The "White Cube" was never neutral

Color is not something we see, it is how we see. Color and visual space are inseparable to our sense of perception. Form first, then color? Never. We see form and design as a function of color contrasts. Color researcher Katrin Trautwein studies the relationships between color, light, and our perception of design and architectural space. In this interview, she tells us why she has no time for color trends and what she would like to change in the architectural use of color.

Anna Moldenhauer: Ms. Trautwein, you are the founder of artisan paint manufacturer kt.COLOR. You do color research and write books on color. What can you tell me about your work?

Katrin Trautwein: I am a chemist and as I was investigating color in Le Corbusier’s projects, I stumbled into a confusing cluster of topics pertaining to color, light and space. Color is the way we see the world around us. It is not an independently measured value, nor is it only a perception. The material aspects of color – the optical properties of paints and other surfaces – matter much more than we like to think. It is interesting that most architects feel more comfortable with every other construction material than with the one that determines the visibility, thus the reception of their architecture! In my books and webinars, I attempt to make the topic of color accessible to professionals and other interested audiences.

What particularly fascinated you about the color palette employed by architect and designer Le Corbusier?

Katrin Trautwein: Starting in 1931, Le Corbusier cooperated with the wallpaper manufacturer Salubra to produce a series of monochrome wallpapers. This was his method of standardizing color before the advent of color systems and paint mixing software. A remarkable sample book documented his color use, which made it very useful to me as a chemist. I could analyze the pigments – no other architect left a similar legacy. He also noted that these 43 colors are the most important ones to the serious architect. We obtained a sample book, analyzed the paint colors, and we were astonished. They were so different from the standardized colors we are now seeing everywhere!

What was the biggest difference between Le Corbusier’s paint colors and others?

We examined the differences and found out that the pigments available to architecture changed completely after about 1950. Le Corbusier was using different pigments: more natural ones, more mineral-based pigments, fewer petrochemical ones. We also found out that this single material difference has a huge impact on our perception of space. It really does matter whether the paint for white walls is an artificial titanium white, or a white made of the natural chalk the Champagne grapes grow on, which is our preferred white pigment. It’s not the hue that makes the biggest difference, it’s the material composition of the paint – the pigments in the can – and the tactile feel of the space. The way it feels to us. The idea that color and form are separate perceptions, and that color is an independent value comprised of hue, saturation and lightness, emerged after 1931. And it turns out to be wrong. We perceive color differences and evaluate their importance according to certain criteria that do not coincide with this measured value at all. We should never assume that a chair is a chair and that it will elicit the same emotional response no matter what color it is. Our perception depends on its immediate visual impact, and that is a function of the way it is colored. Our preferences are largely based on visual cues, meaning: color contrasts.

You were involved in restoring the famous E-1027 villa by Eileen Gray and Jean Badovici in the South of France, you identified and re-created the colors. What role did Gray attribute to color in this project?

Katrin Trautwein: Eileen Gray’s house represents an attempt to take the formalisms of Modernism and to transform them into something sensual, to give the soul more space for its needs. Colors were chosen to respond to the light, to the function, and to the location. Her white corresponds to the pebbles on the beach in front of the house. The pebbles pick up the light and reflect it to the same-colored walls in the interior, so the atmosphere of the time and the place permeates her space. A wonderfully dark, gray-blue is on surfaces facing the setting sun, so the fading light will pick up this half-dark color and create a mood of serenity. Her E-1027 establishes an intimate relationship between interior and exterior, between the rhythm of nature and the inhabitant. Color and material contrasts – natural paints, chrome tubing, furs, tiles, cork, aluminum, glossy surfaces and matt ones construct these relationships. When you entered her house, you first passed a light turquoise shade, then you rounded the corner, which was dark Prussian blue, and then you saw the deep blue ocean. It was like swimming from shallow water into medium depth water into the depths of the sea, a wonderful staging. Clever, witty effects like this one surprised you as you moved through her space, always making you wonder what would happen next. Her architecture created a sense of intimacy and wonder and connected you to the rhythms of nature and to the place.

