Monday, 1 February 2021

A Review of 'The Colour Revolution' by Regina Lee Blaszczyk

(I wrote this largely from memory so sorry about the likely-inaccuracies)

I found this to be a wonderful and enjoyable book, a rare, lucid and comprehensive synthesis of a rare subject.

The book begins in the late 19th century and travels up until the 1960s where, we might assume, a new culture is born. It follows the development and mass adoption of the colours you and I would consider primary, the kind our crayons are made of, which show up on our colour wheel and which rarely appear in nature.


Our story is set largely in America, where the culture of democratic industrial capitalism is being born and shaped, and in France, where style is born.

The fact and idea that French style, specifically Parisian style, *is* style is a central fulcrum of the story. America is developing a visual and aesthetic culture very different to that of France but America still wants, in a sense, there to be *a* style, something foreign yet accessible. An "other", yet something which can be reached.

America has industry, huge markets, democracies, and its (relative) lack of unbuilt colour and aesthetic institutions makes it perhaps more of a blank slate. France has what? Information, beautiful information. It’s not the actual stuff which is transmitted so much as the code.

Very broadly, *style* is created in Paris, and US manufacturers know that whatever Paris thinks is good will in approximately three or so months (hope I got that right), be the popular thing in the U.S. This is roughly how long it will take for the factories to dye and cut the cloth that will form those fashions, (longer if you are a leatherworker, meaning those trying to predict popular colours for shoes etc need to be even more ahead of the curve). So discovering, describing and transmitting these colours (and cuts, silhouettes aesthetics etc), is a big deal and a number of different schemes are arranged to do so, the chief of which is the American Colour Card Association under Margaret Roarke but more on that later.

The nature of this umbilical cord of information between America and France is important , firstly, what we would call the "bandwidth"; transmission of colour images doesn't really strongly exist (in a mass sense, I know we had early versions), until the 1950s or so, so we are dealing with telegrams, physical letters and fabric swatches. All of these are going back and forth across the Atlantic through wires and ships.

This means Roarke must first seek out people who have the wealth and status to be wandering around Paris looking at clothes, and the free time to do so. And who are really good with colour and form.. AND who understand what Roarke is doing and who she is trying to communicate with (Paris-to-Factories-to-department stores essentially) but most importantly, who can write telegrams and letters which effectively describe those colours and styles.


Now it’s time for submarines to get involved!

Yes, Ares is one of the many parents of modern colour. This happens across two major strands, the development, and then reverse-engineering of camouflage, and in the intermittent cultural separation between America and France.

The relationship of America to French style is never clear full-on simping. Or more accurately is is like simping because it carries its own counterforce within it. As much as America loves French style it also seems somewhat resentful *that* it loves French style. Well that’s the Other for you.

During WWI, U-boats disrupt the trade in dyed cloth and the transmission (in the form of physical colour cards and swatches) of information between France and the U.S., this lends impulse for a form of 'colour nationalism; a massive boost to Americas capacity to dye and colour clothes. It also creates a psychological shift - since style can't come from France then there *must* be an American style, and a boost to the American Taylorisation of colour, the lack of colour cards and swatches from France aids in the development and adoption of American colour systems.

The Franco-American link is restored, but many of the structural changes remain in place, and accelerate in the 1940s when the Nazis totally cutting off Paris for an extended period. This again means that every part of the world concerned with Paris fashion can and must shape their own style.

At the same time militaries in the U.S. are making a LOT of uniforms for the various different service branches. these all need to be designed to look good and to all be a little bit different. This also adds to the Taylorisation of colour and the military in particular like the idea of systemisation and there being "one best way".

Returning to WWI, the mass adaptation and systemisation of camouflage, from the disruptive patterns of dazzle ships to the blending techniques used on the front lines, essentially inducts and entire generation of young patriotic artists into the military and gives them direct experience of 'hacking' the minds visual recognition systems on a huge scale.

A key individual in this exchange is Ledyard Towle, a camefleur who moves into industry after the war and who is adopted by motor corporations and then other companies specifically to use 'reverse camouflage' to alter the perception of the shapes and forms of products, using synthetic paints now available on a mass scale.

