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The Weird And Fascinating Story Behind Design’s Iridescence Craze

Rainbow hues, color-changing films, and iridescent glazes have been steadily coating the design world for years. Co.Design investigates why.

The design world is having an iridescent moment. You may recognize it in Sebastian Scherer’s lovely pendant lights, designed to look like “a permanent iridescent soap bubble”. Or in Patricia Urquiola’s cool gradient Shimmer collection for Glas Italia from 2015. Last year, Tom Dixon released a collection—called Iridescence—of warped, lustrous wares inspired by the rainbow sheen of an oil spill.

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The prismatic visual effect of light, color, and reflection has also made its way into the fashion and architecture worlds. Designers like Wanda Nylon have embraced the color-changing brilliance of iridescence shimmying down the runway. Holographic accessories are gracing store shelves. As far back as 2009, graphic designer Peter Saville and architect David Adjaye debuted a gradient-sheen staircase for Kvadrat’s London showroom.

A + I architects. Canvas Worldwide office, Los Angeles, California. [Photo: via A+I]

As the executive director of the Pantone Color Institute, Leatrice Eiseman has been watching the trend since its conception. “I would say we started to tune into this 10 to 11 years ago,” she tells Co.Design. Eiseman traces the popularity of translucent designs rendered in glass and plastics back to Philippe Starck’s famed Louis Ghost Chair, designed for Kartell in 2002 as a modern update to the Louis XVI chair. Originally produced in clear acrylic, the chair has since become available in various colors, and other designers been influenced by the concept. “Over the years [the style] has gotten more and more sophisticated and more beautiful,” Eiseman says of iridescence.

It’s also gotten more ubiquitous. Experimentation over the past decade by artists and designers have made the materials, glazes, films, and finishes that produce these effects far more refined and accessible. Meanwhile, recent events have made the aesthetic an apt reflection of a cultural moment that has whipsawed between sunny optimism and despair. As the story behind the iridescence trend shows, it’s all a matter of perception.

[Photo: via Nobel Truong]

The Original Finishes Fetishists

Starck’s influence can be seen most directly in the works of designers using colored glass and plexi to create furniture pieces and home accessories. At Kartell, Starck had continued his line with furniture for kids. The Japanese design studio Nendo has recently created pieces in a similar style, with its plastic rocking horses for Kartell and elegant glass cabinets for Glas Italia. The recent work of artist Barbara Kasten is comprised of pieces that toy with light through plexiglas planes.

Los Angeles designer Nobel Truong makes plastic furniture that is striking in its composition of geometric shapes and the colorful shadows that are projected onto the floor when light shines through. She describes her influences as a combination of Bahaus geometry and material transparency and Memphis Group eccentricity and color. But when it comes to how her pieces play with light, she names the California Light and Space movement as her primary influence. “[James] Turrell, John McCracken, and Larry Bell, and their works with plastics, translucency, and lighting installations spoke to this theme of finding motion in the motionless,” Truong says.

Originating in California in the 1960s and ’70s, the Light and Space movement was concerned primarily with the use of light and geometric objects in creating ethereal environments that affect the viewer’s perception. These artists were influenced by their own environs, both natural and artificial; the quality of L.A. light, the changing surface of the nearby ocean, and the materials at use in the city’s ubiquitous car culture were all inspirations. Because of their innovative manufacturing processes and pioneering uses of acrylic, resins, and paints, these artists also earned the label “Finish Fetish.”

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Many of the most prominent members of the movement have enjoyed a resurgence as of late. Over the past couple years, for example, Bell, Robert Irwin, and Doug Wheeler have all had major gallery retrospectives. In 2013, the Guggenheim put on a huge Turrell exhibition, and his immersive piece Light Reignfall opened at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art last year.

[Photo: via JOOGII]

Diogo and Juliette Felippelli, the husband and wife team behind the L.A.-based design studio JOOGII, think that seeing the Turrell piece at LACMA had a subliminal affect on their electric line of iridescent acrylic furniture. Their pieces are also comprised of geometric shapes, and coated with a dichroic film that changes hue and saturation with varying light. Called French Touch, the furniture collection is also inspired by ’90s French house music and early Daft Punk. “I feel like there’s been a lot of call backs to ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s, when the world was a little more colorful,” Juliette says.

Eiseman relates recent popular interest in the hyper-color aesthetics of the ’90s and the works of the Light and Space movement to a more general fascination with things that mutate and change based on how the light hits. It’s a fascination that can be traced back to infancy, when one’s field of vision is still developing and starts to incorporate colors first, then textures and finishes. Being intrigued by shimmering, shiny objects is “intrinsic to human development,” she says, which makes it all the more compelling for artists and designers to try to recreate that effect.

