Tuesday, September 6, 2011


The other day I was driving down a local street lined with carefully inoffensive white, beige, or tan bungalows when something remarkable caught my peripheral vision: Jumping out from among the oatmealy shades was an electric blue cottage with lavender trim. While no doubt a few of the neighbors were dismayed by this violation of Waspish color preferences, the effect was both unexpected and charming. 

Colors are a mysterious thing. We all see them a little differently, and when you get right down to it, they exist as much in the mind as in the objects we perceive. Few reasonable people would argue that one color is better than another. Still, there are always folks out there who think they know best which colors are “tasteful” and which aren’t, and are anxious to let people know about it.  

In fact, color preferences are an intensely individual choice that varies from person to person and from culture to culture. Consequently, it’s nobody’s business but our own to decide which colors we like best.

A glance at the previous century’s changing color fashions shows both the human craving for variation and the relentlessly cyclical nature of taste, which has swung from reticent colors to vibrant ones and back again.  

In the United States, the opening of the twentieth century gave rise to the Craftsman era, a reaction to the kaleidoscopic palette of Victorian architecture.  Artifice was out, and natural simplicity was in. In keeping with these naturalistic aspirations, pristine whites once again returned to architecture, set off by deep, muted browns, greens, and golds.  

By the late 1920s, however, the arrival of Art Deco, with its electrifying jags-and-curves motifs, brought with it an equally dramatic shift in color tastes. Art Deco designers daringly allied black with celadon greens, icy blues, and a whole range of red and yellow ochres--a trend that lasted until the eve of World War II.  

The drab, camoflauge-like colors of the early postwar era--gray-greens, gray-blues, or ruddy browns--were surely inspired by the inescapable military imagery of the war years. A rebuke to this trend arrived in the 1950s, when light, airy pastels in pink, blue, yellow and turquoise dominated residential design. This gradual return to strong, clear colors lasted well into the 60s, culminating in the vivid psychedelic palette of the late decade.  

The pendulum of taste began its reversal during the Seventies, when the ecology movement helped foster a trend toward “earth tones”--a muted, naturalistic palette of beiges, tans, and browns. Despite a brief Postmodernist digression into happy neopolitan ice cream shades in the early 80s, the trend away from strong colors continued, culminating in the late-century fixation on whites, grays, and gunmetal blues. 

When the history of the new millenium’s first decade is written, poisonous greens, bilious yellows, and muddy browns will likely come to represent its taste in architectural colors--no doubt a sort of rebellion against the resolutely bland palette of the 80s and 90s. Personally, colors with such insistently unpleasant associations aren’t my cup of tea. But would I dream of telling my neighbors that their color choices weren’t “tasteful”--whatever that means?

If the guy in the electric blue house can’t make me do it, neither can they.

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