From revolting to revolt: Why is my office this color?

A leaf from "Pantone, the 20th Century in Color."  Color trends across the decades have become more nuanced and diverse.

A REVOLT AGAINST BORING ROWN AND PUKE GREEN

Resist the urge to avert your eyes and take a look at this kitchen

It’s very likely a 40-year-old kitchen.  You can probably tell just by looking. How?

“Avocado Green,” explains Leatrice Eiseman, executive director of the Pantone Color Institute.  “And Harvest Gold.” 

Those were the colors of the 70’s, with a nice helping of brown. “It was all so pervasive in that time,” Eiseman says – without derision, notably.

In the early eighties, the dominant color scheme was mauve, gray, and turquoise. Back then, color trends were virtually “dictatorial,” says Eiseman, “everyone marched to the same drummer.”

Then, consumers revolted. 

“Of course, what happened in the mid 80’s was you couldn’t sell anything avocado or harvest gold because people had really OD’d on that color scheme.”  She says it had a lot to do with women.   

“You had this empowerment of women saying I don’t want to do what’s prescribed anymore, I want to do my own thing -- I’m doing it with my skirt length I’m going to do it with color as well," Eiseman says.

A MOVE TO ORGANIC TRENDS INSPIRED BY FASHION

Trends arise more organically these days, and a major place to start is the runway.

“Designers don’t follow trends, we start them,” says Nicholas Petrou of PetrouMan. At his Bleecker Street showroom, he produces some of the burgundy, ochre and, gold earth tones associated with his next collection, which he calls “Nomad.” 

“Traveling is a big part of who we are today, so many people travel, and nomads are the best example so I’m interested in that.”

If Petrou has successfully hit on a collective cultural nerve, his colors might be seen elsewhere. The measure of a color trend is whether it makes it from the runway into more durable products in the years that follow.   

Jane Harrington Durst manages automotive paints for PPG Industries, which supplies paint for everything from ships to cellphones. “In the late 90s,” she says, “Ralph Lauren made a big splash with dark greens in fashion and interior design, and many of the American Automotive designers [then] had a version of deep hunter green.”

WE’RE MORE COMPLICATED THAN FASHION

Obviously it doesn’t all boil down to fashion. In the 2000s, Apple had a major influence in color trends.  

“That clean white that we saw in a lot of Apple products in the 2000s became really popular," says Dee Schlotter, national color marketing manager for PPG Architectural Coatings. She says Apple captured a spirit of unwinding, serenity, and de-cluttering. “There are a lot of societal influences in why [consumers] react to colors at a certain time,” says Schlotter. 

“During the recession, the colors we saw were all gray -- from walls to pillows to bedding. Even in fashion, we saw gray went into summer, which it doesn’t do.” After the recession, Schlotter says there was a reactive “explosion of color.”

TODAY’S TRENDS AND TREND SPOTTERS

Spotting a color trend and bringing it to market in the modern age is part science and part curation. 

“You still have to give consumers a pattern to follow so to speak, or else there would be mass confusion,” says Pantone’s Eiseman. “So when those of us who are forecasters are working on a  forecast, what we do is think in terms of more than one palette.” 

Forecasters now provide palettes that cater to different predominant attitudes. 

“We are thinking in terms of different lifestyles and how those lifestyles can best be served by certain color combinations and looks," she says.

But that still means looking everywhere to track what color schemes are on the up and up.

“It’s almost like my antennae start to quiver, and I see certain colors on the ascendancy, on the rise. We might see it in a concept car, a high end coffee maker, or it can come from a hot new film.”

Pantone’s color of the year for 2014 is Radiant Orchid. PPG’s is Buttercream Yellow. 

Don’t worry, though.  The Harvest Gold and Avocado Green combo isn’t coming back anytime soon.  

About the author

Sabri Ben-Achour is a reporter for Marketplace, based in the New York City bureau. He covers Wall Street, finance, and anything New York and money related.

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