Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2010, English; originally published 1810 in German
Nonfiction, Graphic Design

From the Publisher. By the time Goethe's Theory of Colours appeared in 1810, the wavelength theory of light and color had been firmly established. To Goethe, the theory was the result of mistaking an incidental result for an elemental principle. Far from pretending to a knowledge of physics, he insisted that such knowledge was an actual hindrance to understanding. He based his conclusions exclusively upon exhaustive personal observation of the phenomena of color.

Goethe's scientific conclusions have, of course, long since been thoroughly demolished, but the intelligent reader of today may enjoy this work on quite different grounds: for the beauty and sweep of his conjectures regarding the connection between color and philosophical ideas; for an insight into early 19th-century beliefs and modes of thought; and for the flavor of life in Europe just after the American and French Revolutions.

The work may also be read as an accurate guide to the study of color phenomena. Goethe's conclusions have been repudiated, but no one quarrels with his reporting of the facts to be observed. With simple objects—vessels, prisms, lenses, and the like—the reader will be led through a demonstration course not only in subjectively produced colors, but also in the observable physical phenomena of color. By closely following Goethe's explanations of the color phenomena, the reader may become so divorced from the wavelength theory—Goethe never even mentions it—that he may begin to think about color theory relatively unhampered by prejudice, ancient or modern.

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Shashi Caan

This accessible color theory book is both illuminating and surprising. Since the book is devoid of pictures, reconstructing the experiments by following the writing results in experiential learning. This is a “must read” for anyone interested in better understanding human response to our physical world. It explains the phenomenological interactions of light, color, and form that help to shape our daily experiences. This book and the writings of Johannes Itten and Josef Albers, other equally important color theoreticians, are foundational reading for anyone interested in architecture and design.

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