The Colors of Invention: An Exploration of Color, Technology, and Culture :: Smithsonian Lemelson Center
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An Exploration of Color, Technology, and Culture
Color consultant Leatrice Eiseman talked about color perception in "Commmunicating with Color." Smithsonian photo by Hugh Talman

Color shapes our view of the world. It enriches our lives and surprises us with its endless variety. Color mirrors our moods and probably has more influence on our lives than we realize. Yet we take for granted the ever-changing palette of our surroundings, seldom stopping to consider how those colors came to be. New colors are invented all the time, but where do colors come from? And why do they affect us so strongly?

The human craving for color has inspired artists and inventors, fostered the growth of industries, sparked international competitions, and been manipulated by marketers. Our sensitivity to color affects us in myriad ways, from our unconscious responses to wall paint to our choices of what to wear or buy. "The Colors of Invention: An Exploration of Color, Technology, and Culture," the Lemelson Center's 1997 symposium in its New Perspectives on Invention and Innovation series, examined the fascinating phenomenon of color from diverse perspectives -- historical, technological, socio-cultural, and psychological. Offering workshops and lectures by distinguished scholars and top professionals, as well as films, tours, exhibits, a concert, and activities for children, "The Colors of Invention," cosponsored by The Smithsonian Associates, drew a large and enthusiastic audience to the National Museum of American History over a six-day period in mid-November.

Following presentations on November 11-13, 1997, the three-day heart of the program was divided thematically by colors representative of historical periods. November 14, Indigo Day, focused on the early development of natural pigments and dyestuffs up to the mid-nineteenth century. November 15, Mauve Day, concentrated on color developments from the mid-nineteenth to the mid-twentieth centuries. The final day, November 16, was Neon Green Day, celebrating the technology and uses of color in the late twentieth century and predicting directions for the future.

OPENING EVENTS - Thursday, November 13

One of the first areas explored was the way in which color influences us personally, and how to apply an understanding of our color responses to problems of interior design. A panel discussion on Tuesday, November 11, titled "How Color Influences Your Life: Architectural Digest at the Smithsonian" brought together Architectural Digest editor-in-chief Paige Rense and interior designers Thomas Fleming, Greg Jordan, and Marjorie Shushan, who described their distinct approaches to color in architectural interiors.

"Communicating with Color," a slide talk by Leatrice Eiseman, expanded on this topic the following day. Eiseman, a color consultant and executive director of the Pantone Institute, explained that our reactions to color come from associations stored deep in our psyches. Eiseman described common responses elicited by each color family in the spectrum and, by extension, ways each could be used (or avoided) effectively in interiors, fashion, product design, or marketing. She concluded with a description of color trends, showing some of the palettes forecast for the end of this century.

Thursday, November 13, began with a tour of two historic houses noted for the restoration of their original color schemes: The Octagon Museum, a Federal-style townhouse in Washington DC, and George Washington's home, Mt. Vernon, in nearby Virginia. The tour focused on methods used to ascertain and reproduce the original colors of these houses and the role of color in interior design of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Donald Kaufman (left) and Ivan Chermayeff (center) talk with Marc Pachter in a "Portrait of Invention." Smithsonian photo by Rick Vargas

That evening, interviewer Marc Pachter hosted "Portraits of Invention: A Conversation with Ivan Chermayeff and Donald Kaufman." Chermayeff, an internationally acclaimed graphic designer and illustrator, is also known as a creator of corporate interiors and logos, including those of NBC, PBS, and Mobil Oil. For Chermayeff, no color is inherently ugly or beautiful; it is only one element or tool of design. Inspired by artists such as Matisse and Miró, he is inclined to use bold colors. Donald Kaufman is an artist and custom paint producer who takes a fine-arts approach to the creation of architectural paints. He tends to use muted, grey tones on his canvases and is very much concerned with technical details. The wall colors he produces with his wife and partner, Taffy Dahl, blend complementary hues to achieve the rich luminosity of color in nature. The conversation with these two masters of color was part of the Lemelson Center's "Portraits of Invention" series documenting the lives of contemporary innovators and inventors.

INDIGO DAY - Friday, November 14

Indigo, the color of blue jeans, is so much a part of our daily lives that it is difficult to imagine our world without it. In its natural form, indigo was one of the most ancient and universal dyes. In "Dyeing to Know History," Anthony Travis, a historian of science and technology at the Sidney M. Edelstein Center for the History and Philosophy of Science, Technology, and Medicine, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, recounted the history of indigo and other natural colorants. It is a tumultuous story, involving international intrigues, industrial espionage, and the beginnings of a technological revolution.

