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What Colour Really Tells Us

Dominic Lutyens delves into the world of colour to discover an unpredictable and accidental combination of acquiring currency in design and textiles.

We are all touched and mesmerized by colour in different and a myriad of ways. Some favour certain hues over others while others simply prefer shades of base colours, either way, we all have different tastes when it comes to colour.

These magical hues have the gift of triggering emotional reactions or memories. We react to colour viscerally and subjectively, although it’s not scientifically confirmed why each of us gives preference to different colours, it is assumed that each hue as a particular association with a segment responsible for a certain outcome, behaviour or preference of the human mind.

Fascinating isn’t it!!!

We are also captivated by its collective ability, which is why colour trends in fashion and the home have such a stronghold on us.

Despite some colour trends being the human mind seems to be inspired by specific types of art or design movements, perhaps the abstract approach has something to with this. Inspite of all the vivid hype and appeal most hues last a maximum of five or more years in terms of style but then there are the exceptions, like the “Millennial Pink”, which has remained cool for many years. It’s been seen at countless bars, pubs and even hotels and restaurants.

Pretty swell for a preppy colour eh?

Colour therapy design by Inanc Avadit

Colour come and go in trends, much like everything else in this world but there have been unusual cases where a single hue may remain in fashion for periods much like during the minimalistic era in the 1990s where either off-white or brown selected to colour our homes. Now nearly after a decade artists, interior designers and even laymen like you and I have taken a bold move at being creative with our homes.

Natural colours, in particular all permutations of green, are popular now – a reflection, maybe, of our concern for sustainability. Green is often cited as everyone’s favourite colour after blue. But what triggered the rediscovery of bright colours? In fashion, maybe our fascination with the red-carpet dress, with A-listers wearing eye-catching outfits, has given flamboyant colours a new-found cachet. Or possibly Wes Anderson’s hit movie The Grand Budapest Hotel unleashed a lust for saturated colour?

These trends helped build up the fashion industry, where the rigid segmentation of year of the industry was segmented into Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter. This gave the designers more freedom to express themselves through design while customers always had that ‘fresh’ look.

Today many successful designers prefer to work outside rigorous colour systems, following their own taste in colour

Was a tagline, which appeared in a leading fashion retail magazine. Recent variety in creativity in areas such as graphic design, production and homeware have started to prop up as well, a solution to the mundane lifestyle.

Most colour companies these days are associated with Pantone grades (a colour matching and reproduction system). The most notable being the Pantone matching companies that were founded in New York in the 50s.

Peter Feghali captures the essence of colour

Capturing the Colour of the Year is an annual competition launched in 2000, that is based on trend-forecasting research conducted by the Pantone Colour Institute. Its choice for this year is ‘Classic Blue’, a serene ultramarine shade described as a ‘universal favourite’


Anastasiia Chepinska shoots a stadium in Warsaw, Poland

The ‘European Colour notion Systems’ includes Sweden’s NCS, which contains designers, manufacturer, retailers and customers. The company is capable of providing accurate colour matching paint and powder-coating components.

In today’s content, many designers and colourist prefer to work with liberation as opposed to following rigorous systems, following their own taste in colour or challenging the standardisation of colour widely used by industry,

James Wilson, A designer based in Leo Burnett Australia claims limiting a designer’s creativity, delimits and impoverishes the palette of colours the eye captures.

“Many designers of today use various techniques to capture different hues and elements of colours to promote their masterpieces – Viknesh Ashley

Designer Hella Jongerius tells BBC “I aim to create a new colour vocabulary… as a reaction to the globalised industry of flat colours,”. Berlin-based Jongerius develops colours for the furniture company Vitra, and created products for her exhibition that presented colour in fresh ways, shedding light on their mutability.

One of these, her Colour Catcher, comprises sheets of folded coloured paper; shadows and reflections hitting its different planes resulted in each one acquiring an individual tone. Another idea was a formulation of 16 shades of black created without resorting to carbon. “Instead, I used handcrafted pigments including ultramarine green, cobalt green, natural umber, ruby red and magenta,” she says. “If industry replaced carbon with another black pigment [it] would have a revolutionary effect on our visual landscape. It would change hundreds of the colours found in the industrial palette.”

