The Colour Cycle
Although the human eye can discern at least 6 million hues and theoretically there are an infinite number of colour possibilities, the colour spectrum moves through definite cycles depending on fashion, politics, technological advances and other influences.
Colour directions do not abruptly change, rather they are continually evolving. A group of colours will be in vogue for a period of 10 to 12 years.
Ascendant colours may first appear in costume fashion spreading quickly to high-end commercial interiors including restaurants, offices and boutiques and then gradually to the residential sector. At the mid-point of the cycle these fashionable colours are readily available and accepted by the mass market. For example, the '70s colour naturals peaked in the mid '70s and by the mid '80s trend setters were starting to use gray, black and white -- the new neutrals. This was the start of a new colour cycle that would finally replace the browns, beiges and other earth tones so popular in the '70s.
Fashion is perhaps the most important influence on the colour and design of home furnishing products. Elizabethan furniture was a prime example. The elaborate and exaggerated fullness of the floor length skirts favoured by Queen Elizabeth I led to the design of the armless Farthingale chair.
The same Queen Elizabeth also set the trend for makeup, which consisted of white lead for the face and red ochre for rouge and lips. This lethal concoction was then varnished with an egg white glaze. Today, couture fashion is a major source of ascendant colours which then work their way gradually through the colour cycle.
Television & the Movies
Technology & Science
Forecasting Colour Directions
There are many agencies today that forecast colour with varying degrees of success. The most influential of these is theColour Marketing Group (CMG) established in Washington, D.C. in 1962.
CMG is an international organization of design professionals representing a cross section of industries involved in the use of colour as it applies to the marketing of goods and services.
Member designers collaborate at two conferences annually in which they attempt to plot colour directions two years hence, industry by industry. Consumer and contract forecasts are generated for every industry and are then combined in an overall forecast colour card which is published and available to all members.
The colour forecast is almost a self-fulfilling prophecy, estimated to be accurate 95% of the time. The success of CMG is due to the fact that the forecast is built up from the grass roots level and not handed down by some fashion guru in New York or Paris.
The Importance of Correct Forecasting
Colour forecasting is important to industry since a product introduction cycle often takes two-three years. An automobile manufacturer introducing a car three years hence must be sure that upholstery and finish colours will coordinate and be in vogue.
Furniture manufacturers must be sure that their products will coordinate with carpeting and wallcoverings that will be available at the time of introduction.
Design and colour have a direct influence on the image that a product projects and ultimately on its sales. If either is inappropriate, the consumer may hesitate to buy.
For example, the Japanese and Korean car industries initially had problems gaining acceptance in North America. Colours were unappealing, particularly to women buyers and little thought was given to interior and exterior coordination.
Today, all the major automobile manufacturers are members of CMG, as are representative from every industry, including the transportation, fashion, hospitality, home and store furnishing industries.
1890 to 1920 - "The Revolt Against Things Victorian"
Victorian interiors were motivated by a tasteless display of possessions - a profusion of ornament and clutter. Revival followed revival including Gothic, Neo-Renaissance and Neo-Rococo. These styles were often mixed with varying success.
Art Nouveau emerged in the 1890s from Siegfried Bing's exclusive Paris design studio like a breath of fresh air. Nouveau designs were derived from nature: swirling plants, flowers, waves, and the female form were used in an asymmetrical manner to decorate an object and to form its shape. In interiors, delicate pastel wallcoverings often with "growing" plant design, decorated rooms filled with asymmetrical styled furniture crafted in exotic woods. These pastels were a direct result of the fashion palette which reflected a reaction against the harsh maroons, purples and blacks of the Victorian period.
In 1909, the bold colours of The Ballet Russes banished the popular pastels of the day. The set for the ballet Scheherazade used draperies, cushions and carpets instead of painted scenery. Costumes were sewn in brilliant colour never before seen in the theatre. The impact was immediate. Smart drawings rooms of the day were transformed into "harems" decorated with richly patterned drapes, Oriental carpets and cushions.
