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A Master Of Design Explores The Murky, Mutable Science Of Color

“Experiencing color is completely dependent on its physical, visual, artistic, and cultural context.”

Despite our best efforts to name and codify them, colors are slippery entities, constantly shifting in response to light and space. Think of the way the paint you choose always looks different on a wall than it did on the paint chip. Or how color models like CMYK and RGB were invented because of the discretion between the color you see on a screen and the color you see on a printed page.

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Hella Jongerius has spent over 15 years doing extensive research on color as it relates to her studio’s industrial design work. The Dutch designer’s research explores how color is more subjective than perhaps any other aspect of visual design—and how appreciating the dynamism of color can add to the design of a space or an object.

A new exhibition at the Design Museum in London, Breathing Colour, focuses solely on her work, hinging on what happens when color pigments interact with light and how colors take on different hues depending on the time of the day and the brightness and temperature of light.

[Photo: Roel van Tour/courtesy of the Design Museum]
The show is inspired by the concept of metamerism, a term in color science that describes how a color changes based under different lighting conditions. “Color touches on so many different aspects of design: words, shapes, materials, physics, space, light,” Jongerius says in a Q&A for the Design Museum. “Experiencing color is completely dependent on its physical, visual, artistic, and cultural context.”

[Photo: Roel van Tour/courtesy of the Design Museum]
Alex Newson, the curator of the exhibition, says the show reacts against the notion that color is a fixed entity that can be plucked from a color wheel and used passively in a designer’s vision. Rather, an environment can affect a color as much as a color affects our environments. Humans perceive colors differently based on biology: Our brains respond to stimuli produced when incoming light reacts with various cone cells in our eyes. But as the exhibition explores, external factors also have an impact. Colors appear differently based on the other colors they’re paired with, the materials they’re used on, the shape of an object or space they are in, and the quality of light.

[Photo: Luke Hayes/courtesy of the Design Museum]
In the case of natural light, that means colors even change in hue over the course of a single day. A color might look differently in the warm morning light than it does in the cooler light in the evening or, obviously, the dark. They might change subtly or drastically depending on the pigment.

The exhibition shows this change by adjusting the lighting in three different rooms to represent the light in morning, afternoon, and evening. According to Newson, a change in light so subtle you hardly notice can produce a profound change in the work in the exhibition.

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[Photo: Luke Hayes/courtesy of the Design Museum]
Ultimately, the exhibition urges designers to embrace colors with shifting hues, rather than choosing flat, unchanging hues and striving for consistency. Each section of the show features Color Catchers, or vessels Jongerius made from folding cardboard into angular, paneled surfaces. Those angles capture and reflect the colors of the surfaces they are placed on, so that each panel looks like it’s a slightly different hue than its neighbor, even though they are all rendered in the same color. Meanwhile, in the “evening” section, large wool, linen, and cotton textiles in dark colors are lit to appear as different shades of black.

“It’s about embracing the idea that colors can’t be controlled,” says Newson. “You can select colors based on expected performance, but they will usually surprise you. It’s better to be freer in how we can enjoy color, and the idiosyncrasies and unexpected elements of color.”

About the author

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

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