Participants in the textile history sessions had a rare glimpse of some of the treasures in the Museum's costume and textile collections. Smithsonian photo by Rick Vargas

His presentation was followed by a compelling talk by Sarah Lowengard, a textile conservator and doctoral candidate. She focused on the European use of indigo in the eighteenth century, "the century of blue," and described the advantages and pitfalls this dyestuff presented. After the lectures, participants were escorted to the Museum's conservation lab to view selected eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century fabrics and clothing from the Museum's costumes and textiles collections.

The introduction to dyes and dyeing was not all talk. Visitors on November 14th and 15th learned the art of dyeing firsthand. In the Museum's Hands On Science Center, they engaged in two color-related activities. "What Color Is Science?" offered guided experiments with chemical indicators and food colorants and explored the effects of filters on laser light. In a "Dye-It-Yourself" workshop, participants learned to dye with goldenrod, chicory, walnuts, and cochineal as well as with synthetic indigo.

Lemelson Center educator Sondra Berger demonstrated dyeing techniques in "Hands on Dyeing." Smithsonian photo by Rick Vargas.

Nor was the focus on natural colors limited to dyes. Sally Fox, a developer of commercially-spinnable, naturally colored cotton, spoke with Washington-area middle-school students about her plant breeding program, which produced a new type of long-fibered cotton that grows in shades of red, brown, and green. Fox's niece, Abby Person, accompanied her and described a discovery she had made that expanded the range of cotton colors. Their presentation was part of the Center's "Innovative Lives" series, which sparks students' creative spirits and their curiosity about science by bringing them together with innovators and inventors.

A festival devoted to color and invention would not be complete without a tribute to the movie industry. Friday's program concluded with a showing of "An American in Paris," a Technicolor film that garnered seven Oscars in 1951. The film was introduced by Dr. Richard Goldberg, a former research director at Technicolor, Inc., who discussed the continuing evolution and influence of Technicolor.

MAUVE DAY - Saturday, November 15

Inventor Sally Fox demonstrates spinning during her Innovative Lives program. Smithsonian photo by Rick Vargas.

In 1856 a young English chemistry student, William Henry Perkin, accidentallydiscovered a synthetic, colorfast purple dye. Named "mauve," from the French word for the purple mallow flower, the new colorant gained immediate and widespread popularity in fashion and ushered in the age of synthetic dyes.

Mauve Day at the Museum began with "Dyeing to Know (More) History," in which Anthony Travis continued his history of the dye industry, this time regaling his audience with the adventures and achievements of the German and British scientists who competed and collaborated in the development of synthetic chemicals in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Kathryn Steen, a historian at Drexel University, followed Travis's lecture with an account of the growth of the synthetic organic chemicals industry in the United States from around World War I through World War II. A behind-the-scenes look at some outstanding examples of synthetically-dyed fabrics from the collections of the Museum's costume and textiles collections concluded the session.

Meanwhile, thirty teachers from local schools were participating in an all-day workshop, "Color Curriculums for Grades K-12." In the morning, units on color from two special curriculum packages were demonstrated. In the afternoon, there were sessions related to color and paper making.

"Dorothy" was in the audience for "The Wizard of Oz." Smithsonian photo by Rick Vargas

Mauve Day also looked at color inventions in photography, film, and television. An afternoon lecture and discussion titled "In Living Color" featured specialists in these media. Film preservationist Robert Gitt, of the Film and Television Archives at UCLA, showed film clips that told the history of color in the movies, from early tinted films to the development of Technicolor. His absorbing presentation was followed by Sally Stein's insightful analysis of the relationship of color photography to marketing, advertising, and popular culture. Stein, an art historian at the University of California, Irvine, illustrated her points with examples ranging from comic strips to the newly colorful New York Times. The evolution of color television was described by David E. Fisher, of the University of Miami, and his son, freelance writer Marshall Jon Fisher. The Fishers, coauthors of Tube: The Invention of Television (1996), discussed the invention of television, focusing on the competition between CBS and RCA to control the technology and market for color TV. A panel discussion followed, led by Museum curator William L. Bird, Jr. Then collections manager Michelle Delaney led a behind-the-scenes tour of early color still and motion picture equipment from the Museum's photographic history collection.

The theme of color in the movies continued with a showing of "The Wizard of Oz." This American classic is famous not only for its appealing characters but also for its innovative transition from black and white to Technicolor. Dwight Blocker Bowers, a cultural historian at the Smithsonian, introduced it with remarks on the aesthetic uses of color in film.

Cutting-edge technologies were featured in "Infusing What We See with Color," a two-day exhibit and demonstration of the latest advances in electronic and photo imaging. Visitors could speak with representatives of computer imaging companies and creative artists working in new media, who were there to show their products.

The Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra explored "The Sounds of Color." Smithsonian photo by Hugh Talman.

