A look at two shows that explore colour use

There’s more to bright tints than meets the eye. Anna Richardson takes stock of two shows that explore the subtext and potential of colour usage in design – and learns a bit of colour theory on the way

Über-trend forecaster Li Edelkoort might have said that the future is grey in her recent trend predictions, but splashes of colour persist in all design areas. Pantone has decreed Mimosa yellow as its 2009 colour of the year, Prada has just released a rainbow-hued set of luggage, Peter Saville and Adjaye Associates took colour as the main inspiration in the design of the new Kvadrat showroom in London, Apple is constantly releasing new candy-coloured iPod versions and Dr Martens has recently launched all-colour versions of its iconic boots.

Many think of colour exclusively as related to trends, but used intelligently, colour can have a timeless appeal. The popularity of artists such as Sol LeWitt – often cited by graphic designers as inspiration – has certainly endured. ‘Colour is a very important tool,’ says textile artist and architectural colour consultant Ptolemy Mann. ‘It crosses the boundaries between fine art and serious design very naturally. When you use colour in the right way, it’s timeless.’

Mann studied textile design at Central St Martins College of Art and Design, where lessons in colour theory were mandatory, but is surprised by the lack of education in design about colour. Colour is often used in a quite random way, and architects especially are prone to pluck colour out of thin air, says Mann, who has guest-curated the current Significant Colour exhibition at the Aram Gallery in London.

The exhibition shows work that is not just colourful, but meaningful in its colour use, which can be applied in both scientific or personal approaches. Significant Colour exhibitor Olivier Droillard, for example, created his mushroom table following a walk in the Alps. Where the colours might not say ‘alpine stroll’ to everyone, the personal experience deliberately informed the palette.

There are also ways of choosing colour palettes that relate to the intention of the designer or the function or location of a project, says Mann. In the colour specifications for the King’s Mill Hospital facade in Nottinghamshire, Mann chose warm colours around the main entrance, with cooler blues and greens on the sides, reflecting the countryside location. The effect helps in wayfinding, guiding visitors to relevant areas of the building, with the warmer colours drawing them in.

Using colour purely for appearance is important, but it has relevance in other ways, agrees painter Garth Lewis, who lectures on colour theory and wrote the recent 2000 Colour Combinations. ‘Increasingly, things are being run by microchips and their function is not apparent, so colour is important in distinguishing the identity of products, rather than just making them look nice,’ he says.

The advent of the colour chart has played a great role in artists’ attitude to colour. Its influence in making colour a mass, off-the-peg commodity is explored in Colour Chart: Reinventing Colour 1950 to Today exhibition, which comes to Tate Liverpool later this month. The exhibition follows the emergence of the colour chart and the commercialisation of colour, and looks at the influence of colour wheels and colour books on fine art and design.

It’s a timely show, says Tate Liverpool director Christoph Grunenberg. ‘There’s a real fascination with the colour chart and its aesthetic – the juxtaposition of pure, even colours and a rigid, geometric grid, which leads to a decorative pattern. The standardisation of use of colour is present in all areas of graphics, architecture, interiors and fashion.’ This is also evident in some work on show at the Aram Gallery.

Wall Sculpture by Sophie Smallhorn, who is currently working on the London Olympic stadium as a colour consultant, demonstrates her interest in the colour wheel and how colours interact. Cristian Zuzunaga’s pixel-effect textiles reflect the rigid grid of colour palette books, and graphic designer James Goggin playfully tests print-ondemand colour reproduction in bespoke publishing in Dear Lulu.

Mann hopes that interest in colour knowledge will continue to grow, but says that the associations of colour with eccentricity or lavish embellishment need to change. ‘You can have something minimal, slick and modern, but it can still be quite colourful,’ she explains. ‘Colour has always been seen as a relatively wild thing,’ agrees Lewis. ‘It’s associated with folk art or primitive aesthetics. Black and grey have become the colours of seriousness – colour would appear to be frivolous.’

Colour has been neglected for a long time, and now is a good time to address this. With computers, digital printing and the sheer quantity of colours available, knowledge about digital versus material colours, how printing affects them and what to do about it is crucial.

Indeed, Lewis believes it has become a priority.

Significant Colour is at the Aram Gallery, 110 Drury Lane, London WC2, until 27 June

Colour Chart: Reinventing Colour opens at Tate Liverpool, Albert Dock, Liverpool L3 on 29 May

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