The Color of Invention

Mrs. Consumer contemplates a new paint job for the family car. From Motor (Aug. 1926). Smithsonian Institution Libraries.

Choosing the right color can be important (just ask Sir Gallahad in Monty Python and the Holy Grail). But just what is color?  On the surface, this seems a simple question. The answer, however, isn’t so obvious. Colors fill the world, yet they aren’t in themselves tangible things that can be held in one’s hand. Colors are imbued with meanings, though they possess no inherent significance. Color, states art historian Manlio Brusatin, is “a perception and elaboration of our brain.”[1] In both the physical and psychological sense, colors are inventions.

How do we study this ethereal thing we call color? What are the major research themes, and how do we ground those in history? These were a few of the questions discussed at a fascinating conference on “Bright Modernity: Color, Commerce, and Consumption in Global Perspective,” organized by Uwe Spiekermann and Regina Lee Blaszczyk and held at the German Historical Institute in Washington, D.C., last week. Dr. Blaszczyk is a longtime friend of the Lemelson Center—she is a former curator at the National Museum of American History, a former Lemelson Center Fellow, and the recipient of a Lemelson Center Travel to Collections Award. She is also a scholar immersed in the study of color; her upcoming book, The Color Revolution, is being published in the Lemelson Center Studies in Invention and Innovation series with MIT Press and will hit bookstores this fall.

In 1997, the Lemelson Center presented a symposium on "The Colors of Invention." Here participants get a behind-the-scenes look at items from the Museum's textile and costume collections. © 1997 Smithsonian Institution.

The scholars invited to contribute to “Bright Modernity” came from across the U.S., Europe, and the Pacific Rim. Their presentations were equally wide-ranging, spanning 16th-century Venetian textiles to the psychological implications of pink. The conference participants took on the heroic invention story of William Henry Perkin and his creation of aniline purple, popularly known as mauve, as the “first” synthetic dye (experiments with aniline dyes in France predated Perkin’s work, we learned).  They also went beyond the traditional research focus on dyes and the chemistry of color to explore its myriad applications in fashion, art, printing, lighting, architecture, and more.

The General Electric Company facilitated the color revolution with incremental improvements to Mazda-brand light bulbs. Brighter lights made consumers more aware of color in their surroundings. Ladies’ Home Journal (Nov. 1926).

For example, we heard how Michel-Eugene Chevreul , Albert Munsell, Smithsonian ornithologist Robert Ridgway, and board-game maker Milton Bradley all tried to impose order on the world of colors and instruct others in their proper uses. We contemplated the meaning of colors as a kind of shorthand for social, political, or cultural values. We discussed the important role of color mediators—the color forecasters, fashion leaders, and tastemakers who influenced the introduction of new colors into the marketplace. One of the speakers even alluded to the smell of color in a talk about the production of natural indigo in colonial India. I chaired a session that looked at architecture as art and art as mass media, with talks about the application of color to buildings in the German Democratic Republic to reflect the “joyful but disciplined” GDR citizenry, and on Life magazine’s success with issues that disseminated reproductions of famous works of art. Through all of the presentations, the speakers emphasized the importance of supporting their arguments with evidence from archives and museum collections.

“Bright Modernity” was an inspiring example of cross-disciplinary thinking and collaborative exchange. Clearly, everyone involved was intrigued by color, something that is so ubiquitous that we might ignore it, but that still has the power to signify so much, and to have so much agency. For me, though, the one actor missing from many of the discussions was technology, and more specifically, invention. We at the Lemelson Center have seen many instances of the back-and-forth between inventors and consumers, but questions surrounding how and why new colors are created were underexplored at the conference. Still, “Bright Modernity” broke new ground in highlighting the people working between the lab and the marketplace, and in looking at color through the lenses of consumption, media, and culture.

Margaret Hayden Rorke was the most influential "color forecaster" of the 1920s and '30s. She built her fashion career by bringing the feminine viewpoint to the design process. Woman’s Journal (Oct. 1929).

“Color,” wrote Faber Birren, a noted 20th-century color technologist, “is in the blood, an essential part of the psychic make-up of an individual.”[2] We have invented technologies to create, define, and reproduce colors and psychological ways to turn them into symbols. In myriad ways, colors shape our existence. They are malleable mixtures of perception, concepts, data, and creativity, where a single hue can embrace “Mood Indigo” and blue Jell-O. The talented scholars at “Bright Modernity” combined rigorous historical methodology with interdisciplinary themes to unravel some of the mystery of this intriguing concept we call “color.”





[1] Manlio Brusatin, “Colours in the Web-age,” in Patrizia Marti, Alessandro Soro, Luciano Gamberini, and Sebastiano Bagnara, eds., Proceedings of the 9th ACM SIGCHI Italian Chapter International Conference on Computer-Human Interaction: Facing Complexity (New York, ACM, 2011), p. 11.

[2] Faber Birren, Selling with Color (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Co., 1945), p. 5.

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