red vs. blue

In last week's home section of the New York Times, there was an article, In a Turquoise Mood. I was intrigued, of course.  Displayed on the page were numerous home items, a lamp, a stool, a chair, an address book. In the mix were also a bean bag chair and a 'vintage ceramic head.'

As I looked up the items that are available by designers I saw that in many cases the designs came in many colors- not just turquoise blue.  I understand for trending purposes editors like to put forth what they are interested in as a way of displaying a focused color story.   In the case of Patricia Urquiola, India Mahdavi and Jonathan Adler their designs are available in red and white and sometimes more colors.  However, it is most popular to offer a specific design- in these instances in a red, a blue and a white.  It really got me thinking about where these design decisions came from.

Historically, red and blue have been contrasting colors for centuries.  In numerous books on the historical use of pigments I have found that the main colors of use were white, red and black.  Blue for many centuries was not spoken about as a color- there was no name for it.  In some cases it was considered an inferior black, and sometimes it was simply referred to as "looks like sky" or "looks like sea."  The basics, white, red and black are all found naturally in the earth as pigments.  Whitening agents and pigments came in many forms, zinc, soapberry or soapwart.  Black from coal and ash and red from the madder plant. Interestingly, in western civilization there was not a lot of mixing of colors or pigments, as it was thought of as impure.  Red was also considered to be 'halfway' between white and black, as it was not seen as bright and illuminate as white, nor as deep and dark as black.  Red, being a laborious color to produce was saved for royalty.  White was thought of as pure, virginal, clean.  Black, represented a somber mood or morning.

In the 12th century trade started from the the Islamic World to Venice, and with the trade brought the beautiful color of the Lapis Lazuli stone- which through a very laborious process could be turned into the pigment, ultramarine.  With this new blue, hierarchy in the color system changed, and from this point on there are many depictions of the Virgin Mary in blue as it was thought of as a divine color- and with a value similar to red, became its rival.

During this time if one's occupation was that of a dyer, one would either be a dyer of red, or of blue.  It was believed to be impure to mix the two colors.  The discussions in the church revolved around whether color was because of light- and therefore divine or if it was of matter, of which it held a material value.  If color was a material, than it was not to be used in the church, a place of worship, where one was not to have indulgences.  Discussions and disputes over colors and their significance was one of the reasons which lead to the Protestant Reformation. Catholics kept blue for their divine color, and sometimes reserved only for kings.  Red was also a color of power, blue did become the most popular color for dress however, which is still seen today.  The Protestants stayed with using white and black as their colors they deemed suitable for worship.

Today we know that red and blue are not opposites, on a color wheel.  They do share the same value- should we decided not to mix them with any other color.  As symbols, they do still have great significance as opposites, politically speaking.

My hope for future designers is for them, myself included, to approach work with a great deal of knowledge on color and therefore can set ourselves free- designing away from the expected ranges of the spectrum colors.  This is asking a great deal.  As I have learned from Beau Lotto, color relationships such as the opposition between red and blue is one that has been burned into our retinas for centuries.  Breaking away from historical references is difficult, but I think it is time to see the beauty and the strength of the places in between- and move away from the primaries.  2012 awaits change.

I thank Michel Pastoureau for his extensive research in Blue, The History of a Color for some of the information found in this blog post.