Christmas on the Fourth of July

Posted inColor & Design
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Old Glory and Santa Claus are both lightening up. By carefully dialing hues up and down, designers are reinvigorating the traditional color palettes of red-white-and-blue and red-and-green without rendering either combo frivolous or irreverent.

It started, arguably, with the Obama-Biden campaign in 2008. Like all presidential campaigns, the brand’s color-mandate was simply to seize the red-white-and-blue in a fresh way. Its solution was magical: sweeten up American red to a shade between geranium-red and maraschino; float a pale sky-blue overhead; and ground the whole logo in traditional navy.

Right about inauguration-time, HBO released its 2009 remake of Grey Gardens. The story of Jackie Onassis’ batty cousins slumped into genteel poverty already boasts red-white-and-blue at its center. Little Edie’s legendary flag-marching scene combines her brazen, stunted sense of theatricality with the touching wobble of an iconic family, and the nation they symbolize, whose sanity is clearly slipping.

The timing of our embrace of red-white-and-blue wasn’t accidental. The presidential campaign coincided perfectly with the beginning of the Great Recession. Now, 18 months later and less certain of recovery than ever, Americana imagery evokes a stronger, more clearly optimistic America.

Specifically, it underlines a hopefully repeatable cycle in our national history: a country first hobbled by the Great Depression transforms into a triumphant post-war power, a beacon of freedom whose stolid values and zeal for change neatly balanced each other out. Red-white-and-blue says heritage, unity, digging deep into our past for future hope. Lightened up, the palette recalls blue skies, ice-cream trucks (like the Deitch Projects site redesign above), and endless summer, a thrilling evocation in the doldrums of a possible double-dip recession.

What does the new red-white-and-blue suggest overseas? Equally popular abroad, its meanings seem to cover a wider span. Take this poster by Berlin-based onlab for the Museum of Fine Arts in Le Loc, Switzerland:

The blue first appears navy, but upon closer inspection reveals hints of hunter-green and yellow; the exact color is surprisingly un-locate-able. Paired with maraschino red, the palette gives a distinctly mid-century feel, one redolent of an oil-company logo or some mighty mechanical-production giant.

A winner of the 100 Best Posters of 2009 exhibit now on display at Berlin’s Kunstbibliothek Staatlicher Museen, onlab’s poster counts itself among several European meditations on a similar theme. In some cases, the palette, such as in this Niklaus Troxler poster that won Icograda’s excellence award at the Chaumont poster festival, veers more towards a CMYK-style set of transparent films:

In other cases, red transposed against blue meditates on America’s changing world role; the following poster by blotto design in Berlin commemorates the 20th anniversary of fall of the Berlin Wall.

The exhibit also includes nods to red-and-green. In this poster by advertising a student exhibit called “Kunst Stadt Landschaft” (Art City Landscape), a pale green with lipstick red evokes city clashing with country, culture leaching the hues of nature for its own, slightly nefarious ends:

Both palettes are strongly suggestive in their historical origins. For centuries China’s color-calling-card has been its lucky, prosperous red paired with jade-green. Specifically, Confucius saw 10 virtues in jade. Its bright polish reflects purity; its hardness, a sure intelligence; its angles, defined but not cuttingly sharp, akin to justice. Confucius peered into jade’s milky flaws and saw sincerity and tapped jade to hear the pure, sustained tone of its music. He saw loyalty in its color and heaven in its iridescent sheen, grounded in an agreeable heaviness suggestive of earth. Beautiful even unadorned, it reminded him of chastity, and its universally high price represented truth. All of which can be boiled down to the fortune-cookie saying, common among the Chinese: “gold is valuable, jade is invaluable”.

(Koi by xiaobaosg, designed for Chinese New Year Lights Up in Chinatown, Singapore, 2007)

On the European side of things, red-white-and-blue has a distinctly luxurious provenance: the red-and-white emblazoned the Italian House of Savoy’s coat of arms, while the Italian soccer team wears cerulean sky-blue, also in honor of the Savoys and specifically of Vittorio Emanuele II, who first united Italy in 1861. As the Italians moan, holler and cheer at every game: Forza Azzurri! Go Blue! Red-and-blue also evokes certain folk patterns, as evinced in Polish designer Agnieszka Gasparska’s NYC-based firm Kiss Me I’m Polish (who collaborated on the Deitch Projects website design above):

What about gender? If the red shades into hot-pink, this combo can offer a witty feminist commentary. Take the excellent postcard series created for the recent launch of Birdwatching, a community dedicated to female graphic designers:

This poster by Swiss-based Melchior Imboden, also a winner in the 100 Best Posters of 2009, offers an unusual sample of what combining these two palettes can do. Overlaying lollypop red, leafy green, and sky-blue with snippets of yellow and white creates a jostling effect at first, then a surprisingly calming one. It’s like a beautiful test pattern for an antique television, a selective mixing of primaries with a classic feel and a modern punch. Could this be the next big wave, a brilliant post-modern plaid?

+More from Jude Stewart: Coloring for Grown-ups [Imprint]The History of the Color Wheel [COLOURlovers]The Color Index Book, by Jim Krause [My Design Shop]