[Alyson Kuhn] Leatrice Eiseman and Keith Recker are prominent color forecasters, which is to say they create palette concepts that forecast trends for businesses and product designers. Chromatically speaking, they are fairly forward focused. But last year they also made time to write an encyclopedic, lavishly illustrated book that looks back at color. PANTONE: The 20th Century in Color, published by Chronicle Books, offers up 100 years of fashion, art, design and politics represented by 80 palettes, 300 images … and 500 colors. Eiseman and Recker took us on tour through their magnum opus.
What inspired you to undertake a book of this magnitude?
LE: It was the brainchild of Lisa Herbert, executive VP at Pantone.
KR: We realized that no one had looked at color in this way before. We produced the book in 2010, when a decade seemed like enough distance to look back at the 20th century to find what was emblematic and influential, what endured versus what rose and fell quickly, what expressed the spirit of the times. Using color as the lens through which to examine the century was exciting and demanding and revealing.
I know the two of you had worked together previously, on Pantone View Home. What exactly does the latter involve?
KR: It’s an annual publication, targeted to people looking to make color decisions in product development, branding, marketing, merchandising and so forth.
LE: I create the palette concepts and copy and provide many of the visuals. Keith does a great deal of the art directing and also provides visuals.
How did you start visualizing and writing The 20th Century in Color? Did you divvy up the decades?
LE: No, we did not divvy up — we collaborated throughout. We had a very clear timeline of the entire century, so we just started at the beginning and worked our way to the end.
KR: Lee took the lead on visuals, and I took the lead on text. We worked back and forth across those lines, of course. Lee has great archives on color matters, and Pantone’s archives yielded some good material as well. But the vast majority of the illustrations had to be researched, tracked down, and written permissions secured.
LE: One of the most difficult aspects of the project was having to decide what stayed in and what did not make the cut. There is only so much space, so inevitably someone or something is left out. Or sometimes it is a question of availability of imagery and/or the difficulty of obtaining it. In the end, we felt we did get to include the most important influences.
How many of these amazing visuals are items from your personal collections? And where did you find the other images?
KR: A handful of items are from our personal collections. Image research was not an easy task, as you can imagine. Our sources included photography libraries, antiques dealers, art galleries, auction houses and museums, contemporary furniture dealers, designers, artists and other people we’ve worked with.
LE: I am an inveterate collector. The wonderful blue “Equity Lodge” plate [above] from the 1910–1920 period came from my husband’s family collection. We show a detail [below] from a fabulous orange-y panne velvet kimono from the flapper period, which came from my great aunt who had actually lived — and danced — in that era. A bit less precious, but still fun, is an authentic pink poodle skirt that I got from a bona fide collector; it had actually been worn to a costume party — along with bobby socks and saddle oxfords. I also have collected vintage jewelry and pottery, and we used some of these pieces in the book.
I have tested the index and found it superb. Did you know from the get-go that your book would be so, well, rigorous? If I were a design student, I would put my weary head down on it every time I closed my eyes … and hope to absorb it in my sleep.
KR: We love that someone admires the nitty-gritty of the index and the bibliography. Fantastic! My research assistant Avinash Rajagopal and I looked at the bibliography as a chance to establish a bit of a reading list for people to go further — to look at the topics with their own eyes and come to their own conclusions. But the book really crystallizes each palette: In a handful of visuals and no more than 300 words of text, the reader can get a gorgeous glimpse of the past.
LE: Gena McGregor, my research assistant, was meticulous about validating time periods. For the later decades it got easier, because those were eras we actually lived in and remembered. Still we didn’t rely solely on memory. Many people were very generous and helpful.
Would you share an example of tracking something down?
LE: I wanted to get the auto colors from the ’50s exactly right and not rely just on old photos. So I called Dupont Coatings, as I know people there and they often quote my forecasts. I asked if they had archives of car colors from the ’50s, and they led me to a museum in Pennsylvania that actually houses boxes of car color samples … that I ultimately matched to Pantone colors. It was wonderful to paw through all of those authentic color chips and look at the different brands.
KR: I am fascinated by “to the trade” sales materials — swatchbooks and thread cards are better than a new car as far as I am concerned. And when I came across a dusty copy of a 1955 wool swatchbook from a very historic mill called Hockanum, I jumped on it. The rich range of saturated colors seemed so vivid and optimistic and fashionable. I did some research about what Hockanum was doing in the mid-’50s, and found that great designers like milliner Lily Daché were using the fabrics.
LE: Maybe these finds don’t sound too exciting to some people, but for colorists — and authors — each one is like gold. And a valuable history lesson!
KR: On one of my trips to West Africa [for HAND/EYE Magazine] in the ’90s, I bought a piece of handwoven Ghanian Kente cloth. It hung on my wall for a time, then lived quietly with my other textiles for a while, and now has made a comeback in the book. It seemed a perfect combo of vivid and natural impulses.
And, now that all is said and done, would you do it again?
KR: We spend a lot of time looking forward in our work as trend and color forecasters. This project felt like a graduate school education in visual culture. I learned so incredibly much in the process. I can’t wait to do something like this again.
LE: Of course, it was all a wonderful learning — or validation — experience, but for me one of the most fun things was the silliness that went on between us. Some of our comments back and forth — and the outtakes! — on some of what we unearthed did not find their way into this book. Maybe one day, they will appear somewhere!
Leatrice Eiseman is the author of seven previous books about color. On her blog, she posts observations about her travels (South Korea and Paris earlier this month) and recent interviews (Women’s Wear Daily re: college football uniforms).
Keith Recker travels all over the world as part of his pro bono work with the HAND/EYE Fund, and often buys an extra suitcase to bring home textiles. He is also the founder and editor of the magazine of the same name about global culture and creativity. Just last week, Issue 06/Global Color was on press in Vermont. It is not too late to subscribe — and early in October you’ll be able to order Issue 6 separately.
Next week, Felt & Wire will share a backstage view from Chronicle Books about researching, designing and producing PANTONE: The 20th Century in Color.