Le Corbusier’s Color Theories, Explained

The Swiss architect was a stickler for color, as a rare wallpaper book now up for auction shows.

Henry Ford was famous for saying a customer could have any color of car she or he wanted, so long as it’s black–a nod to how the industrialist viewed color, all function no fun. Black paint dried the fastest, and that mattered more than the expressionistic qualities of different colors. Many modern architects shared a similar obsession with the sterile white box and dismiss color as mere ornament.


Not Le Corbusier. The renowned Swiss architect believed color was instrumental to orchestrating spatial effects. In a series of wallpapers for the Swiss company Salubra, he rhapsodized about his color theories. “Each of us, according to his own psychology, is controlled by one or more dominant colors,” he wrote in a 1931 swatch book for the brand, which was inspired by his Architectural Polychromy essay from 1930. A rare, intact copy of the swatch book is on the auction block this week at Swann, in New York.

In the book, Le Corbusier created color palettes organized like keyboards. Sliding a cardboard cutout–called a key hole–along the pages creates color harmonies. Think of them as the visual equivalent of a tonal chord. The 1931 edition of the book included 43 different colors; in 1956, he added 20 more hues. His theory revolved around three concepts: using natural colors to create atmosphere, applying synthetic pigments for contrast, and deploying transparent synthetic pigments to alter surfaces without affecting how the eye perceives space. His motivation for getting into wallpaper was to ensure that his color choices would be replicated exactly as he wished, without the nuances and variations inherent in paint.

[Photo: Andreas Rentz/Getty Images]

The Salubra book is organized into 12 different cards that represent color families. Each card is composed of three color bands–all subjectively chosen by Le Corbusier, who was also painter–and the key instructed people on what three to five colors contrasted well with each other. So while he wouldn’t tell you exactly what color to pick–that was up to the individual–he would tell you what goes well together and what should be an atmospheric paint (meaning something to use for an entire wall) versus a contrast (a bolder color to be used sparingly).

“Color theory allows a designer to truly manipulate the interior and reflect the psychological needs of the clients and the task at hand,” says Christine von der Linn, a senior specialist at Swann says. “It outlined color in a very systematic theoretical way. Light, dimension, supporting walls, and accent walls all go into designing a space. Color is like an architectural addition to the room–you can manipulate reaction to a space and how it feels with pigment just as much as if placing a window or and beam.”

Accent walls might seem like a cliche in interior design today. But to Le Corbusier, they were the backbone of an interior. The Salubra swatch book will be auctioned off on December 1 at Swann. Find out more about the lot here.

[All Images (unless otherwise noted): courtesy Swann Auction Galleries]


About the author

Diana Budds is a New York–based writer covering design and the built environment.