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The Color Revolution

by Regina Lee Blaszczyk
The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2012
368 pp., illus. 121 col. Trade: $34.95
ISBN: 9780262017770.

Reviewed by Roy R. Behrens
Professor of Art and Distinguished Scholar
University of Northern Iowa


The phrase in this book’s title initially appeared in print in a 1929 issue of Fortune magazine, a few months after the huge financial crash that launched the Great Depression. It announced that there was an ongoing “color revolution,” a widespread adoption of color in industrial products, resulting in “apricot autos, blue beds, and mauve mops.”

Ironically, this book also documents that, in another sense, this was not so much a “revolution” as an “evolution,” the stirrings of which can be traced to the early nineteenth century. It was massively encouraged by the Industrial Revolution, in the interior uses of color at the Crystal Palace Exhibition (the first World’s Fair in 1851), the invention of synthetic dyes, and chromolithographic prints and packaging.

It was also about “evolution” because in part it was empowered by the theories of Charles Darwin, whose much-debated writings about natural selection prompted an increase of interest in the survival function of colors and patterns in natural forms. Was conspicuous coloration a means by which to find a mate? At the same time, did subdued coloration contribute to concealment? One consequence of this exchange was the rise of modern theories about ”protective coloration” in nature, which in World War I acquired the name of “camouflage.” In turn, this led to chatter about “warning coloration,” such as zoologist Hugh B. Cott’s remark that the traffic commission “has adopted a system of coloration whose copyright belongs by priority to wasps and salamanders.”

A recurring theme throughout this book—which the author plays up from beginning to end—is that modern applications of color have developed hand in hand with advances in camouflage. Indeed, it is even contended that, at the end of WWI, it was former camouflage experts (both army and navy) who “applied their knowledge of visual deception to product design and created a new profession: the corporate colorist.” If a person has the wherewithal to conceal an object, he or she can also make that same object conspicuous, through reverse engineering. As this book points out repeatedly, the uses of color in product design were based on the inversion of camouflage techniques—in the words of American artist (and WWI camoufleur) H. Ledyard Towle, it was “reverse camouflage.”

Who was Harold Ledyard Towle? This book tells us quite a lot (he was a central participant in the color revolution), but another source is a brief news story that appeared in the same year as the Fortune article, but months before the market crashed. Originating from Detroit—where Towle was the “color engineer” for General Motors, working beside Harley Earl—and based on an interview with him, the article reveals how Towle had migrated from his former life as a portrait painter to a lucrative, far more rewarding career as a “corporate colorist.”

According to Towle, it was the war that reshaped his career. Like hundreds of other Allied artists, designers and architects, he had served as a camouflage artist in France. Before that, while still in New York, he had taught a three-month course for the Women’s Reserve Camouflage Corps. “I went into the war,” he explained, “thinking art belonged to the chosen few. I came out knowing that it belonged to every urchin in the street. Working on wartime camouflage problems taught one how to use color with a purpose. I saw the futility of painting portraits to collect dust in museums, and turned to camouflaging industry and its products of everyday life.”

To be candid, judging from his paintings (one of which is reproduced), Towle was not an exceptional painter. Even if he had been, his career as a self-employed artist, like those of other American Impressionists, would not have survived the tsunami of the Armory Show and the ascendancy of Modernism. In the news article, he offers a far more ebullient spin: “The automobile manufacturers and plumbing magnates are rivaling the Medici of old as patrons of art, and the resources of modern corporations are unlimited.” Surely there is little doubt about his achievements as an industrial color consultant, given the contributions he made at DuPont, General Motors and Pittsburgh Paint and Glass. At the top of his game, he may even have been (as the author concludes) “America’s top automotive and paint colorist.”

Despite Towle’s leading role in the industrial uses of color, it would be a slanted, imbalanced review to dwell excessively on his significance or the relatedness of his experience as a camoufleur (although it should be mentioned that other former camoufleurs also played a postwar role in the industrial uses of color). That said, this book reports an incident that simply cannot go untold: In 1927, while promoting “the influence of color on beauty and sales” to GM executives and managers, Towle prepared a demonstration using three pairs of Chevrolets, each vehicle colored differently in “two-tone paint schemes that made some of them look long, others high, and still others squat.” According to the author, it was “an object lesson in ‘reverse camouflage,’” by which the audience thought they saw autos of varying sizes and shapes, some looking more “streamlined” than others.

The author of this book, Regina Lee Blaszczyk, is a cultural historian who has written other books about industry, fashion, and science. As cultural history, this book is a well-written, credible view of the perpetually ongoing tango between color and commerce since the nineteenth century. Much of it will be familiar territory to those who have some knowledge about design history, color theory, emotive responses to color, and the science of color vision. Throughout its narrative, it maintains a lively balance between long-view observations, anecdotes, and technical details. Among its most interesting moments are those in which it momentarily moves in to look more closely at the lives of such key contributors as Michel Eugene Chevreul, William Henry Perkin, Albert Munsell, Milton Bradley, Louis Prang, Arthur Allen, Matthew Luckiesh, Léon Solon, Margaret Hayden Rorke, Howard Ketchum, Joseph Urban, Hazel Adler, Faber Birren, Bettina Bedwell, Alon Bement, and others.

Bement, who had served as a ship camoufleur during WWI, taught drawing at Columbia University, and is now mostly remembered because, according to the artist Georgia O’Keeffe, he was an important early influence on her. Surprisingly, not only does Bement appear in this book (he wrote quite a bit about using camouflage in women’s clothing design), so does O’Keeffe in a curious way. In 1926—by which time she was already painting those quasi-abstract flower forms that are easily seen as pudenda—she and Alfred Stieglitz were approached by none other than the infamous Edward Bernays (whose story was told in 2002 in the British documentary called The Century of the Self), Sigmund Freud’s nephew and a pioneering expert at subliminal persuasion. For a price, O’Keeffe agreed to produce for Bernays a series of five of her erotic artworks, in palettes that rhymed with the colors of scarves that were premiered by Cheney Silks and advertised for women.

In the section that talks about Georgia O’Keeffe, there is a photograph of an advertising campaign invitation that includes an O’Keeffe illustration, and another of a department store window display, to show how her work was presented. Indeed, one of the great virtues of this book is the fact that it’s printed in color throughout (an inevitability, so it would seem, given the subject), and that its reproductions are so wonderfully rich and intriguing. There is, for example, a frontispiece ad from a 1929 issue of Ladies’ Home Journal that is composed and colored so smartly that it all but takes ones breath away. Equally delightful is a preliminary colored sketch by Norman Bel Geddes of his plan for an Art Deco radio called “The Patriot.” There is also a wonderful photograph of Hugo Münsterberg’s psychology lab at Harvard in 1893, with all kinds of mysterious optical wheels and other apparatus.

By its own definition, this account of the “color revolution” is mostly focused on events in the 1890s through the 1960s. “All cultural obsessions have historical roots,” the author concludes, as a result of which we are immersed in a “chromo-utopia,” but are all but unmindful of how it occurred.

Last Updated 1 November 2012

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