In woven textiles, colours interplay in the warp and weft, giving them a changeability (Credit: Howard Sooley)

“The all-encompassing RAL, Pantone and NCS colour systems offer millions of colours categorised, structured and sorted for us,” she continues. “As a tool, this can be helpful for designers and architects but how can we ever intimately relate to colour and its subjective effect in this scenario?”

The colour forecasting industry boomed from practical needs says Justine Fox, co-founder with Carolina Calzada Oliveira of Calzada Fox, a UK consultancy. “We develop colours for our clients beyond forecasting and aesthetics – they’re designed with functionality in mind, whether it’s brand awareness, sustainability or community-building.”

“One of the first colour-forecasters was Carlin, founded in Paris in 1947,” says Fox. “After World War Two, Americans were cut off from France and couldn’t get information about trends from Paris showrooms. So some retailers got together and started creating colour forecasts for the US and other countries. There’s no doubt colour systems have a practical value. The theory is that companies as far-flung as Shanghai and London can be sure to choose the same specific shade. But when the likes of Pantone and trend-forecasting firm WSGN, which has its own colour system Coloro, choose their colours of the year, they don’t create a new colour. They can pluck it from their existing archive of colours. They also hold a lot of information about people’s consumer tastes, and base their colour choices on that. Essentially, the Colour of the Year idea is a PR exercise.”

Ptolemy Mann’s artworks in woven textiles explore unusual colour combinations (Credit: Ruth Ward)

“A growing concern for sustainability is seeing a big change in the colour-forecasting industry,” says Calzada Oliveira. “We’ve noticed that fashion and product designers are increasingly emulating the automotive industry – forecasting colours five or 10 years ahead rather than the more ephemeral two to five years ahead. A growing number of consumers are buying fewer clothes – for example, buying a piece from a favourite label’s collection, then gradually building up a wardrobe by selectively buying pieces  from subsequent collections.”

Traditional, fixed-colour palettes are set to become less common, with designers experimenting with more organic manufacturing processes and materials, such as bacterial dyes. But, as London-based textile designer Lindsay Hanson notes, the uptake of these on a mass level is negligible: “Bacterial dyes are emerging. They’re great as they use very little water and no chemicals. Some companies intend to commercialize them. But this is a challenge because industry and consumers prefer clothes with hues that are affordable. Natural dyes can’t be used to produce clothes at scale. And the most common colours I’ve witnessed bacteria produce are blue, indigo, purple, pink and red but not green, orange, yellow, black, brown and grey. Natural dyes also fade over time, so they end up in the pastel range. That sets limitations on designers.”

Consultancy Calzada Fox develops colours with functionality in mind (Credit: Alex Wilson/ stylist Sarah McNabb)

Many creatives swear by their logic that colour takes form when juxtaposed with others.

The antithesis of ‘the colour of the year’ notion, which highlights the hue that has been in isolation. A project of Calzada Fox’s projects illustrates this.

The Edinburgh-based paint company Craig & Rose sought her assistance to create a new paint, which was unveiled at the London Design Festival via immersive installation comprising panels painted different shades that formed a sequence of spaces visually interconnected by openings cut into the panels.

‘In-between colours’

Italian colourist Giulio Ridolfo, utilized a similar layered approach in his designs.

His work with Danish upholstery fabrics company Kvadrat has enabled him to experiment with woven textiles and colour.

Italian colourist Giulio Ridolfo creates colour combinations for fabric company Kvadrat (Credit: Howard Sooley)

“We don’t visit trade fairs or observe trends, partly because our production is too slow. On average we bring out eight upholstery fabrics a year, although some are re-colourings of old fabrics,” says Stine Find Osther of Kvadrat. “We’re lucky that we work with creative people, including external designers, who have their own ideas.” Says Kvadrat, whose company was founded in 1968.

A renowned design attalier famed for its two-tone, wool and viscose upholstery fabric Hallingdal by Nanna Ditzel, which daringly interwove zingy pink with green and red with yellow.

Giulio Ridolfo is influenced by the rich, subtly changing autumnal landscape of Friuli in northern Italy where he is from, and also by art and cinema  

Landscapes of Amalfi, Northern Italy

A new book released, Materialising Colour: Journeys with Giulio Ridolfo, by design writer and curator Jane Withers, she delves into his work, which she claims is influenced by both rich and subtle changes in seasonal landscapes of Friuli in northern Italy.

