Golden Thrones

At the start of every week I begin to investigate a topic for my Thursday post. Usually I’m at a loss for an idea and just as I’m ready to panic one emerges. On Monday, after several hours searching online for inspiration I realized I had hit a wall and the best solution was to go on a long walk. As I waited for my walking partner to get ready I leaned against the wall in my living room and stared mindlessly into space. That was when I noticed the small shaped wooden panel wrapped in lead and partially covered in gold leaf. Made by an artist friend, I’ve had it for years and like all things that become familiar I’d forgotten how much I like it. Gold and lead. Heaven and earth. Alchemy.

Here was an idea – the use of gold, either cast as solid metal or used in fine sheets. There is a long history of the use of gold – employed and revered by ancient civilizations, found in religious paintings and manuscripts, topic and material in conceptual works of the 20th and 21st centuries. A year’s worth of blog postings would barely scratch the surface. Time to narrow my focus. I could look at an artist like Yves Klein or perhaps discuss Joseph Beuy’s performance piece, “How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare.” Maybe the solution would be an investigation of Indian miniatures.

roll of gold leaf toilet paper

I began to type into the google search bar variations such as “art and gold” and “gold objects.” Still too broad. Things got interesting when I entered “odd gold objects.” That was when I found a roll of toilet paper worth over a million dollars – can this be true? What else? A solid gold coffin. Numerous edibles, from pills to cheese. Solid gold shirts costing close to half a million dollars.

From all this wealth of information and imagery I’ve plucked one contemporary artwork to discuss today. More will follow in a future post.

artist Maurizio Cattelan's 18-karat functioning gold toilet

After showing you an image of gold leaf toilet paper, which may have been an advertising ploy, it’s only natural that I’d select artist Maurizio Cattelan’s “America,” a fully functioning 18-karat gold toilet, for further discussion.

Cattelan is known as a joker who uses biting humor to interrogate difficult social and political situations. He conceived of “America” in 2015, about the time Donald Trump decided to run in the presidential election. It’s not clear if this project was a direct response to Trump, who is famous for his bad taste – gilded and gold objects everywhere, including a private jet with solid gold sinks and faucets (the Guardian has even described his Trump Tower penthouse as “something that King Midas threw up after a big night out on the shandies”). Regardless, the timing of the piece, like that of much of Cattelan’s work, was perfect, appearing to predict and respond to the future.

The toilet cost millions of dollars to produce and was designed as a year-long installation at the Guggenheim Museum in New York. Available for public use and installed in a gender neutral restroom with a guard outside the door, over 100,000 people stood in long lines to make use of this golden throne. Cattelan called the toilet “one-percent art for the ninety-nine percent.”

There is an excellent article about the project written by Guggenheim curator Nancy Spector, which I suggest you read, but I want to include this short excerpt – “America,” like all his greatest work, is at once humorous and searing in its critique of our current realities. Though crafted from millions of dollars’ worth of gold, the sculpture is actually a great leveler. As Cattelan has said, “Whatever you eat, a two-hundred-dollar lunch or a two-dollar hot dog, the results are the same, toilet-wise.”

The story doesn’t end with the deinstallation of the piece. Like many Presidents before him Trump requested the loan of an artwork from the Museum, to be hung in his private quarters in the White House. Being Trump he wanted an exorbitantly valuable painting, “Landscape With Snow,” by Vincent van Gogh. Spector politely informed him that the painting was already committed to another show and was overwise not allowed to travel. Generously, she offered him Cattelan’s “America,” the perfect reflection of Trump’s “Make America Great Again” philosophy.

Ballsy. Makes me believe that maybe good and great things can happen in America again if we all stand up whenever and wherever we can and yell, “You are an obscene and ignorant fool who needs to be removed from office!” Let’s unseat him from his golden throne.

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IKEA Update

Yesterday on a walk with a friend she told me about a recent purchase of a new lamp. She was less than pleased and thus began a discussion of what went wrong. She’d purchased the reading light from a retail chain known for cheap prices but good design. In ads the items always look great but in person the materials used and the production quality tell a different story. The products are often versions of pricier things found in better stores. This led us to a discussion of the difference between this store and one like IKEA, which also produces inexpensively made goods.

