Interview with Authors of
“Pantone: The 20th Century in Full Color”

Looking for a Christmas present that a designer will appreciate? Try “PANTONE®: The 20th Century in Full Color” (Chronicle Books) by color experts Leatrice Eiseman and Keith Recker. The book takes readers on a color-palette tour of the last century presenting a decade-by-decade account of fads, fashions, films, social and art movements, objects, and events and the colors associated with them. Each subject is presented with color chips of the palette, complete with exact Pantone numbers — e.g., Buttercup Yellow (PANTONE 12-0752), Nile Green (PANTONE14-0121), Lipstick Red (PANTONE 19-1764). Perusing this book, it becomes apparent that color is very much a part of our collective memory, evoking a sense of time and place and the emotional climate of the era. It’s a unique way of seeing the 20th century.

Here authors Leatrice Eiseman, executive director of the Pantone Color Institute, and Keith Recker, Pantone color and trend consultant, join us for a brief interview.

Q. Has the number of available “commercial” colors proliferated over the centuries?
A. Yes, primarily because of newer technologies enabling color production. That said, the past is a colorful place, especially if you take a broad global view. Painters and dyers have always tried to emulate the full range of colors suggested by nature, with some success. What’s more colorful than the illuminated pages of the early 15th century manuscript Les Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, or certain 18th century Persian carpets, or certain late 19th and early 20th century Japanese kimonos. But once you hit the 20th-century, technology starts to go beyond nature. Technicolor, Day Glo and neon prefigure the backlit computer screen with their brilliance, and color is no longer dependent on the almost alchemical processes of mixing pigments and layering dyes. From a demographic point of view, the Industrial Revolution and its manufacturing techniques certainly made color available to more people, and having a broad range of colors to choose from is no longer the domain of the well-to-do!

Q. Do events or fads trigger new color trends — the discovery of King Tut’s tomb in the 1920s, for instance?
A. Absolutely. Metallic finishes proliferated after Tut’s tomb was discovered, and then again in the 1970s when the King Tut exhibition toured the U.S. For the first time, women were encouraged to wear metallic colors in shoes and handbags for daytime — a real departure from the old rule of metallics only in the evening.

Q. Are the dominant colors of an era a predictor of the national mood or does the national mood dictate what colors will be popular?
A. We think color is entirely dependent on the mood, on the zeitgeist. The imperial reds of the 1980s came out of a particular socio-political-emotional moment, and the earthy reds of the 1990s came out of a very different ethos. Both kinds of red are reflections of the general mood rather than predictors of it.

Q. Do colorists note emerging trends or inspire them? What indicators do you look at when forecasting the next season’s preferred colors?
A. Generally, we are inveterate trend-watchers, but we must stay well ahead of the curve to anticipate future trends. We look at new films or TV shows on the drawing board and note if, in fact, there is a big color story involved — Shrek green, for example. We look at both fine art and pop art and upcoming shows/displays. Who is the artist? What are his or her “signature” colors? We look to the food and beverage industry and to health movements like wellness. The proliferation of spas, for instance, can inspire color trends such as the choice of blue. Of course, emphasis on sustainability and environmentalism started a wave of greens in the 1990s that is continuing even today. The fashion industry is always a consideration and there are times when an unlikely industry becomes a leader in color trends — such as the iMac with its brightly colored monitors in the late 1990s. Also important are new technologies that enable certain color effects, such as polycarbonate chairs first done by Philippe Starck.

Q. In these economically trying times are certain colors more comforting to consumers? Does the public gravitate to colors that suit their glum mood or purposely choose uplifting ones to cheer themselves up?
A. Both things happen. Traditionally the “big ticket” items revert to more practical, neutral colors. But that does not preclude more color being used in less expensive products where there is more color to compensate for the lack of color in other more expensive areas.

Q. Has Pantone “retired” some colors in the deck since introducing its first color matching system in 1963 or does it just keep adding shades?
A. None are really “retired” as Pantone is the standard for many industries. New shades are added incrementally.

Q. Pantone recently forecast Tangerine Tango (PANTONE 17-1473) as the color of the year in 2012, whereas in 2011, the color was Honeysuckle (PANTONE 18-2120). Could you talk about what makes Tangerine Tango so special?
A. Tangerine Tango is sophisticated but at the same time dramatic and seductive. It’s an orange with a lot of depth to it. It marries the adrenaline rush of red with the friendliness and warmth of yellow, to form a high visibility, magnetic hue that emanates heat and energy.

Q. From season to season, how do colors compare? Is it evolutionary or are there dramatic shifts?
A. The season’s forecast is more evolutionary than revolutionary, particularly when people are being cautious and want to buy colors that coordinate with what they already own. There are exceptions when a color takes hold as in Pantone’s color of the year, and consumers are tempted to try a color that they had not readily adopted before. Trends do become tempting. That’s a good thing in the current marketplace.