Giulio Ridolfo is known to show admiration towards filmmakers Pier Paolo Pasolini and Derek Jarman, while equally admiring the layering of colours in the work of artists JMW Turner and Paul Klee, which he says create “vibrancy”. While Ridolfo’s eye dominates the book, this also recounts milestones in the history of colour theory. It ranges from Isaac Newton’s demonstration that a beam of light penetrating a prism separates into seven colours to the discovery by French chemist Michel-Eugène Chevreul that how a colour is perceived is influenced by the other colours surrounding it.

“While industrial manufacture strives for stability and uniformity, Ridolfo introduces subtle changeability and what he describes as ‘in-between’ colours,” writes Withers in the book. “Giulio doesn’t use colour in isolation,” she adds. “It’s always part of a narrative ­– how it relates to cultural context, nature… In terms of the material itself, Giulio uses different threads to compose the colour of a textile, which gives it an unusual richness.”

Ridolfo is inspired by how colours relate to each other in culture and nature (Credit: Howard Sooley)

Weaving fabric is a special delicate process which requires the yarn to be held lengthwise stationary in tension on a frame or loom while the transverse weft is drawn through and inserted over and under the warp.

A signature of Ridolfo’s, Remix, comes in 72 colourways. It is woven by taking two colour mixed woollen melange yarns. The yarns, which are mixed at different percentages create irregular shading.  Seen from afar the fabrics’ colours look monochrome but, in close-up, reveal colour contrasts.  The inspiration for Ridolfo’s designs are moodboards in rich shades such as crimson, eau-de-nil and rust, that create a collage of anything from twigs, stones and dried flowers, to postcards, fabric swatches, ribbons, even toothbrushes. “While Nanna Ditzel’s colours were definite, Giulio’s keep changing,” says Find Osther. “There are different coloured fibres in the warp and weft, which create the intertone colours.”

Design duo Wallace Sewell are influenced by the geometry and distinctive colours of the Bauhaus (Credit: Wallace Sewell)

Wallace Sewell, a UK based design studio, the interplay of the warp and weft opens the door for creativity and unpredictable colour combinations.

They take their inspiration and creative angles from artists and designers such as artist Johannes Itten, who taught at the Bauhaus, the company is known for geometric designs with unique colour combinations.

Their moquette fabric creations could be found upholstered in London Transport Trains, including a complex design for the Elizabeth Line (Crossrail). Their bold signature purple with beige, white and shades of grey and line intersects with the hue. “To date, all the tube-line moquettes featured only four colours but we were allowed to bend the rules and include more,” says co-founder Emma Sewell. “How we combine colours is a mix of decision and accident. We clearly decide on the colour of the warp but when the weft colours are selected and put across the warp colours, there’s a fair amount of chance involved. We can’t predict how warp and weft will look together as we use so many colours for both.”

Fabric colouring: A creative concept

“I’m only interested in it peripherally. It has a place in encouraging discussion of colour but it’s disheartening how reliant the creative industries are on them. It squashes the creative autonomy of individual designers as they’re encouraged to follow trends, not make their own decisions.” Says Jane Withers

As far as I’m concerned there is no such thing as a bad colour combination – Ptolemy Mann

Hansen who specializes in Digitized Material, which uses digital technology and 2D materials such as super-strong, flexible graphene and artificial opals that mimic photonic crystals (natural crystals found in insects, such as on butterfly wings and plants) tries to incorporate this procedure to the fashion world.

Her research suggests that the opals and graphene can be fused to make a power grid that is concealed within clothing. Its wearer can then change its colours and patterns in infinite ways, via an app on their smartphone. “The ability to change colours and patterns like this could offer an alternative to synthetic dye and reduce the volume of new garments produced by manufacturers and owned by consumers,” says Hanson.


Woven textile artist and colour consultant Ptolemy Mann embraces secondary hues in her work (Credit: Circe Hamilton)

Ptolemy Mann, a UK based woven textile artist and colour consultant is uncertain about standardizing colour systems and the Colour of the Year competition. “I think it can help designers and companies navigate through colour choices, and the Pantone system helps us to communicate colours globally,” says Mann, who embraces bold yet sophisticated secondary colours, such as green, pink, violet and turquoise in her work. “But I’m not keen on selecting one colour and saying it’s the colour of the year. Colour needs context. And as far as I’m concerned there is no such thing as a bad colour combination.”

Materialising Colour: Journeys with Giulio Ridolfo by Jane Withers will be published by Phaidon.

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