Later similar 'anti-camouflage' techniques are used in the 'colour-taylorisation' of factories, hospitals, military areas and municipal spaces, colour used to signal, divide, to make obvious and clear, to intensify the communication of particular utilities, to improves safety, alter mood and so on.


Paint is the geology of aesthetics. Synthetic chemistry on a mass scale is the deep control of modern human style. Synthetic chemistry leads, and is lead by, human tastes and capabilities in colour.

The 'Vulcan' of modern aesthetics is really the major synthetic paint corporations. This is a corporate history, and  as much as a history of the middle ages would talk about noble houses and lines of descent this speaks of  capital and factories. All of these characters, individuals and conflicting systems are dealing with colour-concepts made real by the forges of colour -Du-Pont, Monsanto Chemical Company, Kalle & Co.

the light of Vulcans forge comes from the Westinghouse Eclectic and Manufacturing Company and General Electric providing new forms and capacities of light itself, shaping the architecture and the concept of what a city is -what a city looks like at night.

The mind of Vulcan is filled with competing architectures of colour, from Munsell, Baily, Wadsworth and many others. Just as our words for colour seem to evolve along with our ability to manipulate specific colours the mass explosion of available pigments in the 20th century demanded a new language of colour; in her office in the ACCA Margeret Roarke receives the first letters describing a designer who has labelled their pet colour 'shocking' pink for the first time.

All of this flows from out ability to manipulate the materials of colour and that is driven by materials science, supercharged by corporate power, and that itself is in a relationship with desire itself, humans want colour, Aphrodite inspiring Vulcan.



This book sparked an odd moment of pattern-recognition for me, a callback to 'Playing at the World', Jon Petersons magisterial epic about the birth and development of Dungeons and Dragons. In particular the strange dual-hand of systemisation, of the Taylorist 'one best way'.

So on the one hand we have Taylor, systemisation, democracy, industrial mass production, 'fairness', openness, universal availability to all, immediate communication *using terms known to all* and which are always the same. Curiously, the universalism of full Taylorism has no room for the 'other', or at least, there is no way for the 'other' to exist within it. Corptatism largely fits in well with Taylorism.

And on the other hand we have the individual, the boutique, rareness, specialness, hierarchies, the particular, the individually inventive, secret or specific languages, 'your own way of looking at things', and to a degree, 'foreignness' and 'otherness', permission for the other or outer to exist and the idea you can communicate with the other or outer, but not absolutely, not in a systematic way. The small creator or cottage industry fits in well with whatever this anti-taylorist viewpoint can be called.

Colour, and fashion, like Dungeons and Dragons, exists across an unresolved polarity between these world-views. Both ideas exist simultaneously, neither ever fully resolving into the other, always in conflict, but also in communication, stealing from, adapting from, 'reading' each other in a creative dialectic which seems to me to capture something at the heart of our culture.

Margaret Roarkes American Colour Card association is not beloved by all. Many small creators, and especially high status boutiques, refuse to use it, they complain that it restricts individuality and individual creativity. It’s also the desire of those seeking high-status that their colours, shapes and aesthetics be something related to, but clearly separate from, whatever is commonly available.

The mere existence of a 'common tongue' of industrial colour, when placed against the simultaneous taylorist and democratic / individualist and hierarchal dialectic of our culture, almost necessitates the creation of 'hidden tongues' - secret or non-publicised languages of colour and form.

This polarity seems to be built into geography itself, repeated and symbolised by the Franco-American connection. The strange relationship between the two, at once in communication yet also on some level denying each others qualities.

It repeats again in the unending flowing conflict between monochromy/tone and hyperchomy/PUNCH. People are drawn towards one or the other and, having exhausted it potentialities and growing tired of its excesses they move to its opposite, from monochrome to hyperchrome, from soft tonalities to vibrant primary oppositions. No one movement of this drama is the same as any other and they all take place over different battleground, the kitchen appliance, the car, bags and bonnets. But the drama never ends.

