Salone del Mobile Milano

Saturated: The Allure and Science of Colour

“I hear the question upon your lips: What is it to be a colour? Colour is the touch of the eye, music to the deaf, a word out of the darkness”, said Orhan Pamuk. There is, in fact, no easy answer to the question “What is colour?” and there is no unequivocal reply. We know, of course, that the perception of colour originates from the white light that strikes the surface of objects which, in turn, retain some of the luminous frequencies and reflect others; these are then attracted to the receptors inside our eyes, which transmit the chromatic stimuli to the brain, which then translates them into colours. We (our perceptual system) then “create” the colour which then becomes powerfully ingrained in our culture. In fact, the same colour generates different reactions, emotions and values in different places. 

Split into 7 themed sections - Capturing Color; Color Optics; Creating Colors; Navigating Color; Color and Form; Color Collaboration; Consumer Choice – the exhibition Saturated: The Allure and Science of Color, at New York’s Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum, explores the fascination and seductive power of colour over the centuries. It is a journey through the chromatic dimension seen through the eyes of artists, designers, scientists and philosophers, for whom it has long been an object of study and influence. 

Drawing on the extraordinary collections of the Smithsonian Libraries and the Cooper Hewitt, the exhibition features more than 190 objects, dating from prehistory to the present day, and suggests that colour can also contribute to our understanding of design. The message that comes out of it is the idea that colour and its properties are never neutral characteristics, but carry powerful messages and emotional dynamics. 

The exhibition also explores colour’s relationship with music, camouflage and the progress in colour reproduction techniques, highlighting how important they are to everything, from philosophy to communication. Visually and intellectually stimulating, Saturated deepens our awareness of just how profound, personal and gratifying our relationship with colour is. 


CAPTURING COLOR. Elusive, subjective and complex, colour has defied the efforts of many scholars who have attempted to decipher it. A great many books are testament to this, including Isaac Newton’s excellent Opticks and Goethe’s Zur Farbenlehr (1810). 

COLOR OPTICS. Design loves that particular hypnotic verve produced by the optical effects of colour. Take the shimmering whorls of the Peacock vase by Louis Comfort Tiffany (1901), the butterflies flying around the J.M. Schmetterling pendant lamp by Ingo Maurer (2011), and Victor Moscoso’s posters for the Miller Blues Band and Blues Project (1967) 

CREATING COLORS. For the last 40,000 years, craftsmen have coloured every sort and kind of thing – from fabrics to paper, ceramics and glass – using mineral, animal and plant sources.  There is the marvellous Syrian aryballos (3rd century A.D.) in which the addition of cobalt to glass has produced a deep blue, and the Mexican huipil coloured with dye from a marine snail. It wasn’t until the 19th century that William Henry Perkins created the first synthetic dye by mistake (as is so often the case). The colour industry hasn’t stopped since then. 

NAVIGATING COLOR. In communication design, colour is used to guide the eye through space and to grade information. In his New York subway diagram (1974), Massimo Vignelli uses a palette of eight colours to codify the complex system of underground lines. 

COLOR AND FORM. Colour enables us to understand spatial relations, but it can also deceive. The exhibition features four textile samples from Verner Panton’s Décor I range (1969), in which eight shades of turquoise are used to determine the projection or recession of geometric patterns. 

COLOR COLLABORATION. Designers, producers and clients need to be able to understand each other, often at a distance, when discussing colours. This is what has informed the production of samples, colour charts and systems for standardising colours such as the Pantone Color Deck (2014). 

CONSUMER CHOICE. Colour is often the most seductive aspect of products. It can make a brand instantly recognisable or attract a certain category of consumers. Henry Dreyfus Associates produced his pale pink Signature Princess Telephone in 1959, designed to appeal to a newly discovered consumer demographic – teenage girls and young women. The iMac designed by Jonathan Ive (1999-2000) became the top selling model in the United States, immediately identifiable by its luminous and translucent case, available in five iconic colourways (blueberry, grape, mandarin, lime and strawberry). 

Saturated: The Allure and Science of Color

Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum
2 East 91st Street 
New York 10128

28th May 2018 – 13th January 2019


01. - 02. Photo by Matt Flynn
04. - 05. Photo by Ellen McDermott
08. - 09. Photo by Matt Flynn