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In the March / April edition of Azure, Latvian designer Germans Ermičs ruminated on how many – even within his own industry – overlook the importance of colour. A lot of people are afraid of it, but colour can really transform a space or how an object is perceived,” he said. “We often see it as a last step in the design process, as just a finish.”

Ermičs, for his part, bends, shapes and twists colour in surprising ways. And he’s in a long lineage of designers, artists and even scientists who have fixated on the elusive power of colour – which is the subject of Saturated: The Allure and Science of Color, an exhibit that opens at New York’s Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum on May 11.

Assembling 190 artifacts, the exhibit traces a path between antiquity and the modern era through an exploration of how thinkers have ordered, manipulated and interpreted colour. Drawn from the Smithsonian Libraries’ and Cooper Hewitt’s vast collections, the show will be organized into seven different sections, co-curated by librarian Jennifer Cohlman Bracchi and Susan Brown, associate curator of textiles at Cooper Hewitt.

Jean-Francois Persoz, Traité théorique et pratique de l’impression des tissus (1805-1868)

Capturing Colors displays nearly 40 rare books, each depicting attempts to systemize, define and measure colours. Works by Sir Isaac Newton, Johann Wolfgang Goethe and French chemist Jean-Francois Persoz (shown above) are on display. Elsewhere, Colour Optics explores how designers and artists play with how a colour is perceived by its viewer – including experimentations in iridescence, light and image processing.

Left: Tiffany and Co., Peacock Vase Vase (1901). Right: J.B. Schmetterling, (Butterfly) Hanging Lamp, (2011).

Saturated: The Allure and Science of Color also examines the applications of colour in the material world. The Creating Colors collection looks at historical and contemporary ways to produce hues, from dye to 3D printing, while Color and Form uses four textile samples to show how colour can deceive the eye and throw into question our spatial relationships (we imagine this is Brown’s domain, considering her work with Cooper Hewitt’s textiles).

Cooper Hewitt also analyzes more pragmatic purposes for colour – namely, way finding. Navigating Design evidences the role it can play to effectively communicate and guide us through spaces (including Massimo Vignelli’s now-iconic colour-coding of the New York subway line), while Colour Collaboration reveals the tools that industries like fashion, furniture and interiors use to create successful productions, and also how trend forecasters intuit what colour we’ll be loving next year (and the year after that).

Left: Massimo Vignelli, Beatriz Cifuentes and Yoshiki Waterhouse, New York City Subway Map (2008). Right: David Tisdale, Picnic Flatware Place Setting (1986)

The installation we’re most excited to see at Saturated, however, fixates on product design. Consumer Choice tells how colour is used to brand, market and seduce the public eye in order to eventually sell products – and in this context, the exhibit displays the powerful beauty of everyday objects.

Apple Industrial Design Team and Jonathan Ive, iMac Computer With Keyboard And Mouse (1999)

For instance, it’s easy to take Apple’s Jony Ive for granted, considering his designs grace desktops and jacket pockets worldwide. But when viewing a 1999-era iMac in a gallery setting, its fruit-inspired plastic casings remind us of the brand’s inspirations – namely, the influence of ’70s-era Italian industrial design and Dieter Rams. Elsewhere, the Henry Dreyfus Associates-designed Signature Princess Telephone, which was initially marketed to young women, could double as a millennial-pink showpiece.

Henry Dreyfuss Associates, Signature Princess Telephone (1993).

Saturated is surely a reminder of, as Ermičs suggested, the transformative power of colour.

Saturated: The Allure and Science of Color opens on May 11 and runs until January 13, 2019 at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum in New York City.

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