But if humans have always been intrigued by iridescence, why the popularity now? “Technology is the great enabler,” says Eiseman. “You can see something in your mind’s eye, but if you can create the technology that lets you to produce it, you have a winning combination.”

Democratizing Dichroic

There’s no uniform process for creating the iridescent products, environments, and art pieces that are everywhere today. Truong’s work is made from sheets of plexiglas that already have the color mixed into them. Other designers have developed their own finishes that give their products that soap bubble glean: Dixon, for example, created a “top-secret glaze containing minerals and precious metals” for his Lustre collection (another one in iridescence), and Scherer’s lights are created with a proprietary iridescent film. The shifting hues in Urquiola’s Shimmer furniture is the result of multicolored glass pieces fastened together and finished with a light-reactive gloss.

While creating an original glass finish may be par for the course for established designers, for younger designers or architects working on a large scale, proprietary processes aren’t financially or logistically feasible. As Eiseman points out, the proliferation of a trend relies heavily on economic accessibility—the point at which the aesthetic becomes attainable for those outside of the exclusive, high-end market. In effect, the rise of a trend plays out like a feedback loop: The more a material is applied and experimented with, the more affordable it becomes and the more it can be used.

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Tom Dixon, Warp Vase. [Photo: via Tom Dixon]

One major driver in democratizing the iridescent effect is the manufacturing company 3M, the makers of Scotch Tape, Post-it notes, and many other adhesives, abrasives and laminates. In 2000, 3M released a dichroic finish that is used in a variety of products, from fishing lures to expensive glass furniture. The latter typically requires an advanced manufacturing process that sandwiches the finish between two glass sheets.

In 2013, the company had noticed an increased demand for iridescent coating, so they developed a dichroic adhesive that can be applied with heat and easily removed. It feels a bit like cellophane wrap, and has the same visual effect as the finish, but at a fraction of the cost. It’s what gives JOOGII’s collections its disco vibe.

So far, 3M has cornered this market. While it won’t get into specifics about its development process, Tammi Johnson, a business development manager with the company, says she hasn’t seen any other companies releasing a similar product, as often happens in foreign markets with 3M products. The reason for this, she says, is because the film was costly and time-intensive to invent, and would be even more so without the resources of an enormous R&D department like 3M’s.

Johnson also declined to go into detail about sales figures, but she confirmed that numbers for the dichroic film have been steadily increasing since its release. Some of 3M’s larger orders include the architecture firm Verner Johnson, which used the film to create a dynamic, stain glass facade for the Museum at Prairiefire in Overland Park, Kansas. Chicago artist Theaster Gates used the material in building out his ArtHouse space in Gary Indiana, and Italian architect Stefano Boeri used it to create a shimmering installation at last year’s Milan Design Week.

In addition to the fact that the film is affordable and available at large quantities, it also appeals to architects because of the privacy it offers glass-clad interiors. The architecture firm A + I recently used it for the L.A. offices of Canvas Worldwide to offer some discretion to a centrally located conference room in an open office. Kate Thatcher, an associate principal at A + I, says they used the way that dichroic glass reflects light very intentionally: While the effect makes it difficult to see into the coated conference room, it’s easy to see through from the room looking out.

Aesop Wynwood, Miami, Florida. [Photo: via Aesop]

A Glimmer Of Hope In The Future

Back in 2005, Studios Architecture also used the iridescent effect for Bloomberg’s New York City headquarters. The architects used Dichrolam, a color-shifting reflective foil from John Blazy Designs, to visually differentiate the office of Lex Fenwick, the CEO at the time, from the rest of the floor. In an article for Metropolis magazine, Paul Makovsky writes that the company wanted to “transform its offices into three-dimensional manifestations of the information technology at the heart of the company.”

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The dizzying movement and color-changing effect of iridescent materials often draws parallels to futurism and new technologies. Johnson relates the dynamism of dichroic to the popularity of digital and video art, as well as the constant refreshing of social media feeds. Truong says she likes working in plexiglas because it gives her pieces a futuristic look.

Eiseman also theorizes that the appeal of iridescence has to do with technology, though she ties it back to the emergence of computers in the ’90s. “The dotcom boom unleashed people’s usage of color,” she says, pointing toward the rainbow spectrum of iMac G3s released in 1998 as an example. “When that kind of economic freedom takes hold, there’s much more experimentation of color.”

It’s now 2017, the Federal Reserve just announced it would raise interest rates for the first time since the 2008 recession. As economic optimism coincides with a tumultuous cultural and political landscape, its no wonder the art and design world is embracing the dreamlike and surreal. At this point, we may as well coat the world in an iridescent glaze, if only to enjoy the illusion.

About the author

Meg Miller is an associate editor at Co.Design covering art, technology, and design.

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