’s book contains other goodies. She devotes a whole chapter to an early example of color being used by manufacturers to differentiate between products. The invention of Duco automotive paint caused a rainbow revolution among carmakers in the 1920s—which, again, produced a chromatic mess that demanded some cleaning up to ensure that cars were being made in palettes that actually appealed to consumers. She also describes how the camouflage artists of the two World Wars—“camoufleurs”—went on to apply their visual trickery to consumer products in the postwar period.
I’m just now digging into the part about midcentury color: how figures like H. Ledyard Towle and Margaret Hayden Rorke teamed up with Herbert Hoover’s Bureau of Standards to standardize colors across manufacturers and cement America’s role as a global fashion and marketing leader. Their unsung work laid the foundations for companies like Color Marketing Group and Pantone. That period is littered with delightful, if fleetingly bright, products of every color. “Think pink!” asserts the fashion doyenne Mrs. Prescott in the 1957 movie Funny Face. If color can drive desire—as the midcentury thinking went—then switching to a fresh color could hook a consumer again and again.
“Reliable colors are now so common that we never think about their significance,” writes Blaszczyk in the book’s closing lines. “Our sheets, towels, and shirts don’t fade after dozens of washings . . . every single Stop sign is the same shade of red. . . We live in a chromo-utopia, but we are unmindful of its wonders.” Read this marvelous book and your eye for color will snap back into brilliant focus.