As manufacturers improved their ability to reproduce any color imaginable, the problem of choice arose. How do consumers decide what colors they want? How do designers know what colors to offer?
Experts published guides to color harmonies, and in time a new profession emerged: corporate colorists. From forecasting color trends to creating pleasing environments, from car paints to kitchenware, their work is seen everywhere, yet they remain largely invisible.
The Smithsonian Libraries have this field covered, from works on color psychology and optical tricks, to trade catalogs and color chips.
Colorful dots demonstrate “simultaneous contrast,” the optical effect that two colors have on each other. The French chemist Chevreul was hired by a textile manufacturer to improve the “murky” color of their dyes. He discovered that it was not the dyes, but the placement of colors next to one another, that made them appear more or less vibrant.
Inspired in part by Chevreul’s theories, artist and art educator Josef Albers published a landmark study of color phenomena.
Stare at the red circle for 30 seconds then look at the white circle — what color do you see? You have just experienced “successive contrast,” or afterimage. Josef Albers’ masterwork examines a wide range of color phenomena in 150 plates.
Harmony of Colors contains 166 spectacular full-color plates with 1,300 color combinations. Architect and decorator Édouard Guichard promoted the concept of color harmony for the design of wallpaper, curtains, upholstery, and paint schemes in architecture and interior design.
In the late 1800s, the range of available paint colors expanded exponentially, making possible the multi-colored paint schemes of the Victorian age. Victorian homeowners typically applied harmonies of three to five colors.
This trade catalog shows that cars and horse-drawn coaches were available in a wide variety of colors in the 1890s. Founded in Brooklyn in 1883, the Benjamin Moore company is best known today for their innovative interior and exterior house paints. Smithsonian Libraries has a collection of Benjamin Moore trade catalogs that can be viewed here.
Bold colors were introduced to common household objects in the first half of the 20th century. In 1936, the Homer Laughlin China Company introduced Fiesta Dinnerware in five vivid colors. Brilliant orange-red had uranium oxide in the glaze, which made the product slightly radioactive. The color was discontinued in 1944.
In the 20th century, advisory groups arose for the purpose of forecasting and managing color trends for fashion, home decor, and advertising. Sample books announced color palettes for each season.