Red roar

Last year Fay Sweet looked at the psychology and use of colour in design. Here, in the first of three close-ups, she discovers how, when and why we use red, its associations and historical use, and what leading designers and users do with it and feel abou

THERE’S a wonderful story about how red can get you in a lot of trouble. Not so long ago when China’s Red Guard was fired with enthusiasm for the glorious red flag of Communism, these foot soldiers of the new order decided that red was not only the national colour of good luck, but it also stood for action. They hit on the idea of re-ordering the sequence of traffic lights to make red the new signal for go. The idea spread far and wide and engineers were drafted in in their thousands to make the switch. However, the lust for change was patchy and didn’t travel quite far enough and wide enough for all traffic signals to be altered across the entire land mass. I don’t need to tell you that for some hapless Chinese travellers the colour red turned out to be rather less than lucky.

Despite the fatal flaw in its plan, the Red Guard had it right about red being associated with activity – the red of the Royal Mail, the traditional London bus and the red sports car all endorse the notion that red equals speed. Equally important, and ignored by the Red Guard, is the association of the colour with warning – horses with a habit of unpredictable kicking have a red ribbon tied to their tail and warning road signs have a red border.

And, paradoxically, as well as being a sizzling dangerous sort of a hue, red is a great welcomer – roll out the red carpet and enter the crimson/damson/terracotta womb-like restaurant, nightclub or hallway.

Arguably, red was the first colour used in interior decorating – it features lavishly in the earliest of cave paintings such as those at Lascaux in the Dordogne, where the red outlines of horses and deer bound athletically across the grey stone walls. The powerful red is joined by yellow and orange ochres along with brown and black – all natural, local pigments ground and mixed and daubed by the artists. But despite being the first decorating colour, red is a colour to be handled with care.

To demonstrate the welcoming and comforting properties of red, Nick Butcher at Fitch chose a lustrous red carpet to mark the entrance of the London restaurant L’Odeon. “The restaurant itself was on the first floor and so we used red as a device to attract people’s attention and draw them inside,” says Butcher. “The message of the red carpet matched that of the restaurant – it said quality, luxury and excitement.” But the story has an unhappy ending. “Sadly, after six months the client changed the carpet colour to purple – with all the traffic, red got dirty very quickly.”

However, undeterred, Butcher has continued to use reds to great effect. Fitch’s work at Ing bank in The Netherlands is clever and subtle. “The company was introducing staffless automated banks and we were called in to work on the interiors. Because of their nature they had to contain a number of dispensers and terminals, but it was important to avoid making the place totally impersonal,” explains Butcher. The first site was long and narrow. The design solution was to place the machines along one wallwhich was painted in a slightly mechanistic gold and bottle green mix, and to colour the far end wall a rich, deep red. “We also curved the end wall to help it enclose the space. This area was free of the machines but had a telephone for bank users to make a personal call to bank staff working from a central office,” says Butcher.

A fan of desaturated dirty and chalky colours, Butcher has found that he’s using brighter colours more than ever before. “Bubble gum pink is one that crops up. Fashion has a significant effect on the use of colour – even though we may be absorbing these changes subliminally. Recently, I carried out an exercise with a Finnish furniture company interested in the British market. We did a tour of its potential competitors and found the shops we visited had an overwhelming similarity; the predominant colours were creamy shades with bright highlights – lime green and blues and oranges. Five years ago I would never have guessed that we’d be seeing the revival of lime green! The feel in the shops was reminiscent of the Fifties and Sixties. Perhaps this is signifying some post-recession optimism.”

The connection of bright colours and optimism is also made by architect Marta Nowicka of Nowicka Stern: “I think we are entering a colourful phase – people are opening up to the possibilities of bright colour.” Nowicka Stern has earned a reputation for its uncompromisingly colourful interiors – often combining huge slabs of different vibrant colours, as seen in the Hammersmith café Patisserie Deco. Aware of the tendency to conservatism, the company offers its clients the opportunity, at no extra cost, to tone down colour schemes if they really can’t live with them, but so far the response has been positive. “Once people get the hang of living or working with colour around them, they like it. It might be something they aspired to, but needed a little help to get there. It becomes a conversation piece, a positive statement,” says Nowicka.

In one bold deployment of colour, Nowicka Stern inset a huge red oval carpet into the reception of property developer The Yarmouth Group. “It was such a startling addition to the building that we had people from offices all round coming to have a look at it,” says Nowicka. “The result was that the client, who had been hesitant at first, took on board the idea of red as dynamic and positive and liked the idea that it could change people’s perception of what a property developer is.”

