The Secret Lives of Color

Chirp Book Club
The echoes of history inhabit the world of color

The Secret Lives of Color by Kassia St. Clair is a unique collection of 75 short essays, arranged in rainbow order, each detailing the history of a fascinating shade, dye or hue.

Though I read it for the first time 6 years ago, I think about this book all the time, whether pondering the way light is filtered through the atmosphere, studying the textiles in my wardrobe and home, or appreciating the hidden histories of the colors all around me. Take the color puce: I had always thought of puce as a nauseating green best suited 70’s appliances. But, as St. Clair explains, puce is actually a dusty rose color that was popularized by Marie Antoinette in 1770’s France. Disgusted that she was trying on extravagant gowns during a wave of civil unrest, King Louis XVI referred to her gown as being the “couleur de puce”, or the “color of fleas”. Instead of being chastened by her husband’s words, Marie Antoinette doubled down, and within a matter of days the color became the unofficial uniform of every lady in court. So when you wear that muted pink, you might be giving off feminist rebellion vibes with just a hint of the 1%.

Whiteness and all gray Colors between white and black, may be compounded of Colors, and the whiteness of the Sun’s Light is compounded of all the primary Colors mix’d in due Proportion.

Sir Isaac Newton

Before launching into the individual colors, St. Clair addresses color in general with introductory sections on how we as humans see, light theory, artist’s pigments, the politics of color, and the way words shape what we see. In a particularly enlightening section she explains how Newton was the first to not only split light into a spectrum with a prism (a parlor trick that was already common practice), he then used a second prism to reconvert the spectrum into white light. This revelation that white light is actually a combination of all the colors together, was controversial even in Newton’s time, when white light was considered pure and sacred, and even mixing of colors had been frowned upon just a few centuries earlier. This introduction also addresses the mystery of why white is the result of mixing all colors of light together, while the mixing of all paint colors together yields an opposite result, black paint.

Without paint in tubes there would have been…nothing of what journalists were later to call impressionists.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir
Other highlights include:
  • Chrome yellow – a pigment developed in the 1800’s just in time for Van Gogh’s sunflowers, made possible by the discovery of a scarlet-orange mineral in a Siberian gold mine and perfected by a French chemist who discovered chromium, which means “color” in greek.
  • Baker-Miller pink – an eponymous Pepto-Bismol shade used by two naval officers, Gene Baker and Ron Miller to paint their holding cells, thereby keeping prisoners more docile. It’s ability to sap the strength and aggression from a viewer became so widely accepted it caused football teams all over the country to paint their visitor locker rooms Baker-Miller pink, to the point where colleges had to make a rule that you could only paint your visitor locker room…well, any other color.
  • Cochineal – this scarlet color infused the regalia of the powerful, from Incan kings to the vestments of the Vatican’s clergy. Cochineal comes from the dried bodies of a tiny insect called the cocci and it takes up to 70,000 of them to make one pound of the raw dye. We still harvest it today for use in cosmetics and food (that Red E120 in your M&M’s and Cherry Coke), although Starbucks no longer uses it in their strawberry Frappuccinos after an outcry from vegans.
Like color, Innovation is nuanced and layered

One of the most satisfying aspects of designing and facilitating innovation sessions at Chirp is the nuanced and layered approach that is needed for each individual objective. Like untangling the history and mystery of a color, each objective has a wealth of context and complexity that needs to be understood before activities and materials can be designed. Like a painting, an Innovation session at Chirp is created stroke by stroke, combining elements from previous research, cross-category inspiration, purchase considerations, etc. and creating compositional balance by including activities that appeal to different styles of learning, draw out both close-in and far-out ideas, and ensure all output is suited to the strategic objectives and reporting needs. The Secret Lives of Color reminds me that Innovation is not linear, it’s a network of considerations that operates on may levels, all at once.