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‘Breathing Colour’ exhibit at the Design Museum

Dutch designer Hella Jongerius serves as Art Director of Colour and Surfaces for Vitra and advises leading furnishing company Artek and has conducted extensive research on colour theory, now on display at the Design Museum.

Colour is an illusion, at different times of day and under different conditions, it can develop new shades. Colour is a completely subjective experience and in support of this, Jongerius rebels against the “flat colours of the colour industry” such as the standardised charts and colour-coding systems of Pantone which she says eliminates the “unstable” colours which would unleash more variety. The industrialisation of colour, in pursuit of consistency, has led to the loss of subtle variations in pigments that emerge under different lights. With this exhibition, she hopes to change the industry’s current approach to colour.

I miss colours that breathe with the changing of the light.

Painters such as JMW Turner, show the quest for subtle variations in hues to convey the effects of natural light during different times of day—lighting adds to its temporality. To highlight the effect, Jongerius changes the lighting of the gallery to show the pastel, gauzy morning light shifting to the rich afternoon hues through to the intense and multifaceted evening shades that interact with the lingering effects of shadows. Jongerius argues the stability and uniformity that companies strive to produce actually limit our experiences and diminish the quality of products.

Perfectly arranged, immaculate industrial colour systems don’t offer us the full potential of colour.

For Jongerius, the most important aspect of the quality of colours is the pigments which she refers to “the recipe behind the colour”. Colours become more “volatile” and “unstable” when containing complementary pigments, for example. A yellow colour from Pantone can be produced using a small amount of pigments and darkened by adding black, thus cheaper to reproduce however, it would lack the depth that a complimentary colour, such as violet would add.  Mixtures of complimentary colours are more sensitive to changes in light and some “differ in stability and breathing quality”.

Jongerius’s portfolio includes the interior of KLM’s 747 and 777 Dreamliner cabins, 2005 vase designs for Ikea, the UN’s Delegates’ Lounge in New York in addition to updating Vitra classics such as the Eames’ plastic chairs. She’s a strong proponent of long-term design partnerships with companies, taking time to update existing designs—the classics—and make them more sustainable. In part, her goal in releasing colour from the industrialised mould of coding to show off the variable pigments that arise due to form and lighting are yet another way she is innovating classic designs and influencing an overall approach to design.

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