Art & Culture

Wild About Colourful Design

I love colour. When we moved into our bland suburban house in our boring suburban neighbourhood, one of the first things I did was to paint the front door a bright turquoise. The next day, I overheard two of the neighbours exclaiming over the colour—for good or bad, I’m still not sure. Either way, there’s no question that my choice of colour stood out amidst the beige houses. 

What colour is your front door? Or your house? Or your car? Or your sofa? Chances are that your answers to at least one, if not all of those questions is a neutral colour—black or beige or grey. The amount of colour we use to decorate our lives has been decreasing for decades and is at an all time low. Where did all the colour go? And why are we so averse to painting our walls anything other than white or taupe?

An aerial photograph of a suburb. The houses are neutral shades of brown, grey, and black.
Modern suburbs are well-known for their neutral colour palettes. Photo by IDuke, CC BY-SA 2.5, via Wikimedia Commons

When we think about colour, we tend to think about the past as if it were decorated in hues of sepia and grey, an assumption that is bolstered by black and white photography of the period. This impression is aided by the natural loss of colour from ancient monuments and the less than natural removal of coloured surfaces such as churches during the Reformation. 

A roman statue of the emperor Augustus. Instead of the usual white marble, the statue is painted in bold reds and blues that highlight the decoration on his armour and clothes.
Greek and Roman statues, like this one of Augustus, would have been brightly painted in their original state. Dosseman, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The West has a complicated relationship with colour. Too much colour is viewed as exotic (yes, that comes with the racist overtones that you’d expect), feminine, and childlike, while black is viewed as serious and sophisticated. Over time, this perception has extended to neutral colours, while more vibrant colours are still viewed with suspicion. Despite this, colour was used extensively in fashion and interior design in both the Victorian and Georgian periods. It’s only in more recent times that we have shied away from colour, towards more austere palettes. 

The Victorians used colour everywhere. As mass production emerged it became easier for people to decorate their homes with brightly coloured wallpapers and furnishings, using colour combinations and designs that appear loud and garish to our eyes.  

An interior of a Victorian house, showing bold, patterned wallpaper in blue and red, with a floral border and a floral patterned stained glass window.
The Victorians loved bright colours and bold patterns. Photo via Bradbury & Bradbury.

Intuitively, if we think of the colour palettes from the past century, there are specific types of colours we associate with different time periods, compare the bold pastels of the 1950s with the garish golds and browns of the 1970s and the bright tones of the 1980s. Research from the Science Museum Group Digital Lab shows that the colour palettes we use for everyday objects are narrowing, with greys, whites, and blacks replacing other colours.  

A graph showing the presence of different colours in objects from 1800 to 2020. In 1800, black, white, and grey make up about 10% of the objects. By 2020, that percentage has increased to nearly 40%.
Changes in the colour of objects over time. Graph via the Science Museum Group Digital Lab.

Similar trends can be found in interior design. Of the most popular paint colours from 2020, only one, a deep midnight blue, falls outside of a neutral colour palette. To hammer the point home, in 2021, Pantone (the self-appointed arbitrar of colour) selected Ultimate Grey as its colour of the year. 

Our history has given us a fear of colour. We’re afraid of making a mistake when we choose the paint for our living room walls, we’re afraid the neighbours might talk when we paint the exterior of our house. We don’t want to be seen as being outside the norm or be judged to be childish instead of serious. 

The irony is that colour has positive impacts on our mental health. It enhances our visual memories and makes us feel better. Interestingly, there is some evidence that our desire for colour changed over the pandemic. Perhaps being stuck inside neutral coloured walls released our inner need for bolder colours?

In less than two weeks, Barbie—one of the most colourful movies in recent times, if not ever, will hit theatres. It will be very interesting to see if this movie becomes enough of a cultural phenomenon to shift our perspective of colour, or if it will simply reinforce our stereotypes. As for me, maybe it’s time to repaint my front door. Perhaps, a nice, bright pink just to give the neighbours something to talk about.