When Kassia St Clair set out to write a cultural history of 75 colours she had no idea that her book would end up being translated into 20 languages. Morphing out of her column for Elle Decoration magazine, The Secret Lives of Colour tapped into a widespread fascination with the social and scientific origins of colours, becoming Radio 4’s book of the week and receiving rave reviews in publications as diverse as Chemistry World and the Times Literary Supplement.
WHITE AND THE BATHROOM
White is a colour strongly associated with the bathroom – as well as a certain kind of modernist zeal in architecture – but where does it come from, chemically speaking, and is it even a colour? St Clair explains that the white pigment we use today is mostly Titanium-based but that before the twentieth century it tended to be either chalk- or lead-based.
‘Use of lead white is probably where some of the mixed messages around the colour’s associations come from,’ she says. ‘It was made by steeping strips of lead along with chemicals like vinegar for 30 days in double-bellied pots surrounded by animal dung. People used the resulting lead carbonate for all sorts of things including as a cosmetic. Unfortunately, it was very poisonous and could lead to a horrible death.
St Clair points out that before Sir Isaac Newton’s experiments with prisms in the 1660s, there was widespread belief in Christian societies that pure white light was indisputable evidence of divine power. ‘Initially there was huge resistance to the idea that white light could be broken down into seven colours. Until then, white had been seen as the base unit, so it seemed almost heretical to say it was made up of yellows, blues, purples and so on. The reality is that most people simply don’t think about the absence or presence of light when they’re choosing the colours of their towels, for instance. But if you ask a physicist whether white is a colour they’ll probably say, “No, it’s an expression of light”’.
And what does St Clair think were the cultural mores behind the avocado bathroom suites of the 1970s? ‘I think the influence there was the great intellectual and cultural movement around the earth being seen as fragile. You had people going up into space and taking photographs of our world for the first time, and it was also an era of big landmark cases against pollution and a lot of anxiety around the nuclear age. People were recognising the damage we’re capable of doing to our environment. At the same time land artists were working on big sculptures that harnessed natural elements. The way people consumed products reflected all those ideas, and popular palettes for goods included earthy colours like Harvest Golds and burnt oranges as well as Avocado.’
On whether Avocado is headed for a comeback in the bathroom, her take is that we’ve become more sophisticated consumers since the 1970s, less likely to think we can consume our way out of a problem. ‘There’s also the avocado toast association,’ she adds. ‘Avocado as a colour now signifies a shift, an inter-generational tension – the idea that if millennials would only give up avocado toast they’d be rolling in affordable housing.’
COLOUR AND LANGUAGE
An underlying thread across St Clair’s stories of colour in art, industry and society is the relationship with language and colour, and whether words shape the shades we see. This can be a problematic area, she says, simply because a lot of the seminal studies around language and colour in the mid-twentieth century were undertaken by teams of usually white male professors travelling far afield to study “primitive” tribes. The assumption was that as a culture “developed” it would gain more words for colour. ‘But Russian has more basic colour terms than English and I don’t think anyone would say that makes Russian speakers necessarily more intellectually or culturally developed,’ says St Clair.
‘Beyond the basic colour terms, one of the reasons we have lots of words for colours is that we’ve been a consumer society for hundreds of years, and we’re used to the idea of colour as a basis of choice.’
St Clair’s next book project, due to be published in 2023, moves away from colour to focus on one of the world’s first long-distance motor races, a dash from Peking to Paris that took place in 1907 when motoring was a leisure pursuit of the elite. More widely, the book investigates an era that laid the groundwork for the world we know today, including the geopolitical dimension of oil and the existence of plastic, first developed in fully synthetic form in 1907 as Bakelite. But she isn’t done with colour yet: ‘Colour is always changing, and I still find it fascinating. New colours are being invented all the time. There’s YInMn blue – the first new blue in 200 years – discovered by Professor Mas Subramanian in Oregon. The same chemist is now trying to find a commercial red and if he does it will be a billion-dollar project because the reds we already have are either not that bright or not that colourfast. Just as language and societies change, colour keeps changing too’.