Thursday, November 1, 2012

The Color Revolution and Camouflage

Ad in Ladies Home Journal, October 1929

The Color Revolution
by Regina Lee Blaszczyk
The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2012
368 pp., illus. 121 col. Trade: $34.95
ISBN: 9780262017770.

Reviewed by Roy R. Behrens

THE PHRASE in this book’s title initially appeared in print in a 1929 issue of Fortune magazine, a few months after the huge financial crash that launched the Great Depression. It announced that there was an ongoing “color revolution,” a widespread adoption of color in industrial products, resulting in “apricot autos, blue beds, and mauve mops.”

Ironically, this book also documents that, in another sense, this was not so much a “revolution” as an “evolution,” the stirrings of which can be traced to the early nineteenth century. It was massively encouraged by the Industrial Revolution, in the interior uses of color at the Crystal Palace Exhibition (the first World’s Fair in 1851), the invention of synthetic dyes, and chromolithographic prints and packaging.

It was also about “evolution” because in part it was empowered by the theories of Charles Darwin, whose much-debated writings about natural selection prompted an increase of interest in the survival function of colors and patterns in natural forms. Was conspicuous coloration a means by which to find a mate? At the same time, did subdued coloration contribute to concealment? One consequence of this exchange was the rise of modern theories about ”protective coloration” in nature, which in World War I acquired the name of “camouflage.” In turn, this led to chatter about “warning coloration,” such as zoologist Hugh B. Cott’s remark that the traffic commission “has adopted a system of coloration whose copyright belongs by priority to wasps and salamanders.”

A recurring theme throughout this book—which the author plays up from beginning to end—is that modern applications of color have developed hand in hand with advances in camouflage. Indeed, it is even contended that, at the end of WWI, it was former camouflage experts (both army and navy) who “applied their knowledge of visual deception to product design and created a new profession: the corporate colorist.” If a person has the wherewithal to conceal an object, he or she can also make that same object conspicuous, through reverse engineering. As this book points out repeatedly, the uses of color in product design were based on the inversion of camouflage techniques—in the words of American artist (and WWI camoufleur) H. Ledyard Towle, it was “reverse camouflage.” More>>>