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The Hemispheres Design Special

From branded street artists to 14th-century cobblers, style takes a turn for both the new and old



The human eye is said to be able to detect up to 10 million shades of color; companies across the world are putting that theory to the test
By Paul Ford

Tens of thousands of years ago, an artist’s palette was fairly limited. As many a cave wall will tell you, ochre tended to be the color of choice, mainly because you work with what’s available, and red-brown rocks were there for the picking. This is also why most barns are red—ferric oxide, a traditional ingredient in red paint, is cheap and plentiful (because it’s rust). Frugal farmers: red barns.

Colors are also prized for their rarity or their durability—bonus points if you can combine the two. In antiquity, Tyrian purple dye, derived from the secretions of sea snails, was valued because it was hard to get hold of, but also because it was hard to get rid of. Similarly, when scientists at Oregon State University discovered a new, super-durable variety of blue in 1999, the event was greeted with great fanfare.

The fuss surrounding this discovery was not simply a matter of aesthetics. Picking the right color is considered key to the success of products ranging from cars to cornflakes. And it’s not enough to merely work with the colors of the rainbow—companies want fancy new colors of their own. So it is that MAC Cosmetics boasts “more than 100 shades for eyes, lips and face” and Mavi Jeans come in “Mid Ultra Marine,” “Nile Green” and a shade called “Dusky Jameson.”

Keeping an eye on all this, meanwhile, are organizations like the International Colour Association, the International Color Consortium and the International Colour Authority. Paint producer Benjamin Moore hands out annual HUE awards to honor innovative work in the field, and also publishes an annual book called Color Trends, which reports on what colors are in vogue.

Then there’s Pantone—“the world-renowned authority on color and provider of color systems”—which, among many other things, works with corporate licensees to identify and coordinate colors. Pantone also names a “Color of the Year.” Last year it was “Tangerine Tango”; this year it’s “Emerald.”

A typical Pantone partner is the Dessy Group, a maker of wedding gowns. A few years ago, with more than 200 colors across its product lines, the company was concerned that things were getting a bit muddy. So, explains CEO Alan Dessy, “we went to Pantone and performed a ‘backfill cross-reference,’” a process that puts colors under a spectrometer and matches them to previously identified shades.

This means that Dessy’s brides-to-be can now plan a wedding with the exact shade of dress specified, the better to pick matching stationery, floral arrangements and eye shadow. Dessy and other licensees, meanwhile, eagerly create products in Pantone’s Color of the Year. This year, for instance, you can pick up an Ice Watch (from the company’s Pantone Universe collection) that is both Emerald in color and bears that color’s official code (#17-5641) on the watch face.

All of this takes planning, so Pantone licensees are informed in advance, under the terms of a nondisclosure agreement, what the next Color of the Year will be. When asked, Dessy refuses to disclose the color for 2014.

“I only have an inkling,” he says.

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Pantone may be working to create, own and profit from a world color system, but “civilians” are getting in on the act, too. Check out indie color resource maxfieldscolor.tumblr.com, created by Al Rotches in collaboration with his five-year-old daughter Maxfield. Every day Al and Max post a swatch of a new color, along with a title. Max’s earlier work was somewhat juvenile, tending to “Pooping Pig Pink” and “Beige Like Daddy.” Then again, she was three. As she’s grown older, Max has become more sophisticated, with entries like “Jade Like the Bug We Saw While Hiking” and “Extra Extra Extra Extra Extra Extra Extra Extra Extra Extra Dark Black.” Both potentials for Pantone’s 2014 Color of the Year. —P.F.


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