Friday, July 10, 2015

The Color Revolution

ReginaLee Blaszczyk, MIT Press 2012

Book Review by Allen Barkkume

This book is part of the Smithsonian Institution’s Lemelson Center Studies in Invention and Innovation series

From the genesis of the modern color industry through the Byzantine conduits of culture, The Color Revolution presents color as a force to be reckoned with.

Wielding new powers, stunning new clientele, color undergoes a renaissance at the turn of the 20th century. It is unleashed from its crypt by new discoveries in chemistry, then standardized, codified, coordinated, and disseminated to the public in every consumable form – clothes, cars, appliances, architecture, and of course, the public education system. This book offers a good look at how technological change ripples throughout a culture. Also, if you’ve ever had a hunch that there are such things as “color forecasters” and global color committees, you’ll now be well-informed.

Blaszczyk pulls open the first curtain on the Queen’s Lilac, the first synthetic dye color (whereas today we would consider lilac a pale purple, at this time it referred to a mauve/magenta). The Queen of England draped herself in this emblem of modernity, and changed the color preference of an entire population.

Chemist William Henry Perkin discovers the dye by mistake while trying to synthesize quinine from coal tar. Many major discoveries were made at this time, by accident, while trying to make things out of the newfound abundance of coal waste. Benzene, for example, which can be seen as the emblem of all organic chemistry, was finally synthesized by someone working with coal tar. Aniline dye, synthesized from a waste product, showed what chemistry could do for the bottom line of the fashion industry.

With the new synthetic dyes came a new taste for color, a demand for vibrancy. And with this explosion came a need for understanding. The first treatise on “the principles of color harmony” was published in 1854, breaking the chromasphere  down into Hue, Value, Chroma. The standardization of color was prepared in Germany – the epicenter of the dye market in the late 1800’s – to facilitate communication among manufacturers, buyers, and designers. Soon, “color forecasting”, “color management”, and “color engineering” became legitimate branches of this industry.

The public understanding of color came about as a competition between two color theorists. Munsell and Prang pushed their own version of color organization on the United States’ public education system, a major market promising generous and sustained monetary returns to the winner. It was at this time that the 6-part color wheel originates. All the while, as these two entrepreneurial intellects fought for supremacy over the minds of America’s young photoreceptors, the field of color psychology was emerging. Statements like “There is no color outside ourselves” (Prang), and “Color is in us – not outside” (Munsell) attempted to bridge the divide between the practical and the scientific understanding of color by way of a deeper understanding of ourselves.

Furthermore, this systematic organization of color, along with the newly created Textile Color Color Association (TCCA) of the United States, allowed unprecedented coordination between the various players in the fashion industry. During WWI, France, the Western seat of all things fashion, stopped sending their “silk cards” to the US, seriously limiting design production. This spurred the creation of the TCCA, and a new Standard Color Card of America that would provide “chromatic archetypes” for the textile mills, garment makers, retailers – all parties. This monumental coordination effort did have some bumps in the road.

Blaszczyk describes the struggle for standardization. The TCCA put a general request via the New York Herald in 1919 asking for samples of battle ship gray. Manufacturers were asked for samples of basic colors as they appear in nature, in the form of jewels, minerals, flowers, fruits and metals. Upon receiving these, the TCCA found 50 examples of navy blue. An expert committee of textile industry veterans and major department store buyers contemplated and recommended these color archetypes to the association directors, and in the end, the Standard Color Card of America gave a “common language and a universal tool” to the industry. This new common language of the Standard would go on to symbolize American efficiency, as well as its fledgling independence from French fashion.

In a fascinating diversion, Blaszczyk describes the discovery of the science of camouflage. Nothing facilitates scientific discovery like the real-world laboratory of the battlefield. The advent of aerial technology and long-distance artillery changed the visual battlefield and demanded new strategies. Combined with the new discoveries of color harmony and discord in the fashion industry, war-minded individuals questioning whether this new knowledge could lead to an advantage on the field found their answer in the form of the camoufleur, a new kind of military strategist. “A camoufleur combined a painter’s command of optical illusion with a naturalist’s understanding of deceptive coloration.”

Just like many other wartime technologies, the principles and promise of camouflage followed soldiers home and found its way into the life of the general public. Theories of camouflage were used to transform the common home, and a new kind of color – “functional color” was born.

From the fashion and printing/advertising industries to other consumer products, like cars, color soon saturated the commercial landscape. This is especially relevant to that paragon of American consumer culture, the automobile. Once the automotive industry realized that using the right color-designs could substantially increase profits, they began spending more time and money researching color production and consumer color preferences. Every ten days car dealers sent sales reports to provide feedback and enhance the predictive power of “color futures”.

Nothing shows this tremendous research effort like the painting reproduced in Chapter 5 where an American Duco colorist “reproduces” the color of French silks – fresh from Paris! Although the US gained a good deal of independence from French fashion in the early 20th century, it was still important to follow the trends. So important, in fact, that the automobile industry sends an artist to Paris to paint a selection of draped silk fabrics, and then send that painting back to the US where the “color intel” could be used to inform color choices and combinations.

The incremental distancing of American color-culture from that of Europe is galvanized in Chapter 6. Blaszczyk titles the chapter “Entente” to emphasize the partnership between both sides of the Atlantic, but does more to show-off the uniquely American aspect of modern culture.

Although Blaszczyk points out the combining of American scientific management with European tradition of craftsmanship, quality and style, it is the cultural transformation taking place in America that makes the most impact. Social psychologist mastermind Edward Bernays secretly promoted the green color of Lucky Strikes packaging to be seen as more harmonious with women’s fashion. Rayon looks better on film, and so Hollywood almost unconsciously pushes the synthetic fabric’s popularity. America becomes a distinct and formidable cultural entity, creating its own expectations and demands.

Distinctly American things revolving around the American artworld, urban renewal, and ‘functional color’ (for industrial safety and communication) are the drivers of change. In these interim chapters, Blaszczyk reaches far and beyond “the industry” to the arts, architecture, and society at large – which, after all, is the source of any revolution.

In regards to manufacturing, it’s interesting to note that colorists were required for matching all the different parts of a telephone (rubber cords, metal dials, plastic bodies), for example, because all the different materials involved take their color differently.

Of all industries most integral to the color revolution, none were so pervasive, or as quintessentially American, as that of the automobile industry. Colorists, chemists, and automotive stylists advanced companies like DuPont to create new pigments, lacquers, and enamels. In the world of Fordist production, or Levittown houses, where every unit looks the same, you sell the color of the product, not the product itself.

But as regional tastes, lingering biases, and socio-economic differences all contributed to the weakening of sales (or the inevitable inability of color forecasters to keep-up with the complexity of “culture”). In concluding, I’ll quote Blaszczyk:

“The color expansion of the postwar years was evidence of the extravagances of a growth economy and the maturation of American consumer society. […] By the last quarter of the 20th century, more Americans than ever before had dishwashers, phones and cars, but they were available in fewer colors.

*An overarching lesson of this book is that as for the color world, it was figured out very early on, and continues to this day, that if there is an industry where women hold the most valued opinions and preferences, it is that of Big Color.

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