The Modern Use of Color

It is interesting to see among the advances and technology, including computer matching and phone color environment renderings, color chip presentation has not changed all that much. As manufacturers improved their ability to reproduce any color imaginable, the challenge of choice arose. How do consumers decide what colors they want? How do designers know what colors to offer?

Experts published guides to color harmonies, and in time a new profession emerged: corporate colorists. From forecasting color trends to creating pleasing environments, from car paints to kitchenware, color expert’s work is seen everywhere, yet they remain largely invisible. This is the fourth and final excerpt from Smithsonian Libraries Color in a New Light exhibit. From works on color psychology and optical tricks, to trade catalogs and color chips, the Smithsonian Libraries provided a comprehensive record of modern color.

Michel Eugène Chevreul De la loi du contraste simultané des couleurs (On the law of simultaneous contrast of colors) Paris: chez Pitois-Levrault et cie., 1839

Michel Eugène Chevreul De la loi du contraste simultané des couleurs

Colorful dots demonstrate “simultaneous contrast,” the optical effect that two colors have on each other. The French chemist Chevreul was hired by a textile manufacturer to improve the “murky” color of their dyes. He discovered that it was not the dyes, but the placement of colors next to one another, that made them appear more or less vibrant.

Plate from Josef Albers Interaction of Color New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 1963

Inspired in part by Chevreul’s theories, artist and art educator Josef Albers published a landmark study of color phenomena.

Stare at the red circle for 30 seconds then look at the white circle — what color do you see? You have just experienced “successive contrast,” or afterimage. Josef Albers’ masterwork examines a wide range of color phenomena in 150 plates.

Édouard Guichard Die Harmonie der Farben (The harmony of colors) Frankfurt a.M.: Wilhelm Rommel, 1882 Purchased by the Margery F. Masinter Endowment

Harmony of Colors contains 166 spectacular full-color plates with 1,300 color combinations. Architect and decorator Édouard Guichard promoted the concept of color harmony for the design of wallpaper, curtains, upholstery, and paint schemes in architecture and interior design.

Seeley Brothers Seeley Brothers: Manufacturers of Averill Paint, Ready for Use Chicago, Illinois: Seeley Bros., (1886)

In the late 1800s, the range of available paint colors expanded exponentially, making possible the multi-colored paint schemes of the Victorian age. Victorian homeowners typically applied harmonies of three to five colors.

Benjamin Moore & Co. Moore's Superfine Coach and Car Colors: A line of colors of exceptional merit . . . New York; Chicago; Toronto, ca. 1890 Gift of Robert D. Mussey Jr.

This trade catalog shows that cars and horse-drawn coaches were available in a wide variety of colors in the 1890s. Founded in Brooklyn in 1883, the Benjamin Moore Company is best known today for their innovative interior and exterior house paints. Smithsonian Libraries has a collection of Benjamin Moore trade catalogs that can be viewed here.

Smithsonian Libraries collection of Benjamin Moore trade catalogs reveals a variety of products and color trends throughout the company’s history including coach and car paints from their earliest days

Fiesta pitcher, ca. 1936 Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum Gift of Paul Walter, 1991-68-14

Bold colors were introduced to common household objects in the first half of the 20th century. In 1936, the Homer Laughlin China Company introduced Fiesta Dinnerware in five vivid colors. Brilliant orange-red had uranium oxide in the glaze, which made the product slightly radioactive. The color was discontinued in 1944.

Costume Color Council Presents Costume Color Families for Fall 1950 New York, 1950 Gift of John R. Evans & Company

In the 20th century, advisory groups arose for the purpose of forecasting and managing color trends for fashion, home decor, and advertising. Sample books announced color palettes for each season.

This Color Selection series was based on the Smithsonian Libraries Color in a New Light exhibit which concluded in May 2017:

The History of Color Science

Making Color in Early America

The Modern Beginning of Matching Color

The Modern Use of Color

Source: Smithsonian Libraries Color in a New Light exhibit

More on the subject:

Total paint color nerd video

“Color in a New Light” on Smithsonian’s Periscope

A behind-the-scenes look at the Smithsonian Libraries exhibit “Color in a New Light”. Curator Jennifer Cohlman Bracchi and book conservator Vanessa Haight Smith explain more about the exhibit, what books were featured and the preservation work that goes in to displaying books.

Lead Sponsorship

Additional sponsor

Extension Media websites place cookies on your device to give you the best user experience. By using our websites, you agree to placement of these cookies and to our Privacy Policy. Please click here to accept.