Why a 17th Century Phenomenon Is Key to Architecture Today

As odd as it sounds, in the ancient languages, humans did not even have names for colors. Today we have names to represent almost every nuance and shade, but hundreds of years ago, the words used to describe the visual experience we know as color were primarily derived from moods and included examples like lively, smart, dull, and dreary.

Today there are entire fields devoted to the study of color and its power in our lives. In fact, color theory is a major consideration in the world of modern architecture and design, but its roots date back to the 17th century when Sir Isaac Newton developed the color wheel, which became a central component of color theory.

Creatives today still depend on the color wheel for finding the right color blends to create the targeted aesthetic of a room or even an entire structure. Today’s color theory also incorporates concepts such as tint, hue, and shade.

Why does this matter in architecture? Because with color representing the union of art and science, these centuries-old notions are deeply rooted in the subconscious thoughts and feelings of humanity and are entrenched in long-accepted scientific truth. On an organic level, colors mirror our existing emotions and promote new ones, which is a fundamental goal of architectural design. According to Psychology Today, for example, red is tied to feelings of warmth and personal attractiveness, violet feels distinguished, green is creative, and blue evokes trustworthiness.

Colors not only impact our emotional responses in architecture; they also affect other perceptions in a space. Architects are cognizant of these phenomena too, and professionals integrate them in their planning.

For example, painting a ceiling in a darker shade than the walls creates the sensation of a lower space. In addition, if only one wall is painted a certain color, there is a “spatial shortening” effect, whereas if two of the four or more walls are painted that color, the room feels narrower. In the same vein, if the main wall and the ceiling are the same color, it expands a room visually. Architects play with these notions when they design a space.

The gold standard in color trends is the list released every year by the Pantone Color Institute. 2019’s hottest colors include 72 shades in 8 palettes, all inspired by “fetish foods.” Two palettes at opposite ends of the spectrum create the Classico and Cravings collections. Cravings include vibrant oranges, intense reds, and majestic purples and represent “maximalist” design choices. Classico’s colors are more elegant and understated, with charcoals, deep blues, and neutral greys. Pantone’s Color of the Year for 2019 is Living Coral, which the institute describes as “an animating life-affirming coral hue with a golden undertone that energizes and enlivens with a softer edge.”

While we have added hundreds of names to the color wheel since historic times, we have still taken our cues from the ancients, who named their shades for the feelings they evoked, and the resulting studies in psychology remain relevant today.

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