The Twenties - "Black, White and Silver"
Patou and Chanel were the leading fashion designers of the day. Both used mainly neutrals including black, white and beige, often highlighted with sequins and feathers for evening. Coco Chanel introduced slim skirts, pullovers and collarless jackets - the look of the emancipated woman. Art Deco, introduced at the 1925 Expositions des Arts in Paris, was to have a tremendous influence in colour and design for the next 10 years. The elegant interiors with simplified lines inspired by the cubism of Picasso and Braque were often executed in neutrals. Black and silver walls were a shimmering backdrop for lacquered furniture and screens reflected in shiny tiled floors. African art, black onyx and white rock crystal completed the picture.
Hollywood loved the look which was, of course, exaggerated and glamorized. A typical living room was large enough to accommodate Fred and Ginger and a cast of 200 dancing the night away.
In addition to the neutrals, monochromatic rooms in pale green, blue and yellow were also popular. Gold, ochre and burnt orange were introduced as accents.
Another major influence of the twenties was the Bauhaus School of Design founded in 1919 by architect Walter Gropius. It was a reflection of the cult of modernism and a rejection of the past that swept post war Germany.
Students were trained to have an architectural or environmental approach, concerning themselves with form, function, new materials and the technology of mass production. This philosophy affected furniture design and architecture far more than any other field and was to have a significant influence in Europe and North America.
New materials and techniques in furniture design included tubular steel, chrome plating, press molding and cantilevered chair supports. Many classic designs of the era are being produced today. Perhaps the most famous are the Wasily armchair designed by Marcel Breuer and Mies van der Rohe's Barcelona chair and lounge.
The Thirties - "White to Bright"
White was the post-depression colour in fashion and interiors - an extension of the '20s vogue for monochromatic rooms.
Science and technology also were important factors in the craze for things white. During the late '20s, scientists first published the role of the sum in combating dietary deficiencies. A suntan became essential to look stylish on the beach and to enhance the look, white bathing suits and evening gowns became "de rigueur."
Prior to the '30s, white paints were made with white lead which tended to yellow rapidly. The introduction of white titanium dioxide pigment and new fast drying lacquers made it possible to produce durable and colourfast paint for automobiles and interiors.
The influential white living room of Syrie Maugham's London house enlivened by contrasts of texture, form and reflecting mirrors, could have been designed today.
The white craze was over by the mid '30s with colour slowly returning to fashion and furnishings. This was further accelerated by the huge impact of Van Gogh's exhibition in the Museum of Modern Art. Bright fashion 'sunflower' prints in yellows, greens, blues and brown appeared in profusion.
The War Years - "Red, White and Blue"
Rationing, synthetics, new technology and improvisation were the key words of the '40s. Strong colours in fashion including red, yellow and navy were morale boosters during the gloom of the early war years. However, colours became muted and chalky as textiles and dyes were later rationed. This called for improvisation on both sides of the Atlantic. In occupied Paris, women made up for the lack of pretty clothes by creating elaborate hats trimmed with flowers and ribbons worn with thick cork-soled shoes. In North America, leg makeup became a substitute for stockings.
As the war progressed, consumer goods, including paint, furniture and fabrics, became increasingly scarce with limited colour choice. In the U.S., Frank Lloyd Wright developed his prototype low cost Usonian House based on geometric construction modules. He did not use paint or plaster, rather allowed the natural materials of wood, brick, glass and concrete to stand on their own. This house was to have a profound influence on residential architecture in the years to come.
The technology of plastics, as a substitute for scarce materials, was developed to a high degree. One of the most interesting were the acrylics used on bombers to enclose gun turrets. Acrylics today are found in many different products including furniture, clothing, wigs, paint and floor polish.
The Fifties - "Paint the Town Pink"
An explosion of colour marked the beginning of the decade.
In fashion, rich greens, turquoise and kingfisher blue were seen on both sides of the Atlantic. However, the runaway success story was Hot Pink introduced by Jacques Fath in 1951. The colour promoted by Vogue led to the highly successful Revlon cosmetics campaign, "Paint the Town Pink". Within six months of introduction, this colour was available in sheets, towels and other home furnishing fabrics.
Colour invaded the kitchen for the first time. Appliances were available in yellow, turquoise and pink.
