When asked about the colour range of his splendid new Model T motor cars, Henry Ford famously replied that customers could choose any hue… “so long as it’s black”. Since those dark, monochrome days, colour has exploded on the world. As our expertise improves in incorporating pigment into base materials, so our taste has become more adventurous.
Of course, while the motor industry has a long-established history of offering models in virtually any colour, the domestic products market has been surprisingly slow to follow suit. Until recently, decorating and textiles were really the only ways of making colour statements in the home – that aside, brown goods were brown (or black) and white goods were white. However, there are clear indications that there’s a small revolution under way, especially in the kitchen.
With blue being one of the most popular colour choices in the kitchen, Russell Hobbs is among those launching coordinating blue products and it has just taken the market by storm with its coloured kettle – the Millennium. It’s available in white, of course, with a clear blue side panel, but also in dark blue and dark green. “But colour alone is not enough to sell a product,” warns Beverley Martin, marketing director of the Pifco Group which embraces brands such as Russell Hobbs, Tower, Salton and Carmen. “The consumer is smarter than that, and wants excellence in design and technological benefits too.”
Martin adds that consumer magazines and television cookery programmes have prompted people to think afresh about the kitchen. “Not only are we more aware of ways we can brighten up our kitchens, but we are also more confident and sophisticated in building schemes,” she observes. “There were signs of people’s willingness to experiment at the end of the Eighties, but in the recession the idea really took hold – if people couldn’t afford to completely redecorate they chose instead to buy a few brightly coloured items, such as ceramics, to change the look of the room.”
Pifco’s Tower brand of enamelled metal cookware has also been produced in colours – “the range called Dimensions began with a dark green, dark blue and burgundy. They’re classic kitchen colours,” says Martin. “Green was the best performer at first, but blue now looks set to take over the lead.”
Martin believes the consumer interest in coloured appliances is firmly rooted in the changing ways in which we think about and use our kitchens. “Two or three decades ago the trend was for kitchens to be sterile, laboratory-like, hygienic and fully fitted – appliances were stored out of sight. But now we use our kitchens as living spaces where we eat and watch television and where children do their homework. The room has become integrated into the rest of the home. As a result, there is an urge to give kitchens personality and one way of doing that is to choose electrical appliances as interesting objects in their own right.”
Changing consumer habits and tastes are closely observed by pattern designer and colour consultant Sue Green of ceramics design specialist Queensberry Hunt Levien. The rapidly changing attitude to the coloured cafetiÃ¨re, for example, can be charted in just a few years during the company’s work with manufacturer Household Articles which makes La CafetiÃ¨re. “When we first started out the cafetiÃ¨re was considered a dinner party item, so the initial range appeared in dark blue, dark green and burgundy,” recalls Green. “As plunger coffee-making became more popular for casual dining or drinking in the kitchen the colours of the second range were terracotta, turmeric and pimento. And now with plunger coffee being drunk in the garden, on picnics and so on, the latest range is available in bright blue, turquoise green and lime green as well as classic burgundy, red, dark blue and dark green.”
Green agrees with Martin that the consumer has grown extremely sophisticated and relishes bold colours. She adds that improved manufacturing technology has made it possible to experiment with colours on items such as kettles and toasters. “People are now confident enough to make their own schemes – they may pick out a key colour from curtain material and then build on that. This is a change from a few years ago when the instinct was to buy things to match all at once.” Green suggests that this mix and match tendency is also apparent in the ceramics market, where Queensberry Hunt ©
Levien has recently completed work on a range of blue-glazed terracotta tableware for Henry Watson. “We’re seeing a move away from the huge 90-piece dinner services. People seem to prefer to buy half a dozen dinner plates in one style and then choose side plates or bowls with the same colours but from different ranges.” She concludes by saying that where the old beige barleycorn motif was once ubiquitous in the kitchen, there is now a strong interest in textures and layers of colour.
An exploration of colours, textures and materials has been preoccupying Steve Hughes of product design consultancy PSD, which has just finished work on the Swatch Blue Whale cordless phone. “Right from the start we wanted this to appear in a translucent blue plastic, but just couldn’t get the right material. The one translucent blue we found didn’t pass the drop test and so we had to think again,” says Hughes. “Despite all our efforts it eventually had to be made opaque and now sits alongside the Orange Utan orange phone and the Jump’in
Dolphin grey phone.” Early feedback shows the orange version to be a best seller, but Hughes has a sneaking suspicion that the translucent material would have given the edge to the blue version. And what’s even more galling is that subsequently, in another country, he’s found a manufacturer now able to work with translucent plastic. However, all is not lost, since he is working on a Swatch answering machine that might appear on our shelves in translucent blue.
“The choice of colour in a product can never be separated from its physical application. Sometimes the colour you want is impossible to achieve technically, while other colours are avoided because you know they don’t work well in the mould,” says Hughes. “There’s also an economic consideration too – colours from a standard palette cost less than specially made up versions. Quantities also have a bearing on price.”
One of the most intriguing observations made by Hughes is that despite the dazzle of colour that’s appearing in the shops, we are still an essentially conservative bunch of consumers. “There’s a pattern developing where manufacturers realise that they need brightly coloured options in their products alongside the safer colours to ensure sales of the safer ones. The bold coloured products act as awareness raisers for the others, but they’re sold in tiny numbers. However, if the brighter coloured items weren’t there at all, sales of the conservative colours would fall.”
Hughes has detected this ingenious piece of colour psychology at work in the car market, where a number of manufacturers launch new models in some startling colours, but then withdraw those colours once the car has found its place in the market.
For the future Hughes is convinced that now we have mastered the art of adding pigment to most base materials, there will be a flurry of interest in developing different and intriguing finishes. “We are already seeing the spread of iridescent and pearlised effects, but I think we’re likely to see many more varieties that will give infinite depth and richness to the colour ranges we are familiar with today.”