Designer Hella Jongerius doesn’t have a favorite color—but she’s had a career-long love affair with uncovering the mysteries of the entire spectrum.
Color isn’t black and white. Seems like an obvious statement, but understanding the complexities of how our eyes see color and how our mind responds to it has eluded great thinkers for centuries. Red isn’t just red, for example: It can appear more orange, or if it’s juxtaposed with another color, you might start to see a different undertone.
Physicists, like Sir Isaac Newton, have tried to unpack color as a function of light reflecting off of surfaces. Artists, like James Turrell, have explored the phenomenology of perception as it relates to color. Architects, like Le Corbusier, used color as a way to manipulate space. Color is a function of hue, saturation, lightness, tone and tint, but to Hella Jongerius—a prolific designer and art director of the color and materials library at the Swiss furniture company Vitra—color is an evocative element that impacts our relationship with what’s around us. Here, she offers a glimpse into her prismatic perspective and how she’s invigorating the design world with jolts of color.
Why don’t you have a favorite color?
I simply can’t say what my favorite color is. I need to know its use—what is this color for? In which material? In which type of light? For what shape and scale will this color be used? I have no definite answer; it all depends on the context.
Has the way you see color evolved over the years?
The fact that there is no objectivity in color is a blessing to me; it’s a visual expertise, not a scientific one. My eyes become more trained with time. I have been painting as an amateur for a year now. This teaches me to analyze and understand which pigments are used in which colors. I still feel like a beginner, but the more I dive into the topic, the more I experience its complexity. This also makes me eager to learn more.
You’ve said, “I base my insights on intuition and personal sensation.” How do you “see” color?
I try to analyze which ingredients I see—like is a green more reddish or more bluish, how much black is in there, which different shadow colors compose the color, and how does the color communicate in its context.
How does color affect the way we experience design?
Color is a mysterious, ever-changing entity. Questioning a color’s appearance and our relationship to it and speculating about its nature is an endless process. I try to find answers through my research.
In my work, I think about how colored objects affect other objects and how all the objects behave in a certain setting. How important is size or volume for a color and how do colored objects influence one another? The different materials have an impact on each other and certain colors can accentuate horizontal shapes, while others are better for vertical forms. And then the lighting conditions or color temperature also changes a space. The relationship between color and shape is a puzzle with many solutions. There’s no truth; it’s subjective. But I try to understand the matter.
Modern design has a certain asceticism to it, and you’ve said, “The industrial palette is so poor.” How did that happen and what are the biggest opportunities to improve the colors we see in design today?
My work rebels against the established color flatness. Experiencing the changeability and splendor of colors can be stimulating to the human mind in many ways. Just think of how we feel when we see a Vermeer painting, or rays of light touching the wet morning grass, or blossoms in spring. The objects that surround us in daily life deserve to evoke a similar sensation.
Many companies are skeptical about products that lack a fixed performance as a result of unstable color recipes or richer pigments. On the other hand, it is exactly this unpredictability that would bring enrichment for certain products and consumers.
Unstable color recipes could be mass-produced, but the industry doesn’t see a large enough market for it because it’s difficult to explain what you are selling to a consumer. We live in a color-starved world.
How do you hope your work impacts the way we experience color?
Through my work, I want to emphasize imperfections and irregularities as true qualities of materials, textiles and colors, as well as of the objects they result in. Colors and materials can evoke memories and create references. I want my work to have this effect.
The ultimate aim is to pit the power of color against the power of form.
Photography:© Vitra, Labadie/Van Tour