Colour: it’s complicated

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Words:
Pamela Buxton

Colour is not a constant entity but something far more unstable, as vividly demonstrated by a new show at the Design Museum

Breathing Colour by Hella Jongerius at the Design Museum, with the Coloured Vases installation in the foreground.
Breathing Colour by Hella Jongerius at the Design Museum, with the Coloured Vases installation in the foreground. Credit: Luke Hayes

Ever bought a garment and got home to find it a completely different shade to how it looked in the shop? This, and other quirks of the nature of colour, are to be found in Breathing Colour, a new exhibition by Dutch designer Hella Jongerius at the Design Museum in London.

This is an intriguing show that takes some effort to get to grips with. Jongerius, who is art director of colour and surfaces at Vitra, has been immersed in open-ended research into the possibilities and expressions of colour for many years. Her exhibition is on a mission to make the viewer question their perception of colour: ‘To appreciate the complexity of colour, we need to be receptive to seeing the effect that shape, texture, pattern and colour have on each other,’ we learn. 

  • Breathing Colour by Hella Jongerius at the Design Museum.
    Breathing Colour by Hella Jongerius at the Design Museum. Credit: Luke Hayes
  • Breathing Colour by Hella Jongerius at the Design Museum, with Colour Catchers in the foreground and hangings from the Woven Movie series to the rear.
    Breathing Colour by Hella Jongerius at the Design Museum, with Colour Catchers in the foreground and hangings from the Woven Movie series to the rear. Credit: Luke Hayes
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The show is organised to simulate light conditions of morning, noon and evening. Within each of these areas is a series of installations to illustrate different aspects of how colour behaves according to shape, texture and in particular, light. Throughout, the key message is that colour is not a constant entity but something more unstable.

This exhibition is definitely best appreciated after reading the accompanying booklet, which is most illuminating. It offers a more extensive insight into Jongerius’ thoughts, with reference to colour theory over the centuries, colour reproduction and colour systems, and pigments. We learn about Newton’s research into the science of colour which found that we see colours in objects because they reflect certain wavelengths of colour in light. Colour is, as Jongerius says, a surface decoration that can alter perceptions of the form of an object – blue makes an object flatter, yellow makes it bulge, for example, while green is static and red is dynamic.

Detail of Colour Catchers from Breathing Colour by Hella Jongerius at the Design Museum.
Detail of Colour Catchers from Breathing Colour by Hella Jongerius at the Design Museum. Credit: Luke Hayes

Her array of ‘colour-catchers’ is an effective tool for communicating how colour is affected by shape. These large, vase-like objects are painted in a single colour but have surfaces that are facetted in various ways to generate a surprisingly wide range of shades and tones, succinctly illustrating the instability of colour. A large-scale aluminium colour catcher reinforces the point.

A series of large hanging textiles made by Jongerius interpret the effect of different lighting conditions throughout the day from daybreak to the dark of evening. The point is made more directly elsewhere in the exhibition in a time lapse film of a coloured object taken throughout the day, in which we see the effect of light on colour perception. A hands-on exhibit encourages visitors to place objects under different lighting conditions and appreciate the huge difference in their appearance.

The installations are striking and visually appealing. A floor piece of 300 vases arranged as a giant colour wheel illustrates Jongerius’ research into historic glazing techniques using different metal oxides – if you’re after purple, try manganese dioxide; for green, try copper oxide. Giant crystal ‘beads’ strung up against a wall depict how objects absorb and reflect colour.

Another of her themes is how industrial processes have narrowed experiences of colour: ‘I rebel against the flat colours of the colour industry,’ she says. 

  • View into the Evening room of Breathing Colour by Hella Jongerius at the Design Museum. Photo: Luke Hayes. On the wall are Falling Vases weaves with Colour Catchers in the foreground.
    View into the Evening room of Breathing Colour by Hella Jongerius at the Design Museum. Photo: Luke Hayes. On the wall are Falling Vases weaves with Colour Catchers in the foreground.
  • Breathing Colour by Hella Jongerius at the Design Museum with Crystal Beads installation in the foreground.
    Breathing Colour by Hella Jongerius at the Design Museum with Crystal Beads installation in the foreground. Credit: Luke Hayes
  • Breathing Colour by Hella Jongerius at the Design Museum with Paper Weaves installation in the foreground.
    Breathing Colour by Hella Jongerius at the Design Museum with Paper Weaves installation in the foreground. Credit: Luke Hayes
  • Breathing Colour by Hella Jongerius at the Design Museum.
    Breathing Colour by Hella Jongerius at the Design Museum. Credit: Luke Hayes
  • Part of the Woven Movie series of woven hangings at Breathing Colour by Hella Jongerius at the Design Museum.
    Part of the Woven Movie series of woven hangings at Breathing Colour by Hella Jongerius at the Design Museum. Credit: Luke Hayes
  • Coloured Vases (series 3) from Breathing Colour by Hella Jongerius at the Design Museum.
    Coloured Vases (series 3) from Breathing Colour by Hella Jongerius at the Design Museum. Credit: Gerrit Schreurs
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We learn how organic pigments offer a more diverse reflection than synthetic pigments, giving what Jongerius calls ‘a more spacious effect’ to colour.

In the final part of the exhibition, ‘evening’,  the gallery walls are painted in a black developed using handcrafted pigments without the use of carbon. An installation in this room considers the nature of shadows, with further colour catchers and weavings exploring a range of colour gradients.

Jongerius states that her ultimate aim is for the show to ‘pit the power of colour against the power of form’. I’m not sure if she achieved that rather high ambition in this exhibition, which would have benefited from more of the clear explanation found in the booklet. However, there’s no doubt that you’ll leave this stimulating show thinking differently, and more deeply, about colour.


Breathing Colour by Hella Jongerius, until 24 September, The Design Museum, London