In 1928, The Saturday Evening Post, then the US’s most popular illustrated weekly, heralded “The New Age of Color.” The US had caught a kaleidoscopic fever: pink-clad architecture, brilliant nitrocellulose lacquers, Sherwin-Williams paints promoting seasonal wall colors, Lincoln motor cars sparkling in shades of Nile-blue — even cutlery served in an overpowering hue. With the country suffering after WWI and the depression at the start of the decade, industry turned to theories on mood conditioning to shift product. Richly-tinted branding became all the rage as forecasters realized color spelled cash.
But the idea that color exerted influence was not “new,” although we could say there is something New Age about it. The color revolution emergence is chalked down to the color industry’s expansion after 1918, printing technology advances, and the practical application of color systems devised by chemists Wilhelm Ostwald and Michel Eugene Chevreul. But color’s popularity in the consumerist marketplace has arcane roots. As design researcher Jianne Whelton asked: “What privileged color that it should combine with the term psychology?” Color has infiltrated every aspect of our lives since the late 20th century, and one influence is the otherworldly musings of a Victorian mystic group. “Its transcendence as a spiritual marker by both Theosophy and spiritualism further enhanced its special status, ” she wrote.
Blending Hindu, Sikh, and Buddhist principles in a soup of Eastern philosophy, adding a dash of Neoplatonist hermeticism and social Darwinism, before stirring these ideas with a sprinkle of romanticism — one of theosophy’s clearer aims was to preach a spiritual transcendence. But while the group’s theories petered out, those on the spiritual force of color, written by the movement’s great British proponents Annie Besant and Charles Leadbeater in Thought Forms (1901), have not.
Their illustrative tome revolved around geometric logos and brilliantly colored diaphanous shapes, in what they considered a treatise on “atmospheric thought.” In their universe, the music of composers Wagner and Mendelssohn resonate in clouds of color exploding over parochial English churches. Clairvoyants could perceive an individual’s auras and said individuals could direct thoughts at others for “definitely marked effects.” Envisaged as a chromatic mental state, the “pure pale rose marks that absolutely unselfish love” could morph into the “dull crimson of animal love.” As a sort of manifesto for spiritual synesthesia, it was a novel book to publish before Modernism had even appeared.
But the fin de siècle occult leaders also did something else noteworthy. In Chromatic Modernity, academics Sarah Street and Joshua Yumibe described how the pair standardized color; their attempts dovetailing with a border shift in the commercial industry at the end of the 19th century that had allowed for mass production. “The Bauhaus is one of the prime examples of bringing these various currents together in their aims to develop a new form of artistic production for the industrial age,” Yumibe said in 1919, “yet many at the school also had occult roots.”
Esoteric knowledge thrived in modernist and avant-garde groups. Among others, artists Johannes Itten, Wassily Kandinsky, and László Moholy-Nagy all espoused theosophist doctrines as their work explored color consciousness through sensory experience, providing a route to the “spiritual realm through earthly sensations.” The message was that color had transcendent qualities.
European theater had become increasingly esoteric and color-drenched too. Art historian Stephen Eskilson made the case for “thought forms” influencing the heady experiments on stage. He writes of designers like Loie Fuller, Thomas Wilfred, and Joseph Urban using rays of 3D colored light to elevate simple stage sets into mystical uptopias that held transcendental associations for its audience. Of which the peak was Theosophist-follower Alexander Scriabin’s Prometheus: Poem of Fire, performed at New York’s Carnegie Hall in 1915. His production imagined tone C with red, and D with yellow, E with blue. The Russian synesthete exemplified the underlying connections between music, sound, and color that Annie Besant so ardently believed in. For Eskilson, “The spiritualist interest in synesthesia was part of the cultural matrix that brought colorful products into the mainstream.”
“The artists who were pioneering the modern movement in the visual arts looked widely for inspiration, breaking away from the old hierarchy of ‘high’ and ‘low’ that had long divided visual culture into fine art and decorative art,” said business historian Regina Lee Blaszczyk. In The Color Revolution, she details how between 1910—1940s, color experts would likewise display a radical “willingness to break down old barriers and to cross boundaries.”
That’s how set-designers quickly found themselves on new turf. Industrial designers Henry Dreyfuss, Norman Bel Geddes, and Lee Simpson all gained lucrative contracts in retail during the 1920s. And it was scenic designer Joseph Urban that led the ‘“riot of color” at the Century of Progress world’s fair in Chicago in 1933. “Color and light were manipulated to create an all-encompassing chromatic environment,” wrote Lee Blaszczyk, “that enveloped nighttime fair-goers into a high-technology world made possible only by the new electric lights and the new chemical paints.” When it closed, nearly 40 million fairgoers had been exposed to his rainbow-hued experiment in color conditioning.
As artists and designers would continue to work from the same palette, commodities absorbed the potent emotional force and value welded by the arts. Eskilson notes that many industrial designers in the 1920s were responsible for packaging and weren’t shy of colorful exuberance. Lifebuoy Soap, Bokar Coffee, Kotex, and Packer’s Pine Bar Shampoo all underwent a branding overhaul and saw sales leap. Food brands focussed on the sensate. The American Food Journal argued for a color-as-taste: “The color attracts the eye, desire is created, and the color increases the palatability because the taste nerves are stimulated.” Whereas homeware brands got personal: Mosaic tiles’s tagline was “First of all, color and individuality,” Florence Cockerham suggested a housewife could “radiate her own personality through the kitchen” (nowhere else, apparently), and the Crane company emphasized the “wizardy” of color in making small bathrooms, roomier.
“Color is a symbol of our new standard of life,” Assistant Secretary of Commerce Julius Klein exclaimed at the Washington meeting on color and the economy in 1930., “It is here to stay.” Color consulting had become a profession, a much-in-demand one at that. Powerful figures like H. Ledyard Towle, Arthur Allen, and Faber Birren appeared as color-welding prophets of consumer marketing, using shade cards and color-wheels (itself an instrument carrying in cosmological symbolism). But the theosophists’ ideas still lingered on the peripheries.
Birren, the “most authoritative source on color” according to The New York Times, put color to work. Self-taught, his early experiments included painting his bedroom in vermillion to test Old Wives’ tales that it caused insanity (after a week, he concluded the opposite). Later, he would turn around Chicago Wholesale Meat’s sales by giving the brand a blue backdrop, and work his magic on ailing pool table manufacturer by switching its product’s felt baize to purple. Although he detested quackery in color theory and liked sturdier theories, the library collections he donated to Yale and his book Selling with color (1945) reveal his occult reading materials. “Color … is more like religion,” he wrote in 1945. “It is in the blood, an essential part of the psychic make-up of an individual.” It’s a view that still resonates, even today.
Color runs away with us as it is extremely difficult to talk about it with any objective certainty. “If you believe a color has certain associations then it probably will make you feel those things,” writes Lauren MacDonald. The author of In Pursuit of Colour (Atelier Editions, 2023) explains, “it’s a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
Although the systems of Munsell, Oswalt et al used to systematize perceived color are still in use today, the way color is marketed today is tinted by the mystical. Color forecasting agencies like Pantone market the concept of a natural order in color theory. But Whelton writes that ‘color harmony’ has less in common with science than it does Besant’s ‘Thought Forms’. “As with more arcane divinations, a requisite ability on the part of those who predict color trends appears to be “sensitivity” to color.” It’s about conjuring the ephemeral mood of the zeitgeist.