In thinking about why one works when the other doesn’t I realized that in one instance an attempt is made to copy the style of an existing object while in the other the design is closely linked to the materials and the means of production. In this latter instance the works don’t mimic more expensive items. Thus, there’s no comparison made and the piece stands on its own.

After returning home I took a hot shower. Warm and clean I sat in my most comfortable chair, actually from IKEA, pulled out my iPad and discovered that Ingvar Kamprad, the founder of IKEA, had just died. And that leads us to today’s post, a re-post of an article we published in June.

A Brief Look At IKEA Design

Editors Note: This may seem like an ad for IKEA but for those of you interested in the field of design this post will give you an idea of the design concerns of one company. Aesthetics are only part of the picture. Issues of resourcing, global economies, and environmental impact are of equal concern.

Whenever I drive on the freeway, north out of Oakland, I pass a giant IKEA store with its instantly recognizable blue and yellow exterior.

I’ve spent hours inside this Emeryville IKEA wandering along their convoluted pre-determined shopping path on my way to the big warehouse and checkout area. Over the years I’ve come to own a fair number of their items – large and small and they are in nearly every room of my house.

exterior view of an IKEA store

So that brings me to the point of this blogpost… Lets take a quick look at IKEA and its design vision.

They were founded in 1943 in Sweden by Ingvar Kamprad (the “I K” of IKEA).

There are approximately 200,000 employees and over 390 stores located in 48 countries. In 2016 IKEA generated nearly $39 billion USD (34.2 billion Euro) in sales.

The company’s products are so ubiquitous in Europe it has been estimated that 1 out of every 10 people living there was conceived on a bed sold by IKEA.

IKEA is also the third largest consumer of lumber and wood byproducts in the world (behind Home Depot and Lowes but ahead of Walmart).

The overall esthetic of IKEA’s products is minimalist, inspired by Scandinavian Modern Design. Their items celebrate functionality and downplay embellishment. They have uncluttered lines, basic patterns and simple color/value combinations. The metal, wood, plastic or fabric used to make a typical IKEA product is never disguised, but rather featured as a main component of the design.

IKEA desk and chair

This sparse, straightforward look helps give the company’s products a universal appeal. With few exceptions, what they sell in China and Australia is the same as what they sell in France and the United States.

The clean functional look of IKEA furniture also helps individual pieces fit into a wide range of home decor styles. My house, for example, is furnished with an eclectic mix of antiques, collectibles, original artworks and purely functional objects my wife and I have acquired over the years. The clear acrylic chairs and the bold black and white rug we purchased from IKEA are perfect counterpoints to a large traditional dining room table we inherited.

Although the overall design of most IKEA products is consistently spare and functional the company works with in-house and freelance designers to keep their inventory fresh. They regularly produce a PS Collection of more adventurous items and this year they are collaborating with costume designer and fashion activist Bea Åkerlund (think Madonna, Katy Perry and Lady Gaga) to produce accent and display objects.

In order to keep their design and marketing efforts on track IKEA sends teams of researchers into the field to conduct home visits with customers. During their visits the team asks about a wide range of topics that might include how the customer interacts with their own home, what new products would make their daily life more productive or rewarding, and the customer’s impression of their last visit to an IKEA store.

In 2015 IKEA produced a report titled Life At Home. This document is based on a survey of over 8,000 people in eight cities around the world. It found – among many interesting insights – that morning is the most stressful part of the day for urbanites and that New Yorkers prefer to select their next day work clothes the night before. It also found that 52% of the people surveyed enjoyed cooking in the company of other people. The results of the survey have already influenced the development and design of new products.

This concern for how a product fits into the real world also influences the way IKEA approaches the sourcing of raw materials and their general emphasis on sustainability. For example, IKEA uses recycled PET plastics from disposable bottles to make quilts and pillows. They use bamboo when possible to create a hardwood alternative for furniture. They also design and sell water-saving kitchen faucets and energy-saving appliances. All of the lighting IKEA sells is LED that uses 85% less energy and lasts up to 20 years.

IKEA kitchen design

One part of IKEA design that gets a lot of attention is their flat packaging. It originated in the 1950s when an employee removed the legs from an end table in order to fit it into their car. Compacting the form of a piece of furniture for shipping and handling soon became a major goal.

