Pantone, Merchants of Color

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Every designer knows Pantone’s color matching system, in which a color’s specific number identifies the precise shade with fidelity through print jobs, identity work, web executions—all the places a signature color might be used. Pantone may not be a household name on par with Crayola or Kraft, but that’s exactly the point: Its branded products invite you into design’s inside-baseball syntax, a badge of the buyer’s knowledge. Like a Polaroid, the Pantone logo and number frames a basic solid color in a vigorous, compact meta-commentary.

Universe Bookbag Pantone

Universe Bookbag, $50. Designed by Whitbread Wilkinson under licensefrom Pantone.

Universe Bag Pantone

Universe Bag Mustard Yellow 15-0955 TPX, $90. Designed by Whitbread Wilkinson under license from Pantone.

Many of Pantone’s product partnerships are spot-on choices like scruffy, student-friendly bookbags that come in an array of colors, ones where bright colors may be the product’s sole differentiator.

pantone glasses

Eyeglasses manufactured under Pantone license by EyeConcept.

Some Pantone licensees use the old collect-‘em-all marketing gimmick to entice more than one purchase of an otherwise expensive product like eyeglasses. It’s tough to pull just one pair from a spill of colors; you want at least two contrasting shades to suggest the larger rainbow.

Pantone's mugs

Family of Pantone mugs, original 10 colors, $120.

Typhoon Housewares Peppermills, the Pantone Series.

Typhoon Housewares Peppermills, the Pantone Series.

In other instances, the Pantone branding becomes its own unifier in an otherwise disparate or undistinguished collection of items, as when the utterly basic Uniqlo and Gap T-shirts are given an evocative whiff in their Pantone co-branding. If white plates and saucers are a crying bore, why choose a color, anyway? Millions of colors, subtly harmonized, are matchy-matchy enough as a group as a single color alone. At the more anal end of the spectrum, Kathy Kitchenware can now pursue a rigorously exact color match for all her flatware, down to the PMS number.

But not all of the company’s product partnerships are geared at direct-to-consumer sales. For example, these personalized iPod and iPod Touch cases run $19.99 each with free personalization.

Sonia Spencer Designs cufflinks. Reversible Cufflinks Kelly Green, $81 (left). Cufflink Blanc de Blanc, $67 (right).

Red Pantone Tin

Red Pantone Tin, £11.02

Folding chairs, designed by Selab for Seletti

Folding chairs, designed by Selab for Seletti, via If It's Hip It's Here

Flight Stools, $549, designed by Barber Osgerby

Some of these products can be quite breathtaking, however. Designed by Barber Osgerby, the bent stools above resemble large, curved Pantone chips, as if you’re perching on an idea of color.

SeaVees 09/63 sneaker series

SeaVees 09/63 sneaker series, based on colors from the original Pantone Matching System.

The sneaker-Pantone tie-in holds potentially unlimited appeal. Last fall, SeaVees launched its 09/63 collection, drawing from the original Pantone color guide from their launch in September 1963. Here, the brand-thrust is twofold, merging the collect-‘em-all tactic with two studiedly cool-California brands (even if Pantone is headquartered in New Jersey).

Success breeds (unauthorized) imitators, some of them damn clever, if unlikely to get made. You have to admire punster-designer Paul Finn of Fitzroy & Finn, who coined the Pantone Swatch-watch (get it?) with Ben Lancaster of Stylo. Not a half-bad brand association for a strategy based on a rhyme.

Other Pantone homages take ordinary multi-colored objects, like Rubik’s Cubes, and deliver them back subtly altered, less garish to the design-tuned eye.

human pantone

But maybe the best extensions of Pantone’s brands have happened outside the product-purview of products entirely. Artist Pierre David’s project The Human Pantone (above) echoes Byron Kim’s 1991 painting on race, Synecdoche, while Basheer Graphic Books promoted the Pantone color guide itself to art students with their pixilated Pantone Rainbow. The most exhilarating Pantone brand cross-overs are those that play openly with this tension: the chaotic spores of color, floating into every corner of the world, corralled for an instant into a numeric shape.