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Colour + Me: with Erdem Akan and Terri Pecora

Design Update: Where do you turn to for inspiration on colour?

Erdem Akan: In general at VitrA we look towards nature for inspiration on colour. We try to work with a natural palette of colours and materials – referencing the earthy tones of sand, stone and clay. It’s part of a strategy to challenge inflexible notions of bathroom as white-cube, laboratory-like spaces. We focus on natural forms and colour because we want bathrooms to be at the centre of wellbeing in homes and hospitality settings. The way we work with colour is quite emotional initially, based on instinctive decisions on lots of samples. We may start with the heart but we clarify with the head, revisiting those decisions with a rational mindset and thinking across all elements in the ranges.

Terri Pecora: Museums and galleries are where I head for inspiration. In Los Angeles that might be the Museum of Contemporary Art, Hauser & Wirth or The Landing. In Milan it might be Massimo de Carlo, HangarBicocca and the Prada Foundation. My go-to artists in terms of colour are Mark Rothko,
Helen Frankenthaler and Annie Albers. I also just bought a mixed media piece with really beautiful colours by a young American artist called Amanda Valdez.



(Above - Pirelli HangarBicocca, Milan)


I’ve always been interested in the fashion world and might turn to some of the classic designers like Dries van Noten and Paul Smith for inspiration on colour. I employ a lot of neutrals in my own product design, adding highlights to a more muted background palette. Mid-century palettes are quite
an influence – Cadmium orange paired with navy blue and beige is a good example.

(Above - Dries Van Noten top SS22)

DU: Do you apply any particular colour theories in your work, or is your approach more instinctive?

EA: I did learn about colour at university but was perhaps educated more by working in the automotive industry in the late 1990s. My responsibility initially was car interiors, including their colours, so my eyesight was tested to see how well I could differentiate between shades. I was given 20 different variants each of yellow, red and blue tones on coloured chips and had to pick the closest matches. It sounds easy but after 20 minutes or so it becomes much more difficult. I was pretty good actually – 98% in two colours and 94% in the third.

A big factor in working with colour is the scale of application – is it going to be part of a building façade or a detail in a product? Another is lighting context – is it daylight or fluorescent or tungsten? And of course, materiality and finish also affect colour, whether a surface is matt or gloss, smooth or textured. All of these things affect perception of colour, which is after all much more important than a colour reference number. Of course, there is a mathematics to colour but it doesn’t take into account that perception changes across environments. So, at VitrA’s design studio we always assess colours in a wide range of different conditions.



(Above - Sento Kids range by VitrA)


TP: I’m instinctive rather than theoretical, and that goes for everything I do. But I do remember a particular colour class at ArtCenter in Pasadena that has followed me my whole life. It taught me to see colour and light. We’d paint 1000s of tiny colour swatches in different shades on watercolour paper that we’d stretched in our bathtubs. Then we’d apply them to a grid and work with opposites, so in one corner you’d have yellow chips and in the other blue, for instance, and you’d work slowly towards the centre in a blending effect. It was quite a laborious process, but it did teach me how to look at colour and how to observe the way light changes it, and to really notice what happens when one colour is juxtaposed with another. I think a colour class should be mandatory for every child in elementary school – just so they can appreciate the richness and beauty of colour in their world.


With Plural, the bathroom range I designed with VitrA, the concept was about gradually transfiguring the idea of the bathroom as a cold, clinical space into a warm, welcoming, domestic one – adding colour and expressions of personality with form and furniture as well as with personal touches like paintings. In some way I think those colour exercises at college may have influenced my approach – working on all those carefully considered transitions.

DU: Is colour subjective?

EA: I think there are probably at least three dimensions. One is very subjective, the other is social and the third is universal. Colour is very experience-based. We all have favourite colours. Some will be important because of memories, others through conditioning – like pale blue for a baby boy. But there’s also another layer, which is trend. This goes in cycles and relates to what’s happening in the world – what we’re all facing together, whether that’s war or climate change. I do think that political and economic and social changes influence mood around colour. At the universal level are the colours of nature.
When we visit the coast or a woodland, whatever the trends, whatever the global circumstances, the colours of nature look fantastic because they are elemental and they transcend time – though there’s an element of environmental conditioning in that too because it will depend on the environment and light you’re used to, whether you're Scandinavian or Mediterranean, or used to watery or earthy environments.

TP: I definitely feel that colour is subjective. Yes, you can analyse the constituent parts of colour scientifically in some ways, but perception is so personal and it’s also so much based on light and contrasts with other colours and even the mood you’re in. Colour is very emotional, and I believe that our preferences are deeply rooted in our personalities. Another way of looking at this is thinking about colour vision deficiency, which is a spectrum rather than binary and may manifest across red-green or blue-yellow tones. How can colour be objective when people see it in so many different ways?

DU: Has there been an occasion when you’ve had a strong difference of opinion with a client or colleague about colour?

EA: We work with a lot of different territories and I’d say the culture around colour feels very familiar to me across the UK and America, Turkey and Mediterranean countries. But having said that I have been surprised by colour decisions in Russia and France. To understand more I visited both countries just to see their buildings and architecture and even the earth tones of the land. It helped a lot – I found the field of colour can be a ground for building empathy, for getting to know other philosophies and cultures.


TP: In general, no. Perhaps because my work isn’t centrally premised on colour and also because I tend to use neutral palettes – the core propositions in my work are more about concepts of use, or form. The other thing is that in my field, although there are trend waves around colour, it’s not like
fashion where there might be a radical change every season. So, I find it pretty easy to be on the same page with my clients about colour. Having said that, it’s interesting to observe the post-graduate students I teach at Nuova Accademia di Belle Arti in Milan. It’s a very international school; it’s not unusual for my class to have students from all over the world. In that context it’s very apparent that cultures have such different sensibilities around colour.


DU: What’s your favourite colour?


EA: Green.


TP: Red.