Today when you buy a piece of IKEA furniture from their store it comes in a plain rectangular cardboard box. Inside the box is the unassembled piece of furniture and necessary hardware arranged in the most efficient way imaginable. The packaging is so efficient there is never a need for extra padding. It is a brick.

In addition to the furniture and hardware in the box there is an assembly instruction sheet that uses hieroglyphic style diagrams. Using the diagrams as a cryptic guide customers work their way through the assembly process and become active partners in creating their new piece of furniture.

The picture-only instruction sheet is one more concession to IKEA’s international marketing efforts and efficient use of resources. It is also the inspiration for many stand-up comedians and online commenters both positive and negative.

The emphasis on affordable, minimalist design influenced by customer input – what IKEA calls “democratic design” – combined with sustainability and efficient packaging/handling is a complex endeavor. I think IKEA does a spectacular job of orchestrating and managing all these design challenges.

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The Design of Movies

Everybody loves movies. They entertain us. They transport us in our imaginations to exotic and adventurous places and times. And nearly everyone has a particular movie or two that will always be associated with some life-defining experience.

Commercial movies shown in theaters around the world are usually multi-million dollar projects created by enormous teams of talented collaborators. Because of their scale, complexity and star-studded casts it’s hard to compare a movie to other artworks created by relatively obscure individuals working on a modest scale with only a reasonable budget.

But it is possible to find some commonalities between movies and conventional artworks. We can also learn to see movies in ways that are similar to how we look at paintings and sculptures.

In this blog post let’s look at two websites that can help movie goers recognize the use of design and other specific elements in big budget feature films. The videos at both sites are easy to understand and enjoyable to watch. If you love going to movies I’m sure you’ll like what these sites have to offer.

The first site is 35mm – A Group for Cinephiles moderated by Andris Damburs, a Latvian cinematographer. The group has 18,000 members and the site offers over 3,000 videos for you to watch. Here you’ll find video essays and analysis of a huge variety of classic films and current releases. There are also videos discussing ground breaking television series such as Game of Thrones.

Let’s look at a few examples…

In the video below you can see how the director Guillermo del Toro uses color harmonies to reinforce the intent of particular scenes in his popular movies. This video was made by the folks at who create and sell project management software for video and film makers.

Mastering the Movie Color Palette: Guillermo del Toro from StudioBinder on Vimeo.

If you are reading this in e-mail click here to see the video.

Here is a link to an article written by studiobinder that contains additional information.

The next video by Zackery Ramos-Taylor superimposes a diagram over a series of brief clips to demonstrate the use of symmetry in the Amazon TV series “Patriot.”

Patriot – The Symmetric Frame from Zackery Ramos-Taylor on Vimeo.

If you are reading this in e-mail click here to see the video.

Our final example is by Fabriccio Diaz and illustrates the use of shifting selective focus to make a single camera setup serve multiple purposes. It’s a technique unique to movies and a very effective way to incorporate the design element of space into a scene.

Depth of field (Montage) by Fabriccio Díaz from Fabriccio Díaz on Vimeo.

If you are reading this in e-mail click here to see the video.

The second website is Every Frame a Painting. This is really a YouTube channel created by Taylor Ramos and Tony Zhou. It consists of 28 short video essays that they made between 2014 and 2016. Although Ramos and Zhou are no longer adding to their collection the channel currently has over a million subscribers and is considered one of the best sets of cinema critiques available online.

Here are two examples…

In this first video we see the sophisticated use of dividing a single visual frame into quadrants and then using the subdivisions as smaller movies within a movie that interact with each other. The film being critiqued is Nicolas Winding Refn’s “Drive.”

If you are reading this in e-mail click here to see the video.

The final video focuses on the use of music in movies, particularly films made from Marvel comic books. It’s interesting to note that some movie music is memorable and other scores are merely functional.

If you are reading this in e-mail click here to see the video.

These are just two websites that explore the components of movies in ways that are similar to how we examine and consider studio art. When you focus on the contributions and techniques of specific artists/craftsmen who have contributed to a movie you get a much more intimate view of the process.

If you are interested in exploring this topic in more depth, both Vimeo and YouTube have dozens of options to watch and enjoy.

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Amsterdam Light Festival

Here in the northern hemisphere it’s Winter with cold temperatures and long nights. This is a perfect time for a festival celebrating art and light, and that’s exactly what the city of Amsterdam hosts every year from the end of November to the end of January.