The oval performs the practical function of drawing visitors through the small entrance lobby towards the reception desk, which had to be placed deeper inside the building. Nowicka explains: “People become confused in empty, unfamiliar spaces unless they are given some sign which shows them where to go. Because we move intuitively towards red and because the ends of the oval pointed at the entrance and reception, the route became clear.”

The use of red in the circulation and division of space is often used by Adam Rawls of interior design practice Rawls & Company. In his work for flooring manufacturer Amtico, Rawls added the device of a red central wall in its showrooms. “For a static element this works pretty hard – it marks the division between domestic and commercial products, it provides a circulation route and, in the Corbusian Ronchamp style, it has holes punched through it to provide frames to display products.”

Although Amtico features a rich dark terracotta in its corporate colours, a brighter shade was used for the wall. “Although the flooring is a premium product, we had to take note that it’s not the real thing – it’s not stone or wood, and so terracotta would have been too upmarket. We’ve opted for a red with a little more punch, that’s got an edge of aggression,” explains Rawls. The success of the wall device has been used in exhibitions too. “One stand uses the wall as its boundary, enveloping the space, another has taken just the red colour and is transformed into cloth sails on the stand.”

Rawls is convinced that a proliferation of brighter colours is on its way. “At the beginning of the Eighties we went through a horrible pastel phase which eventually gave way to the good taste autumnal shades later in the decade, but for the Nineties the future looks bright. I’m working on a food court project that’s quite startling in electric yellow, white and silver, and we’ve even changed our own identity to incorporate cyan, magenta and yellow.”

What’s in a name?

What is it with paint names – who the hell sits around dreaming up handles like Tumblestone, Moon Tusker, This One, That One, Rosevale, Amberoid, Talon and Cochise? What are we supposed to understand by these names? Is there something wrong with me if I don’t know that Cha-Cha is a bright yellow? I had to discover what or who was at the root of all this…

“It’s part art and part science,” Christie Thorn of the Dulux marketing department reassured me. “You can’t make a paint colour successful just by hitting on a brilliant name, but it is possible to wreck a colour’s chances on the shelf by choosing something utterly inappropriate.”

At Dulux the naming process begins by oiling the creative cogs with a couple of glasses of fine claret. “The whole marketing and design and development team sits round a table with sheets of the colours to be named and we brainstorm,” says Thorn. The trick is to keep it simple and evocative – always remembering that ‘Champagne’ has a lot more going for it than ‘beige’.”

If the art is to create emotional, witty names, then the science is in the market research and the complex machinery of the Standard Trademark Law. “Once we have drawn up lists of prospective names they are tested on potential consumers and we must check with the trademark people to make sure those names are not registered.”

The more accurately descriptive the name, the less registerable it is. For example, it turns out that Britain’s all-time, smash-hit, best-selling favourite colour – magnolia – is unregisterable because it’s considered a generic term.

To demonstrate just how susceptible we are to suggestion, one of the cunning marketing tests tried out on punters is to put several paint sample sheets before them all bearing the same colour… but with different names. A choice must be made of the favourite colour. Dastardly. In another test on a range with fabric-inspired names, the consumer had no hesitation in turning up its collective nose at “muslin”, but giving the green light to the flamboyant “organza”.

And despite all this hard work selecting just the right name, it appears that for some ranges it matters less than for others. “The importance is reduced in our huge 1600-colour Definitions range, for example,” says Thorn, “because people select from paper strips that show perhaps ten related colours – they compare them and aren’t really intent on knowing the names. However, for the ready-mixed colours the selection is made at the shelf, where the choice is limited and the consumer sees the paint pot and colour name right in front of them.”

To demonstrate the importance of paint names on the shelf, Homestyle produced two ranges of paints which shared some colours – “magnolia appeared in both ranges but was called something like pearl in one range and magnolia in the other,” recalls Homestyle head of buying Lynda Mason. “After a while we realised the pearl name was performing less well than expected. We changed it to magnolia and saw sales rocket – it moved from the third best seller to the first.”