The concept of color extended even to sound. The connection between the visual and the auditory was made in a special Saturday-night concert, "The Sounds of Color," by the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra. Musical director David Baker prefaced the performance with a brief explanation of timbre, a musical term for tonal color, or the distinctive tone quality of a particular instrument. In presenting the program of works by Duke Ellington, Sy Oliver, Billy Strayhorn, and other great jazz composers, David Baker suggested that the audience listen for the play of tonal colors in the arrangements, which included Ellington's "Mood Indigo," and Strayhorn's "Intimacy of the Blues," among other notable pieces.

NEON GREEN DAY - Sunday, November 16

Since the 1950s, neon green, sometimes called lime green or acid green, has made periodic appearances in the fashion palette -- most recently as one of the hot new colors for 1997. Adored by some, reviled by others, it never fails to make a bold statement. Neon green is a color whose very conception was inspired by the invention of new technologies.

Participants in "Color by Design" created their own color palettes. Smithsonian photo by Richard Strauss.

The production and promotion of colors has become an industry in itself, linking color forecasters with designers, manufacturers, and marketing directors. Neon Green Day began with a workshop, "Color by Design," that explained some of the mysteries of color forecasting. Led by Margaret Walch, of the Color Association of the United States, and Jacqueline Montgomery, from the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, the session described the working methods of forecasters, the clues they find in popular culture, and the cyclical nature of color palettes. Then participants created their own palettes from a vast array of color swatches, gaining insight into their personal preferences. The workshop concluded with a tour of 20th-century fabrics and fashions from the Museum's costume and textiles collections.

Three speakers -- the renowned American artist Jules Olitski, custom paint developer Mark Golden, and art historian Harry Rand -- were featured in "The Artist's View: Color, Technology, and Style in Postwar Art," a lecture/discussion on the relation of paint media and technology to developments in painting since the late 1940s. Rand provided background on the development of paint technology and its impact on artist's methods and approaches. Golden, president of Golden Artist Colors and son of its founder, Sam Golden, described the company's close collaboration with Olitski and other artists. Golden Artists Colors develops innovative paint products, in keeping with its founder's commitment to assisting artists in realizing their creative impulses, which are often limited by the inherent qualities of existing paints. It was Jules Olitski, however, who stole the show. Olitski has been a major figure in American painting since the 1940s. Highly regarded as an abstract artist, he is known especially for his powerful use of color. He showed slides of selected works produced over fifty years, commenting on many of them. His warmth, humor, spontaneity, and insights into the creative process delighted and enlightened the audience. The program ended with a discussion among the three speakers, who responded to many questions from the audience.

Kids of all ages enjoyed the Crayola Factory workshop. Smithsonian photo by Hugh Talman.

Neon Green day drew many children to the Museum to enjoy the free "Crayola Factory ® Workshop," which was set up in two locations. On the main floor, children could make finger puppets or color bookmarks with a variety of Crayola ® crayons and markers, including the latest neon colors. On the lower level, they made brightly colored leaf prints with nontoxic Crayola ® paints. A special display told the story of the crayon, invented ninety-four years ago.

"Toy Story" was the Sunday film feature. Produced by Pixar in conjunction with Walt Disney Studios, it was the first computer-animated feature-length film. Dwight Blocker Bowers again was the presenter, this time commenting on the computer technology that had made "Toy Story" possible and its place in the history of film animation.


Three special exhibitions added to the rich palette of experience at "The Colors of Invention."

"Color Sells!" at the Lemelson Center highlights the ways in which invention affects product designers and advertisers who use color to lure consumers. After viewing this exhibit, visitors can go on a "scavenger hunt," following clues to find other colorful artifacts throughout the Museum. ("Color Sells" closed in August 1998.)

"Paint by Numbers," a small exhibition of materials from the Smithsonian's Archives Center, paid tribute to color in popular culture. The idea of keying a set of pigments to printed patterns on canvas or ceramic was developed by paint entrepreneur Max Klein and artist Dan Robbins. Paint-by-numbers kits enabled anyone to paint like a pro and became a fad that swept the country in the 1950s. ("Paint by Numbers" is now closed.)

The guitar has long been used for playing the blues, but the exhibition "Blue Guitars" features blues of another kind. Luthiers, the artists who build stringed instruments, follow traditions that have been passed on from master to apprentice for centuries. The forms and finishes for these instruments are carefully defined, and luthiers rarely deviate from narrow parameters. Scott Chinery, a collector of guitars, challenged these traditions when he commissioned twenty-two top luthiers to make guitars in the color blue. Their creations are now on display, dazzling visitors with brilliant hues ranging from turquoise to midnight blue. As a special surprise, one of these guitars was featured in the "Sounds of Color" concert, where its rich tones proved as spectacular as its startling blue. ("Blue Guitars closed on 1 October 1998.)

Originally published in Fall 1997.

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