This year’s Amsterdam Light Festival marks the sixth year for the event. Each year a different group of artists, designers and architects create light-based sculptures and installations that are exhibited along the canals in the center of the city. Some artworks float in the water, some line the banks, and others span over the waterways.

For the first time, this year’s festival also includes sculptures and installations exhibited beyond the canals. Of the 36 total artworks included in the official event, 15 pieces are exhibited on dry land at Marineterrien, an historic naval dock located on an island a short walk from Amsterdam’s Central Station.

Every year the Amsterdam Light Festival has a theme and this year’s theme is “Existential.” Next year the theme will be “The Media Is The Message.”

Let’s look at the work of a few artists…

Included in this year’s festival are artworks by the Chinese artist/activist Ai Weiwei, the Sri Lankan/British artist/designer/engineer Cecil Balmond, and American artists Lauren Ewing and Ben Zamora.

Ai Weiwei has created a 6.5 kilometer red line that runs though the exhibition area. The piece is titled “thinline” and is a statement about borders that mark the outside edges of things as well as borders that separate people and places.

Ai Weiwei 6.5 kilometer line that runs through an outdoor art exhibition

Cecil Balmond is represented by a partially submerged floating pyramid titled “Infinata.” The form appears to be fractured revealing a crystalline interior. It poses the question: Does the essence of existence lie exclusively in what we can see and touch or is there more beneath the surface or hidden inside?

Cecil Balmond outdoor art installation of submerged floating pyramid

Lauren Ewing’s sculpture “Lightwave” rests on the bank of a canal. Ewing has long been interested in global warming and other environmental issues. This sculpture suggests water rising from its current level until it covers the banks and obscures its surroundings – a particularly poignant statement in a country already largely below sea level.

Lauren Ewing outdoor light sculpture

Ben Zamora’s computer controlled sculpture is titled “Myth.” It consists of a tight grid of short horizontal, vertical and diagonal lines. The lines of light turn off and on in random sequences that start slowly and build to a frenetic pace. The sculpture suggests language in a variety of forms from petroglyphs to the printed page to graffiti.

Ben Zamora computer controlled outdoor light installation

Here is a short video by showing more of the festival’s artworks. In the video you can see the sculptures and installations as a visitor to the festival would see them. For those of you reading this blog post in e-mail click here to see the video.

Follow this link to learn more about the Amsterdam Light Festival.

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Design Exercise:Texture

In several recent posts we’ve discussed artists who use the design element of texture. I’m asking you to put the new knowledge you’ve gained from those posts to use.

The best way to begin to do this is by reviewing Chapter 5 (Texture) in our book “Design: A Beginner’s Handbook.” In addition, at the end of today’s blog I’ve included links to some prior posts that you may find useful. I’ve also included images in this post of several art works by professional artists who use texture in unexpected ways.

Meret Oppenheim fur lined teacup and fur lined spoon

Meret Oppenheim

I am proposing that you create two responses to this exercise, one using real three-dimensional objects, and the other using two-dimensional media (drawing, painting, or collage) and simulated texture.

Mona Hatoum welcome mat made of straight pins

Mona Hatoum

Working with a three-dimensional object change its nature, and or function, by altering its texture. The fur-lined teacup shown above might feel smooth and sensual against your lips but wouldn’t be very useful for sipping tea. And that carpet made of pins is hardly welcoming. Both of these examples have shock value because they are so foreign and defy our expectations. At the same time, they help us see the true nature of the original unaltered object by negating its function.

Ann Hamilton performance in toothpick suit

Ann Hamilton

Think carefully about what object and new texture you combine. See if you can do more than just surprise us. Would a rug made of pumpkins be as effective as one made of pins? Probably not. Ask yourself, what is the essence of the object? How can I negate or reinforce that? What am I trying to say i.e. do I want to make a political statement or one about aesthetics?

Vera Lehndorff trompe-l'oeil body painted to blend into decaying building

Vera Lehndorff and Holger Trulzsch

The collaborative piece shown above is a combination of actual and simulated textures. Vera Lehndorff’s body has been meticulously painted in a trompe-l’oeil fashion, camouflaging her and allowing her to hide in plain sight. (The final work is presented in photographic form.)