Homestyle is also critically aware of the name- registration business and Mason says that really is the key to the nutty names. “To give a range distinction the names can be very important, and in order to protect them from use by our competitors they must be registered. Because more than 2000 names are already on the books, with the most obvious already taken, we tend to veer towards being more inventive.” That said, the latest Homestyle Soft Sheen range does contain some descriptions that clearly relate to colours – “We’ve included Lemon Zest and Daisy Yellow which, very much to our surprise, hadn’t already been registered. There’s also Tropical Spice, which is a burnt orange, but that name had already gone,” says Mason. “One of my personal favourites is Wild Rowan, a really rich berry red, but there’s one I still haven’t quite got used to yet… and that’s Acapulco Pink.”

However, Acapulco Pink is less of a shocker than the hottest news that the British public may be falling out of love with magnolia. “There’s an explosion of colour going on,” says Mason.

“Perhaps there really is a new feeling of confidence in the country, but we have detected a distinct swing towards the use of much bolder colours. It’s the biggest change I’ve ever seen and I’ve been in the business for more than 12 years.”

So, good news, the future is looking bright. In fact, it’s verging on the totally psychedelic.

Further reading..

Colourscape by Michael Lancaster, published by Academy, 21.95. Architect and colour consultant Lancaster concentrates mostly on colour in the outdoor environment. It is full of fascinating details about how the sensitive and intelligent use of colour can transform just about anything for the better, from bulky power stations to entire city streets.

The Beginner’s Guide to Colour Psychology by Angela Wright, published by Kyle Cathie, 12.95. Colour psychologist and consultant Angela Wright introduces readers to the world of colour psychology. She works on the slightly twee system that we fall into four colour personality types, but also tackles the areas of colour in commercial use – Wright is well-known to product designers – and colour in the work environment.

Erik Spiekermann: Ask anybody to mention a colour off the top of their head and eight out of ten will say red. Why does every decent national flag have red in it? Red is colour itself. Blood, life, love and emotion are all red. For a typography maniac like myself, it is the only colour I will ever need. The classic “rubrum” of medieval manuscripts is still the best contrast next to black and white. Everything else is boring (except yellow, perhaps).

Robert Burns: My love is like a red, red rose.

Nick Butcher of Fitch: I instantly think of a warm colour, there are so many gorgeous reds, but I loathe primary red. One of my current favourites is a Sanderson’s Bengal Red. It is close in tone to the wonderful red oxide colours that have been used so successfully by innovators like Ben Kelly. There are lots of associations with red – I think of rolling out the red carpet, intense reds that are upmarket, luxurious, exciting and expensive.

Mike Davies of Richard Rogers: I’ve lived with red for 20 years and have amassed a wonderful collection of shoes and an entirely red wardrobe – it’s very useful in the mornings, I never have to make a decision about what colours to wear. It was intriguing to read the clothes at our office Christmas party – under 35s wore black and those over 35 wore bright multicoloured things. My piece of advice to anyone thinking about wearing one colour is to choose carefully. You really have to like it and be able to sustain wearing that colour when it’s in and out of fashion.

Eva Jiricna: In a small quantity red is cheerful. Too much and it’s overpowering. I find it alarming… and it can make me quite depressed.

Adam Rawls: It’s full of complexity and can communicate meanings as varied as heat and warmth or aggression. In retail red means cheap. It’s bright and brash and is used to denote sales, promotions, and clearance items and signifies a low market position. The colour has become much-maligned as a result and is really only used by the most competitive in the high street, like Dixons and Curry’s. An up market store like Nicole Farhi runs a mile from it. But used judiciously it can be very good for retailers. For example, Muji used it in a very limited way to great effect on its simple packaging. Outside Europe the use of red appears to be less problematic. Here, it strikes a strident note in a country that’s filed with people in grey suits.

Marta Nowicka of Nowicka Stern: I instantly think of two types of red – the Anne Summers version and the Communist/Constructivist one. The red of Anne Summers is plastic, false, full of innuendo and suggestiveness; it’s about red roses and red noses. The other conjures up ideas of essentials, anarchy, comradeship; it’s the people’s colour and the colour of poppies. There’s not a huge difference between them in the spectrum, but a vast one in terms of perception.

Will Alsop: The Red Wedge eventually colours all politics.

Billy Harkom of The Chase: Red really isn’t my favourite colour. I find it hard to use because even in small quantities it’s so strident and immediately attracts the eye.

Perhaps my perception of red has been coloured by the fact that I’m a Sheffield Wednesday supporter, and they wear blue strips; Sheffield United is, of course, red. Having said all that, I wouldn’t say no to a red Ferrari.

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