It repeats again in the dialectic between 'high' and 'low'. In America 'high' culture begins as male, Anglo, wasp, monochromatic and tonal, and 'low' culture is recent-immigrant, polychrome, vibrant, 'loud'. The language of colour used to both display and create different kinds of hierarchies and identities is always shifting but there is always some polarity between them. Though we might say forms of anarchy and uniformity do break out occasionally, the Great Male Renunciation being some kind of reassertion of uniformity and the 1960s being a moment of anarchy.


A last curiosity for me is the role of women as an engine of colour. Compared to other books about the same period, (and especially for histories of corporations and chemistry), there are really a relatively startling number of women in key roles.

Some of this may be down to Regina Blaszczyks selection of interest, but I doubt it. Women seem very early to have taken on the role as the priests of colour. They drive high fashion, they form the core of the reportage of its aesthetic, Margaret Roarke and her A.C.C.A form the kind of high bureaucracy of colour, but other similar groups and idea-organisations often also have very largely female personnel. (This is the first book I have read about an industry where the head of a national regulatory organisation, who is a woman, is pissed off at being excluded from the design management meetings of a major trade fair, all of whom are also women).

Women drive the 'seasons' for colour fashions. The first great colour displays of the department stores are created for women. Women drive kitchen appliance purchase but, interesting for me, in the development of coloured automobiles, when DuPont develops the tech to break away from 'Ford Black', its generally considered by those in the industry that "the wife chooses the colour of the car". So those colours are largely designed for women too.

I think is likely that our current global aesthetic of colour is largely shaped by female tastes, even in those parts where women have no direct role.


  1. It’s interesting how many women colorists there have been in the comics industry, too (though of course there are many possible explanations for this).

  2. I love it whenever you discuss color and form.

    Standards of color seep into your imagination. I wonder how the first prominent schemes were generated? Observation of the shifting of the seasons? Color wheel? Simple access to particular dyes? Hues that highlight form? Anti-landscape colors?

    When I call up vistas, walls, internal architecture, the first things I see are variants of styles which I've seen before, but with the serial numbers filed off; dark vanilla ice cream marble highlighted with musically veined oak or dark stone with little speckled layers inside (Baroque). Putty-gray stone walls inlaid with big sapphires here and there breaking into superfluous and too-small colonnades that reveal forest hills (fantasy). Star-shaped basins of crystal water in which heroes and monsters fight as statues (Neoclassical). Cars in regal, metal blue with crests of fiery sunshine gold along ridges that aren't really there from the headlights to the tailpipes, a pair of swimming dragons (Paizo LG warriors). Spired white towers in the background.

    When I try to envision a scheme that isn't tied to something I can point to, the generative process is messy. Flashes of discordia. Black nets dividing barely-differentiated peals of color like a stained glass window set at random. An upset rainbow like a goblet filled with the northern lights or an amorphous, billowing RGB field. Sick pastels like ball dresses or cakes made of paint gunk. Red and green like Christmas, obliterating every potentiality that wears it in my mind. That space is claimed and I can't retake it.

    Finally suggestions of something more harmonious begin to appear like a civilized figure emerging from the jungle. Lavender and dark jean color. Shadowy brown and basking white. Green and cream. They are simple color pairs, but I can envision them strongly. I set them onto clothes or architectural features in my mind, and the thing I envision is fresh because it is not (yet) an archetype; it retains its mystery and potential. I am free to assign these colors to heroes and villains as I choose, or to characters with no archetype, and those will retain the mystery of the could-be. It is not black and red or blue and gold, nor pure white, nor jet black. My mind is still open.

    Many people have summoned the color sets that came to mind, but the point is that to me they are fresh and they do not yet channel my thinking when I apply them to a fictional form.

  3. I think is likely that our current global aesthetic of colour is largely shaped by female tastes, even in those parts where women have no direct role.

    No doubt about it. I think we all know this intuitively.

    I am pretty sure there is some sort of biological foundation for this and read about it in a book somewhere, but irritatingly I can't remember where - women are generally more perceptive of colour than men and discern differences between colours more readily. This clearly also has the effect of making them more interested in it.

    I couldn't tell you how many times I've been astonished at my wife's abiliity to identify different shades of paint in what look to me like just broad categories of 'green', 'blue', etc. "HOW CAN YOU NOT TELL THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN DUCK EGG AND PEWTER SLATE, ARE YOU BLIND??????"