Phil Patton

Critic; Curator; Writer / United States /

Phil Patton’s Notable Books of 2012

1 book
Regina Lee Blaszczyk

Today, the business of color choice is obscured by pop press reports of “the hue of the year” that tend to be dismissed as superficial. But the addition of color to the toolbox of the industrial designer (it had long been a tool of the fashion designer) was a major event. Thanks to the chemical industry, which flourished under the pressure of World War I, the chemistry and technology of color changed radically in the 1920s.

The causes and effects of that change are a key story in design history, told by Regina Lee Blaszczyk, Visiting Scholar in the Department of the History and Sociology of Science at the University of Pennsylvania and an associate editor at the Journal of Design History.

The key shift came in the mid-1920s, when General Motors was able to use fast-drying, colorful DuPont enamels on its cars. Henry Ford had chosen his famous black because it dried quickly, in keeping with the rapid pace of his factories. From “any color you want as long as it’s black,” Chevrolet, Pontiac, and Buick could offer simply “any color you want.” (The first of the new offerings, incidentally, was a Pontiac blue.)

GM began sending emissaries to the Paris fashion shows to scout palettes for future upholstery. One of them—and one of the many colorful color chosers to whom Blaszczyk introduces us—was H. Ledyard Towle, a former military camouflage expert who after World War I became an adviser to DuPont, then moved to Detroit in 1928 as General Motors’ first “color engineer.”

As in so many areas of marketing and design, Detroit led the way. After red Chevrolets and blue Pontiacs, the road was opened to avocado refrigerators and harvest gold stoves. Kodak was soon advertising its once black Brownies in multiple soft hues, and portable typewriters in mint green and salmon pink were found in showroom window

The change happened just in time for the arrival of the professional industrial designer. And it created the profession of color consultant, which Blaszczyk records. “Blaszczyk examines the evolution of the color profession from 1850 to 1970,” as the publisher summarizes it, “telling the stories of innovators who managed the color cornucopia that modern artificial dyes and pigments made possible. These “color stylists,” “color forecasters,” and “color engineers” helped corporations understand the art of illusion and the psychology of color.”

The effects were wide-ranging: from the arrival of mauve in the fashion world to color in film or television, color again and again wreaks major changes. These effects are more than aesthetic: they are profound and existential, as caricatured in the film Pleasantville.

comments powered by Disqus