Tuesday, February 13, 2007

True Colors

I've always known that there were a lot of colors in the world.

Even when I was sitting there with my 8-pack of Crayolas, I knew that there was the possibility that Santa might bring me the 48 - or even the 64 - crayon set, where I could find wonderful colors like magenta, burnt siena, and flesh (a color that, when last I looked, had been renamed peach).

Once I reached an age of even greater color awareness, I began interpreting colors in socio-economic terms. Why, I asked myself, weren't the colors used in clothing sold to poor people at Zayre's and The Mart as nice as the colors found in the clothing we  bought at Anderson Little. Which were nowhere near as nice, I could tell, as the wonderful Villager and John Meyer of Norwich colors on the preppy clothing sold at Filene's, which most everyone else at my high school could afford but which my family generally couldn't. (Thankfully, we wore uniforms with the true-blue color of forest green. I was a "scholarship girl" and there's no way I could dress in the same league as the doctor-lawyer-funeral parlor daughters I went to school with.)

Nice girl that I was, I felt worse for the poor people (who had really bad clothing) than I did for myself (clothing on the next rung down from really good). Even as a teenager, it struck me as bad enough that poor people had to wear clothing that was of bad cut and crappy quality. Why did the colors have to be so ugly, too? Dull or lurid, clothing for poor people was always just a little off-color. It didn't seem fair to me. It was as if the clothing manufacturers were deliberately punishing poor people for being poor. Shouldn't color be a free good?

And then I started to notice how colors would go in and out of style. This actually took me a lot longer than it might have taken someone else. Throughout grammar school and high school, I wore a green jumper and a white blouse to school. Never in style. Never out of style.

But once I started noticing what colors were in fashion, well, I'd see them everywhere. Not just in clothing, but in everything.

If you were alive in the sixties or seventies, you would have had to have been completely color blind not to have picked up on avocado and harvest gold for appliances and pots and pans.

And take company color schemes. In the early eighties, there was a lot of pink and gray going around. In the nineties, it was teal and purple. Now it seems like there's more use of orange.

And brown and blue? That was quite the decorator combination in the late seventies when I lived in a great little studio apartment on Beacon Hill. I still have that brown and blue batik comforter stashed away - good for using as a picnic blanket for the picnic I take every ten or twenty years. And the brown and blue casserole dish my mother got me for a housewarming present? Still in use!And now that the brown and blue color combo has cycled back into popularity, well, I've never felt so fashion forward.

Somewhere in the eighties, I also began noticing the trend in color naming. Way, way beyond maroon and bottle green. Way beyond  burgundy and jade. Sometimes I'd read catalogs and not be quite able to figure out what the name meant.

Was Occult gray or black? Was Tranquility blue or green? Portent. Labile. Tonsure. Jinx.  And why is the paint color in my upstairs bathroom called Cougar when it's really dark taupe? Are cougars dark taupe?

I began thinking deep, rich thoughts about colors, and asking myself the big, colorful questions.

Who was out there inventing all these colors that trickled down to the rich and poor alike? Who was coming up with these color schemes? Who was declaring new names for all these new colors?

Well, sometimes you do find you answer.

"Made in the Shade," an article by Eric Konigsberg in The New Yorker (January 22, 2007 - it doesn't seem to be posted online just yet), profiles color consultant Leslie Harrington who works for companies like Pottery Barn, Avon, and - yes - Crayola, and is member of an organization, the Color Marketing Group, that's responsible for determining what colors we're going to be seeing a lot of.  All of those brown and blue housewares, furniture, clothing, and decorating color schemes? They don't, in fact, just spring out of nowhere.

The Color Marketing Group(CMG) meets twice each year, and at each meeting professional color consultants bring their candidates for colors that are going to be popular a couple of years out (by the time they get into the product development and manufacturing cycle). The consultants don't just show up with color chips and swatches of cloth, they need to back up their choices with something more than "looks nice and I like them." They need to bring insights on trends and socio-economic and demographic factors that inform their color choices.

There are also industry-specific sub-groups: transportation (primarily cars), sports equipment, paper products.

The groups go through a somewhat involved process of making forecasts of what colors will be in, which, as Konigsberg points out, become something of self-fulfilling prophecies, since the CMG sells its predictions to companies which, in turn, deploy the forecasted palettes in their manufacturing process.  This group is also somewhat responsible for the unusual names that colors have. What's on the hit parade: Buddha, Mineral Springs, and Soul.

And, as I've suspected all along, poor folks do get stuck with worse colors. The more sophisticated, nuanced colors use a more complex set of inputs. So prettier, richer colors cost more. Thus the lurid and dull colors I had so long ago noticed that the poor got stuck with, and the gorgeous hues that my more well-to-do classmates could afford for their Bermuda bags and Pappagallo shoes.

Once again, life shows it's true colors: it's unfair.

But the good news is that the color consultants don't have a monopoly on nature, where the real true colors live.

Rich man, poor man, as long as we're not afflicted with RG color-blindness, we all get to see the same  midnight blue sky.

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