The Automobile industry was not far behind in the introduction of colour. Dupont developed the first durable red paint for the industry. Interiors were colour coordinated by a flood of new synthetic lining fabrics. Two-tone colour combinations became a craze and metallics were now available on mass-produced vehicles.
The fine craftsmanship of Scandinavian furniture, often teamed with grasscloth walls and bold colour prints, became the trendy look of the '50s. Beautifully made children's furniture in combinations of teak or birch with brightly coloured lacquer accents sold extremely well in all parts of the world. Today, many of the classic designs by Eames, Aalto and others are still in demand.
The Sixties - "Flower Power"
The ethnic look was the overwhelming fashion story of the sixties and blue jeans designed to fade, became a classic worn by all ages and both sexes.
The oriental influence in clothing and interiors was brought about by travel to the East. Walls were painted in brilliant psychedelic colours decorated with murals, wall hangings and Indian prints. Furniture and floors were covered in Oriental carpets. The less flamboyant designs of Laura Ashley's psuedo-peasant fashions led to a line of home furnishing fabrics and wall-coverings using similar colours and design elements.
Only the face was pale during the sixties. The "nude look" was accented by dark kohl eye makeup and red henna hair. Blacks, for the first time, had a range of cosmetics made specifically for their complexions. The new catch phrase 'Black is Beautiful' was off and running.
The range of synthetics accelerated during the '60s and led to the introduction of the first plastic chair with no joints. The simplicity of design in geometric shapes executed in bright colours was a welcome alternative to the Oriental influence.
The Seventies - "The Colour Naturals"
Earth tones reigned supreme in this decade; in fashion makeup and design. The popular cream and chocolate combination seen in fashion quickly invaded furniture stores resulting in many "me too" rooms decorated in these tones.
Avocado Green and Harvest Gold popular since the late '50s for kitchens and bathrooms gave way to a new neutral beige called Almond. This colour was available in bathroom fixtures, kitchen appliances and a host of other products.
By the end of the decade, the natural colours seemed passé. Red, royal blue and turquoise were the new fashion colours. Glitter in fashion and eye makeup, along with stretch fabrics in neon brights, were seen on the disco dance floor.
High-tech, a synthesis of high style and technology, arrived in the late '70s. the use of industrial materials including structural beams, metal stairs, corrugated steel walls and heavy duty flooring in a domestic setting was not for everyone. Strong primary colours were used in furniture and to highlight architectural design elements. Neon light sculptures, a new art form, first appeared in this period.
The Eighties - "Grey is No Longer Tattletale"
The '80s opened on a sombre note as the North American economy faltered and slipped into the most severe recession since the 1930s. Banks and trust companies failed and may people lost their savings resulting in flat sales for automobiles and big ticket items in the home furnishing sector.
As the economy improved, we moved into an era of "the takeover", Wall Street scandals, and insider trading. Conspicuous consumption of the "nouveau riche" was exemplified by designer clothes for toddlers in "sophisticated" adult colours.
The fashion industry had problems throughout the decade. Designs ranged from the street punk look for the youth market to Lacroix fantasy costumes adored by café society. The average working woman's needs were ignored and sales suffered accordingly.
However, the fashion industry fared much better with their colour palette. The hot pinks, purples, teal and lime greens showen in the fall '89 collection had an immediate impact on the home furnishing market.
Grey, along with black and white were widely accepted as the new neutrals in both contract and residential design.
Mauve cast neutrals, including gray and beige were a new direction that would continue into the '90s.
Design directions were many, including revivals of Art Deco, '50s Brights, Euro-Classic, Victorian and Colonial. There was also a renewed interest in things Oriental as travel and trade increased with mainland China.
As the decade drew to a close, the growing concern for the environment would have a profound effect on how we lived and what we purchased.
The Nineties - "A Return to Nature"
2000 and Beyond
Special thanks to David Beech, B.I.D.1. World Furniture -- Edited by Noel Riley
2. Art Through The Ages -- By Helen Gardner
3. Colour -- Edited and Designed by Marshall Editions Ltd.
4. Colour Marketing Group (CMG), Arlington, Va.
5. New World To Conquer -- By Frank Ogden, Futurist
6. Our Planet -- By David Suzuki
7. Couture -- Influence in the '90s -- By Pauline Ashworth