Brain Pickings

PANTONE: A Color History of the 20th Century

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From Gatsby to Apple, or what the 1939 New York World’s Fair has to do with the evolution of color theory.

Mine is PANTONE 803-C, what’s yours? More than mere aesthetic fetishes, our favorite colors — and color in general — speak to us in powerful cyphers of symbolism, memories, associations, and emotional undertones. What is true of us as individuals is also true of culture at large. The twentieth century brimmed with color, from the Almost Mauve (PANTONE 18-1248) of the 1900 Universal Exposition in Paris to the Midnight Navy (PANTONE 19-4110) of the countdown to the Millennium, framing the visual language of our era through this most fundamental of alphabets. In PANTONE: The Twentieth Century in Color, longtime PANTONE scholars Leatrice Eiseman and Keith Recker explore 100 years of the evolution of color’s sociocultural footprint through over 200 works of art, advertisements, industrial design products, fashion trends, and other aesthetic ephemera, thoughtfully examined in the context of their respective epoch.

We see color with everything we are. What starts as a signal passing along the optic nerve quickly develops into an emotional, social, and spatial phenomenon that carries many layers of vivid meaning. Light with a wavelength of 650 nanometers or so is seen as red. But it is experienced as warmth or danger, romance or revolution, heroism or evil, depending on the cultural and personal matrix in which it appears… The context within which color unfurls its rainbow of symbolism and emotion is history itself.”

From the glamorous Silver (PANTONE 14-5002) and Jet Black (PANTONE 19-0303) of the “roaring twenties” jazz age to the rosy optimism of the 1950s to the exaggerated flair of the 1980s economic boom and social liberation, each decade comes with a detailed color palette contextualized in an essayistic history of the era’s sociocultural trends and milestones.

Josephine Baker 'La Vie Parisienne' ad ca. 1920

Poster for National Park Service, NYC Art Project, Work Projects Administration, 1936-1938, Richard Halls

Poster for New York World's Fair, 1939, Joseph Binder

1952 Studebaker Commander

Audrey Hepburn in a publicity photo for Funny Face, 1957

Paisley cotton ca. 1976, sourced by Patricia Nugent Design and Textiles

Because color is such a fundamental element in the human experience, a book about color ends up being a book about human experience itself. Part textbook and part fairy tale, part biography and part novel, our history of color is designed to start each reader on his or her personal and creative exploration of color.”

PANTONE: The Twentieth Century in Color is as much an ultimate treat for color-lovers as it is a fascinating and uncommon lens on familiar cultural history, a vibrant volume among the year’s finest design-and-beyond books.

HT @kirstinbutler; captioned images courtesy of Chronicle Books

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