In the first part of this exercise you work with actual texture. In this second part you’ll use simulated texture – which can include trompe-l’oeil and faux finishes. You will work on a two-dimensional surface using paint, drawing media or collage – or a combination of these mediums.

Istvan Orosz print of globe with the surface of a brain

Istvan Orosz

You can use any of the three types of simulated texture we discuss in our book – objective, abstract or invented. Do you want to alter all of the things shown in your drawing or only select items? If your intent is to create a fantasy environment then maybe everything should have unique textures, for example, a world where the land is made of candy. If you want to make a political statement changing only one primary element in a scene might be the answer.

IC4Design colored print of a cityscape made of candy, pencils, and toys with cotton candy trees


Please share what you make with us on our Facebook page.

And now for some links to past posts:

Texture As Material And Metaphor

The Art of Carving Food

Fool The Eyes: Artists Who Use Their Skills To Challenge Our Perception (Part 2)

Fool The Eyes: Artists Who Use Their Skills To Challenge Our Perception (Part 3)

Time and the Construction of an Uncanny Beauty

The Mystery of the Mundane: The Art of Tara Donovan

Jelly Buildings and Waterfalls of Chocolate: Bompas and Parr

Eat Your Art

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Texture As Material And Metaphor

In several recent posts we’ve discussed the design element of texture. I want to add to that discussion by presenting the work of two additional artists, Alexandra Kehayoglou and Sigalit Landau.

Alexandra Kehayoglou handwoven runway carpet based on nature

Argentinian artist Alexandra Kehayoglou is known for her elaborately tufted works that utilize traditional rug making techniques. Born into a famous carpet making family, Kehayoglou has branched out, producing nature inspired works that, as she states, reflect her “interest and consciousness about the environment – full of endangered species, and our cultural heritage.

Alexandra Kehayoglou handwoven floor and wall carpet made to look like a forest scene, includes a swing

Working with a “tufting gun” and yarn remnants from her family’s carpet factory Kehayoglou creates work that mimics the textures and patterns found throughout the natural world. What makes her work so powerful is the disconnect that occurs when lush forested environments are transferred to man-made interior spaces.

Alexandra Kehayoglou and MVRDV large indoor installation of woven textiles that mimic a forest

detail, Alexandra Kehayoglou and MVRDV large indoor installation of woven textiles that mimic a forest

The images shown above represent her collaboration with the Danish architecture firm MVRDV (whom we profiled in an earlier post about the Tianjin Binhai Library in China). Created for the Jut Group in Taipei the project has been called “a green dream” that brings the natural world into the urbanized center of the city. This soothing green oasis functions on multiple levels, one of which is to act as a natural acoustic modulator that dampens the external sounds in this space designed as a lecture hall.

Sigalit Landau salt encrusted tutu

If Alexandra Kehayoglou can be seen as a type of trompe l’oeil artist who fabricates replicas of nature, then Israeli artist Sigalit Landau should be viewed as an interventionist who uses natural processes to make highly metaphorical works of art.

Sigalit Landau salt encrusted tutu

Landau was raised overlooking the Dead Sea and it has continued to capture her imagination. It embodies both her personal memories and those found in cultural myths and history. She has used the lake as a site for performances and photographs, and to make densely salt encrusted sculptural objects.

Sigalit Landau process of creating salt encrusted objects in the Dead Sea

Using the hyper-saline environment of the Dead Sea, Landau suspends objects on elaborate armatures in its waters. It is not as straightforward as it may seem. First, the extreme saturation levels of the salt make things float so she has had to develop a system to keep the objects completely covered by water. Once suspended, nature takes over and becomes a collaborator in the making of the work. Salt crystals begin to form on the object’s surface and after several months of immersion the work is ready to be removed. At this point another problem presents itself. The sculptures have become both extremely heavy and very delicate. Some works are photographed in place over the months of their creation and cannot be moved while others survive as intact sculptures.

Sigalit Landau, gallery view of her salt encrusted sculptures

Salt is a magical material. It destroys and preserves. It’s necessary for life, but too much can be deadly. It is found in cleansing rituals in a diverse array of cultures. It has been the subject of myth – we all remember the story of Lot’s wife who was turned into a pillar of salt. With salt there is an alchemy at work that transforms ordinary objects into bejeweled wonders.