This would not have been possible with all-white architecture?

Katrin Trautwein: White architecture was an attempt to get around the whole messy business of color. But white is a color too, and white architecture was never neutral, and these reductionist efforts to separate color from light and space are doomed. We use light to see color and color makes space visible. And white is the most visible color. The white cube is the worst imaginable background for subtle artworks. Bright, artificial whites force our pupils to contract, making it difficult to see subtle details. The more monochrome an environment is, the more it strains our eyes. Monochrome white spaces painted with bright, artificial titanium white – which is the only industrial white these days – are too bright, too devoid of contrasts, too loud, they cause sensory overload. This is not about esoteric back-to-nature stances, this is about the way we perceive our surroundings.

Auch in der Gestaltung von Orten für das neue Arbeiten wird die Farbe eine zentrale Rolle spielen – tragen Architekten aktuell die Fragestellung nach dem idealen New Work-Farbensemble an Sie heran?

Katrin Trautwein: Ja, immer mehr. Ich glaube der White Cube hat ausgedient. Ein Raum, der dem Auge schmeichelt, muss im Büro nicht anders aussehen als in der Wohnung. Je monochromer die Umgebung ist, umso künstlicher wirkt sie und ist zudem anstrengend für unsere Augen. Monochrom weiße Räume, die mit Titandioxid gestrichen sind, wie sie landauf, landab zu sehen sind, strengen unsere Augen sogar an.

Does this mean that when choosing colors for workspaces the focus should be on the way our eyes react to colors?

Katrin Trautwein: Exactly. Nature has adjusted our sense of vision to subtle contrasts. We adjust to brightness and to spectral differences, so we should avoid too light, too dark, too monochrome, and overfilled environments. If the color concept is harmonious, we see details better. We can concentrate on reading better if the desk top and the wall behind the computer screen are not the brightest surfaces around. They should be medium contrast. As color designers, we should think like a landscape gardener – if everything is the same, it is boring, but too many harsh contrasts make a setting too loud, in visual terms. Our evolutionary intelligence is fine-tuned the contrasts and materials in nature. If we base our color concepts on these, we will feel better in the space.

What do you think about annual color trends?

Katrin Trautwein: They are silly. If a space is pleasing and functional, there’s no point in constantly changing its color. I would never encourage people to change a color because of a trend, that isn’t a sustainable practice.

What do you like about natural paint colors?

Katrin Trautwein: If you look at samples of natural pigments under a microscope, the colors are always spectacular. Nature does not create monocultures, color in nature is a speckled, variegated, extravagant affair. This diversity lends every natural surface the ability to reflect any other color – that’s why natural flowers always match. Thus, natural paint colors react to changes in the daylight, they pick up the full spectrum of light reflections. We rely on natural pigments wherever we can, they are our specialty. Synthetic pigments are not as subtle, and they cannot achieve these full-spectrum-effects. When we do use synthetic pigments, we blend them with natural ones to create full-spectrum effects.

Which aspects of the way color is used in architecture and design would you like to change?

Katrin Trautwein: I wish that the subject of color would be taken more seriously. It makes no sense to invest a great deal of time and money in form and structure, only to paint everything with an artificial white. This will make everything look clinical and the building will not age gracefully. I would like to see color design firmly rooted in the curriculum of architecture. Designers need to learn what color really is and how it works for them, how the translation to screen color works, and how closely linked our immediate, visceral reactions to a place are to its color design. I would like to have the world know that materials matter all of the time, in color design and in nature. Color is the single, most important source of information for our spontaneous reaction to our surroundings. Color concepts should be created with wisdom and discernment, they should not be left to an artificial white or to color psychology! I would like to see architecture feel comfortable about the fascinating phenomenon called color.
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