Why are people afraid of color?
Soon after reading the chapter on energy and color in Ingrid Fetell Lee’s book Joyful, I was determined to find a vibrant hued item to bring back from my trip to Colombia. I returned to seas of black coats and NYC’s grey winter sky delighted to wear my new, vibrant pink bag with white and black details. Wearing it brought a smile to my face yet, after a few weeks, it seemed out of place and the rote NY blackness set in. I wondered why in western societies we tend to be chromophobic, afraid to use color or conditioned to see color as childish and unsophisticated. I asked myself, where does this subconscious yet collective bias come from, and why does it persist?
Is there a right and wrong way to use color?
One of my teachers in design school alluded to the modern architect’s color palette as “consisting of white and grey with a dash of tomato red.” At the time, I thought she was joking. Ten years later I’ve come to realize that this is mostly true. You don’t need to look any further than modernist architects such as Le Corbusier, Breuer, or Neutra to see a trend here.
In his presumptuous essay from 1920, Purism, the architect Le Corbusier and his colleague wrote: “…form comes first, everything else should be subordinated to it.” He claimed that artists like Cezanne had accepted the attractive offers of the “color vendor” almost as if to say they had eaten some forbidden fruit and their work was, um, sinful?!
Does this make Le Corbusier’s work more notable than another modernist architect who uses a range of vibrant colors (Luis Barragan)? Corbusier went on to publish his own color theory in 1956 which had 63 color swatches and their acceptable, suggested uses per location.
There’s no hiding that a distaste for color runs through Western culture, tracing back thousands of years. Through time, color has been labelled a “distraction from line and form” (Aristotle), “indulgent” (Protestants), and as an indicator of “savage nations, uneducated and unrefined peoples" (Johan Wolfgang Goethe’s, Theory of Colors, 1840).
Over thousands of years, color has been vilified, stripped of all its power and meaning, and used to marginalize people and cultures. In Europe from the mid-twelfth century to the early modern period, sumptuary laws (which limited personal spending on food and personal items) “...sought to enforce social boundaries by using a clear visual system”. In other words, the peasants should eat and dress like peasants, craftsmen should eat and dress like craftsmen, and so on.
“Color was a vital signifier in this social language — dull earthy colors like russet were explicitly confined to the meanest rural peasants while bright saturated ones like scarlet were the preserve of a select few,” notes St. Clair in her book The Secret Lives of Color. Many of these cultural biases persist today as we constantly turn away from color as a way of achieving sophistication.
A Gallup Poll found 36% of Americans named spring as their favorite season of the year, while 27% preferred fall, 25% summer, and just 11% winter. Each time Gallup has asked the question (in 1947, 1960, and 2005), spring is the season the public has been most likely to name as its favorite. Could it be because spring and fall are nature’s most colorful seasons?
Can color have the power to convey something positive in our built environment? Color in nature means something; a bright red fruit indicates ripeness and promises a sweet, juicy reward. Yellow, orange, and red leaves herald the coming of fall and later winter.
Why is beige (which in my book is the saddest form of yellow) the go-to color for schools and hospitals? As Fetell Lee writes in Joyful: “Beige is a desaturated yellow — a yellow with all the joy (pigment) sucked out of it!"
The team at non-profit Publicolor, which transforms NYC public schools by painting them with vibrant colors, has proven that painting a school revives it: students and teachers feel safer, perform better, and have more positive associations such as pride in their environment. This in turn allows students to tune into learning and perform better. Publicolor’s palette includes bright, saturated hues of oranges, yellows, greens, and blues.
Studies have shown that children associate bright colors with happiness and excitement and dark colors with negative emotions.
It can take practice to become confident with color. Thankfully there are some shortcuts for finding color combinations. In our office, partner Michel Franck often recommends looking at paintings for color combinations. He has a handy deck of hundreds of postcards with artist reproductions. Browsing through colorful works by Matisse, Mondrian, O’Keefe, Kahlo, and Kandinsky provides inspiration for delightful color combinations that work well together.
Another option is to look to nature, the plumage of a fairywren, or the deep purples and light green hues in your mixed salad.
Choose saturated colors, which are colors in their purest version. To desaturate colors you add grey, making them a duller, which can be useful sometimes as part of a color scheme. When you add white to a color, it makes the color lighter and more reflective, while adding black makes it darker and more muted. Colors with more white reflect more light and are therefore more radiant while darker colors tend to absorb light. Another way to practice is to select one color and use it throughout a space.
It can take some time to get comfortable with color. A small step within a muted envelope can be to bring in saturated doses of color in the rugs and furnishings. So be mindful of your relationship to color! Second guess your biases and instead look to how the colors make you feel. I would hate to relegate color to signs, billboards, and advertisements.