Landau has alluded to the submersion of objects in the Dead Sea as a baptism. On her website she states, “Baptizing profane objects in its waters, Landau relies on the Dead Sea to breathe life into inanimate objects, which emerge from their submersion as if belonging to a different time system, a different logic, or another planet yet their transformation unveils the divine and the eternal in nature.

Siglait Landau, two photographs from her installation series The Bride

The photographs above are from Landau’s series “The Salt Bride.” To read more about this specific project click on this link to a useful article in the New York Times.

Texture is an integral part of many works of art. In the work of the two artists just discussed, it is essential. In one case it is part of an illusionary recreation of the natural world while in the other it structurally knits together material and memory.

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Happy Holidays

We will be spending the next two weeks overeating, hanging out with friends and family, watching corny Christmas movies, and generally indulging ourselves in every way we can imagine.

For this reason you’ll need to wait until the new year for more original posts about art and design.

Here are a couple of suggestions. Consider giving our book, Design:A Beginner’s Handbook, as a holiday gift. While you’re at it, download a copy for yourself. The book can be viewed on any Apple product – computer, iPhone or iPad.

Hopefully you aren’t as slothful as we are. Think about using this time to read some of our old posts. 2018 will mark our third year writing this blog and that means there is plenty of holiday reading.

Join us in making a wish for a better world in 2018. Become an activist and turn that wish into a reality.

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The Art of Carving Food

As we get close to the end of another year it’s time for entertaining friends and preparing festive meals. In that spirit, let’s discuss the art of carving fruits and vegetables…because you know this blog looks at design wherever we find it.

Pre-historic peoples carved all kinds of edibles including bones, shells and nuts. Today’s children and adults carve pumpkins for Halloween. And there is a well-established international community of gourd carvers.

In other words this is an ancient and universal practice.

For today’s blog post let’s look at some interesting versions of this artform and see examples from three countries.

The first example comes from Thailand where the appearance of prepared food – particularly ceremonial food – is as important as its taste. The practice of carving fruits and vegetables into elaborate floral and decorative motifs originated in the 13th century Royal Palace during special events such as Songkran, the Thai New Year.

Today the craft is taught in all levels of Thai schools and colleges. It can also be seen in high end Thai restaurants around the world.

fruit carved to look like flowers

Mukimono is the Japanese name for the art of carving fruits and vegetables.

Historians believe that Japanese Mukimono was popularized by street vendors in the early 17th century. These creative salesmen wanted to give their produce a more attractive and competitive appearance. It was also a way to introduce elegance to a humble meal served on plain dinnerware. Over the years the expectations and standards for the carvings have become much more elaborate and Mukimono has become an essential skill for all well-trained Japanese chefs.

elaborately carved produce

A discussion about fruit and vegetable carving wouldn’t be complete without a nod to folk art traditions and for that we turn to “The Night of the Radishes” festival in Oaxaca, Mexico. This festival is held annually on December 23. It started in 1897 as a farmer’s market where local vendors could sell their produce in time for Christmas dinners. Some vendors began carving characters out of radishes in order to attract customers and soon a lively competition was established. Today radishes are grown under strict supervision specifically for the festival.

figures carved from radishes in a radish carved environment

To wrap up today’s post here is a video demonstrating the craft of Thai melon carving. It gives you a sense of the dexterity and patience needed to produce these amazing pieces of culinary art. For those of you reading this in e-mail click here to see the video.

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Colorful Links

At this time of week I’m usually searching for a new topic for this blog. Sometimes ideas appear magically, other times it’s a lot more work. This week an idea was dropped into my lap. In my mailbox I found a link to a post about a new store in Japan that is designed to sell color pigments, especially rare and disappearing ones.

thousands of paint samples in Japanese store

I immediately thought about last week’s post Pigments and Dyes: Where Do Colors Come From? At the same time, I was struck by the fascinating design of the space which reminded me of An Ocean of Books, a recent post which discussed the Tianjin Binhai Library in China.

Color. Architecture. Maybe there’s a connection.

The solution to the search for this week’s topic is an assortment of links to articles about color pigments, and color and architecture. Some of these sites have an in-depth essay, others a collection of images. Many of the architecture posts are from ArchDaily, a great source for new international architectural projects.

Click on each image below to link to further information.

