- The Color Revolution by Regina Lee Blaszczyk
The phrase in this book’s title initially appeared in print in a 1929 issue of Fortune magazine, a few months after the huge financial crash that launched the Great Depression. It announced that there was an ongoing “color revolution,” a widespread adoption of color in industrial products, resulting in “apricot autos, blue beds, and mauve mops.”
Ironically, this book also documents that, in another sense, this was not so much a “revolution” as an “evolution,” the stirrings of which can be traced to the early 19th century. It was massively encouraged by the Industrial Revolution, in the interior uses of color at the Crystal Palace Exhibition (the first World’s Fair in 1851), the invention of synthetic dyes, and chromolithographic prints and packaging.
It was also about “evolution” because in part it was empowered by the theories of Charles Darwin, whose much-debated writings about natural selection prompted an increase of interest in the survival function of colors and patterns in natural forms. Was conspicuous coloration a means by which to find a mate? At the same time, did subdued coloration contribute to concealment? One consequence of this exchange was the rise of modern theories about “protective coloration” in nature, which in World War I acquired the name of “camouflage.” In turn, this led to chatter about “warning coloration,” such as zoologist Hugh B. Cott’s remark that the traffic commission “has adopted a system of coloration whose copyright belongs by priority to wasps and salamanders.”
A recurring theme throughout this book, one that this author plays up from beginning to end, is that modern applications of color have developed hand in hand with advances in camouflage. Indeed, it is even contended that, at the end of World War I, former U.S. camouflage experts (both Army and Navy) “applied their knowledge of visual deception to product design and created a new profession: the corporate colorist.” If a person has the [End Page 298] wherewithal to conceal an object, he or she can also make that same object conspicuous, through reverse engineering. As this book points out repeatedly, the uses of color in product design were based on the inversion of camouflage techniques—in the words of American artist (and WWI camoufleur) H. Ledyard Towle, it was “reverse camouflage.”
Who was Harold Ledyard Towle? This book tells us quite a lot (he was a central participant in the color revolution), but another source is a brief news story that appeared in the same year as the Fortune article, but months before the market crashed. Originating from Detroit—where Towle was the “color engineer” for General Motors, working beside Harley Earl—and based on an interview with him, the article reveals how Towle had migrated from his former life as a portrait painter to a lucrative, far more rewarding career as a “corporate colorist.”
According to Towle, it was the war that reshaped his career. Like hundreds of other Allied artists, designers and architects, he had served as a camouflage artist in France. Before that, while still in New York, he had taught a three-month course for the Women’s Reserve Camouflage Corps. “I went into the war,” he explained, “thinking art belonged to the chosen few. I came out knowing that it belonged to every urchin in the street. Working on wartime camouflage problems taught one how to use color with a purpose. I saw the futility of painting portraits to collect dust in museums, and turned to the camouflaging industry and its products of everyday life.”
To be candid, judging from his paintings (one of which is reproduced), Towle was not an exceptional painter. Even if he had been, his career as a self-employed artist, like those of other American Impressionists, would not have survived the tsunami of the Armory Show and the ascendancy of Modernism. In the news article, he offers a far more ebullient spin: “The automobile manufacturers and plumbing magnates are rivaling the Medici of old as...