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Imagine a Caution Signal in White Instead of Yellow: 'The Color Revolution'

This book takes me from thinking that I’m going to grab that dark green sweater because it’s clean or because someone told me green looks good on me to wondering why I was even able to buy a dark green sweater to begin with.

The Color Revolution

Publisher: MIT Press
Price: $34.95
Author: Regina Lee Blaszczyk
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2012-09

The Color Revolution does something that many of my favorite books do: it takes an everyday thing, something that is almost always present but that I don’t think too much about, and makes me think about it. In this case, it takes me from thinking that I’m going to grab that dark green sweater because it’s clean or because someone told me green looks good on me to wondering why I was even able to buy a dark green sweater to begin with.

Blaszczyk opens the book with a similar thought—except she prefers lime green, and she understands why she could purchase an entire lime-green ensemble: “It was no accident that my dress, my handbag, and my candy matched to a T. My new lime-green ensemble had been color coordinated by design. It was a product of design practices that had been unfolding for more than a century.”

Color is all around us— and just in case we’ve missed this fact—Blaszczyk gives plenty of examples, both in the text and in the abundant number of visuals: advertisements, photographs, calendars, magazine covers, sections of fabrics, etc. But she is quick to note that most don’t know much about colorists or color management and that colorists are often overlooked despite their significant contributions: “Professional colorists are important (yet often invisible) players in the creative economy that undergirds the global fashion system. Design historians, business historians, and museum curators who focus on ‘great entrepreneurs’ and ‘great designers’ have overlooked these creative professionals and their influence on products.” Blaszczyk aims to right this wrong by examining the history of color and colorists from the 1890s to the 1960s.

Despite chapter titles like “Mauve Mania” and “Think Pink”, it’s clear that color can be serious business. For example, the chapter “Hide and Seek” discusses artists’ contributions to the war effort. As Blaszczyk relates, in 1917 the New York Times demanded “American artists, join the camouflage!” and painters “helped the Army develop camouflage techniques for hiding land targets from German spy balloons, cannons, and bombers”. Called camoufleurs, they “combined a painter’s command of optical illusion with a naturalist’s understanding of deceptive coloration”.

Blaszczyk also notes the connections between color and science. The section “Signals, Science, and Safety” discusses the creation of colored caution signals for rail traffic. Today we might automatically associate yellow with caution, but Blaszczyk tells of a time when white lights were used (albeit not very effectively) to signal caution. Later Blaszczyk discusses color and energy consumption: “Scientific tests showed that using the right paint on floors and walls could double the effects of most lighting systems without increasing the wattage”.

As one might expect, fashion—fabrics, ensemble dressing, the Textile Color Card Association, signature hues—has a strong presence in the book, but less stylish entities, such as appliances, also take up a good portion of the text. According to Blaszczyk, red, black, blue, gray, yellow, and green stoves were available in the late '40s, and she also includes a brief history of the color palette of Maytag washers. Then, of course, there is a section on cars.

Ultimately, though, this book is all about people. After all, none of this—red stoves, Pan American Blue, color systems, McDonalds’ golden arches— was accidental; people made it happen. As promised in the introduction, Blaszczyk brings the stories of these people, the “color stylists”, “color forecasters” and “color engineers”, to life. She tells the stories of people like Margaret Hayden Rorke, one of the first color forecasters and the woman responsible for balancing “American taste with French style, gaining widespread acceptance for the TCCA [the Textile Color Card Association], and establishing its position as the leading American color authority”.

Blaszczyk moves from a time when colorists labored to make colors reliable to a time when this reliability is so expected and commonplace that no one even notices:

“We are oblivious to the fact that in centuries past almost everything turned pale after brief exposure to the sun. Our sheets, towels, and shirts don’t fade after dozens of washings… Our black Kenmore refrigerators match our black Maytag dishwashers. Every single Stop sign is the same shade of red, and every British Airways Boeing 747 has the same blue nylon upholstery… We live in the chromo-utopia [colorists] worked so hard to achieve—but we are sadly unmindful of its wonders.”

But that, of course, must be part of the purpose of the book—to make us mindful, to make us wonder why we can purchase an ice blue automobile or why we can’t find a yellow sweater when three years ago all we could find were yellow sweaters. Blaszczyk makes this and much more clear in her beautifully designed book. The tone sometimes shifts from academic to conversational, but the stories Blaszczyk tells and the history she relates should make all spend some serious, but pleasurable, time rethinking color.


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