Japanese art supply store

Forbes Pigment Collection at Harvard

red pigments in a mural at Pompeii


all white interior with bright orange stairway

bookstore interior with rainbow colored metal detailing

architectural interior with green and yellow walkways and stairways

exterior view of bank in Japan by Emmanuelle Moureau

Rainbow interior installation by architect Emmanuelle Moureaux

building exterior with colored stripesbuilding exterior with color and lightsbuilding exterior made from colorful lego-like blocks

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Pigments and Dyes: Where Do Colors Come From?

Our contemporary world is dominated by digital images on movie screens, computer monitors, smart phones and tablets. The millions of colors we see there are nearly all the result of electronic magic.

Surrounded by all these new ephemeral images it is easy to overlook, or even forget, that artists’ materials originally came from very real sources. Some of those sources were, and are, common, but some are quite exotic. In future posts I’ll talk about other art materials but for this blog post let’s take a quick look at pigments and dyes – the substances that produce the colors used to make paints and inks as well as for coloring fabrics.

Pigments differ from dyes in that they are generally insoluble, meaning they don’t dissolve in the water, oil, varnish or other medium used to make up most of what we call paint or ink. Tiny particles of pigment are merely suspended in the medium. Dyes, on the other hand, are either liquid already or they easily dissolve in the surrounding medium.

This definition generally holds true but there are exceptions (It can be confusing, I know).

The most basic pigments come from plentiful sources and produce what are often called “earth tones.” Burnt wood, for example, produces charcoal used to make black. Different clay soils are used to create ochre and browns such as burnt umber and raw sienna.

cave painting of animals

Charcoal, soot, clay and iron ore were common pigments used by pre-historic people creating images on cave walls. Looking at these cave paintings we can see the limited range of colors produced by those commonplace pigments.

Throughout history other pigments were discovered or developed and it’s usually quite interesting to learn about their origin. Let’s look at a few examples…

Lead-tin-yellow dates back to the 13th century. It was developed by artisans working to create crystal glass and was a common yellow used in oil painting until the 18th century when it was replaced by Naples yellow.

Lead-tin-yellow obviously contains lead and is not a healthy product. Lead, however, is only one of the poisonous substances artists have used for pigments. Vermillion, for another example, is a warm red color verging on orange. It was originally made by grinding the mineral cinnabar which contains mercury, a substance that is toxic even to touch.

Other colored pigments were originally produced using minerals and various organic substances that are quite rare and were traditionally used very sparingly. Lapis lazuli, for example, is a semi precious stone used to make the color ultramarine blue. Because it is rare, 16th century artists charged extra for a painting that featured that color.

In this painting by Johannes Vermeer you can see the use of both lead-tin-yellow and ultramarine blue.

Oil painting by Johannes Vermeer

An even more exotic coloring agent was the dye used to make Tyrian Purple. It was harvested from the mucus of a species of snails. The use of Tyrion Purple dates back more than 3,000 years to the ancient Phoenicians. Because this dye was so rare and difficult to make, the color purple was reserved for the garments of royalty and extremely wealthy individuals.

Indian yellow is another of these exotic pigments and was very popular with Dutch painters in the 17th and 18th centuries. Indian yellow was the basis for the pale, luminescent depiction of sunshine in many of their landscape paintings. The pigment, however, did not originate from an equally romantic source. It was made from the urine of cattle who had been fed an exclusive diet of mango leaves. The practice of essentially starving cows in order to acquire a small amount of coloring agent was eventually outlawed in the early 20th century.

Our final example of an organic source for a coloring agent is carmine that produces a deep red crimson color. Carmine is one of those agents that can be either a pigment or a dye and that’s partially what has made it so valuable. Extracted from ground up cochineal insects common to Central and South America, carmine became very popular with painters and garment makers in Europe after it was introduced by returning Spanish explorers during the 16th century. This is the dye used to color the robes of Catholic Cardinals and it was the color source for the English army’s redcoats.

oil painting portrait that uses the color carmine

You might think that carmine would have fallen by the wayside in today’s world of synthetics but that’s not the case. Even though there are alternatives, carmine is still used in paint as well as cosmetics and food coloring.

These are only a few examples of the coloring agents used by artists over the years. Today there are synthetic versions of most of the colors we use but nearly all of them refer back to colors originally developed from more organic sources.

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