Last November, I traveled to Yale University in search of swatch books and color cards. The Faber Birren Collection of Books on Color is home to a comprehensive selection of texts, historical examples, artist books, and other resources, including eleven bankers’ boxes of textile samples and paint chips. Below is one of my favorite items in the collection, the 1941 edition of the Standard Color Card of America, produced by the Textile Color Card Association of the United States, Inc. Like many other examples of its kind, these satin samples inhabit an elegant folding structure. This one expands to a width of over four feet.
Color cards came into heavy use following the invention of synthetic dyes in the 19th century. They enable intersecting industries to match colors from a distance. The Textile Color Card Association (TCCA) coalesced in the early 20th century as textile mills, designers, milliners, and retailers in The United States rallied in opposition to the subdued color forecast cards coming out of Paris each year. The TCCA issued its first Standard Color Card in 1915, asserting a bolder, brighter, more American color identity that appealed to a sense of patriotism and advanced the economic interests of the allied industries behind the organization. For more information about the color industry and its transformation of consumer culture, see Regina Lee Blaszczyk’s excellent book The Color Revolution,
In the early 20th century, while Paris dictated global color forecasts, Germany dominated the synthetic dye market. Substantive Colors on Loose Cotton, (above) was produced by Berlin Aniline Works sometime around 1911. After World War I, The United States legalized the plunder of German patents, and the power of color shifted over the ocean. The story of this shift is fascinating and deeply connected to anti-German nationalism. (To hop into this rabbit hole, type “Office of Alien Property Custodian” or “USA v. The Chemical Foundation, Inc.” into your favorite search engine.)
The Organic Chemicals Department of the Dyestuffs Division of the DuPont Corporation* issued Designers Color Guide, the mid-century example below. It presents the effects of synthetic dyes on fiber of varying composition in a massive volume of wound thread.
I’m in love with these sample books. I bet you are too. I bet you want to touch them. What is it about them? I am (of course!) drawn in by the tactility of these samples, the beauty of their presentation, and the kinetic structures that protect them. I’m also moved by the mission that called them into existence: the codification and communication of color values. Again and again and again, scientists, artists, and entrepreneurs have created color systems which divide the subtle and infinite spectrum of light and color into discrete and describable elements. The production of swatch books, color cards, paint chips, and the pigments and dyes that made them possible, was driven by a hunger to capture and reproduce something that had once been ephemeral and out of reach. I feel this hunger, too. It is deeply connected to my fascination with archives and documentation.
I’m also interested in the nuanced historical context for the production of these books. Like all manufactured objects, these color and textile samples were made in response to shifting technologies, economic factors, and complex national agendas. Color forecasting, the issuing of color cards in advance of a season, was an early form of planned obsolescence, and is still a major engine in the global economy. These color cards and sample books are part of our origin story as a landfill culture. Everything is complicated, right?
I am making something related to all of this, using colors and textiles from my surroundings. I’m not sure what this book is yet, but here are a few things it might be about: archives, domestic spaces, categorization & description, the destruction of a collection as a byproduct of the documentation of that collection, color forecasting, Taylorism, landfill. Some experiments and mockups below.
I am hoping that this won’t be a book about my clothes and sheets, even though it will be a book made out of my clothes and sheets. Color systems on a large scale, and individual sample books on a smaller scale, are each iterations of an enduring effort to communicate color across distance, disciplines, and cultures. Our personal interactions with samples and swatches is less rational and more emotional, driven by touch and memory. This book project will sit somewhere in between.
I am grateful to Mar Gonzalez Palacios, Maria Zapata, and Molly Bailey Dillon at the Robert B. Haas Family Arts Library for helping me over my two busy days at Yale, and for answering many questions leading up to and following my visit. This evolving book project (and my trip to New Haven) has been made possible by a grant from the Office for Research and Economic Development Small Grant Program at The University of Alabama.
The first six images in this post are items in the Faber Birren Collection of Books on Color, Arts Library Special Collections, Yale University Library. Click on the linked titles and head to the Yale catalog. Then get yourself to New Haven and take in this lobby:
I’m not sure if anyone who is reading this knew me in the 1990s. If you are out there, I want you to know that this project may be where my orange vest will finally come to rest. Edition size to be determined by size of vest.
*DuPont is King in my hometown of Wilmington, Delaware. Maybe that is what this book is about?
***note: I received a message on my website from D. Avihai on 2/27 with specific structure questions: I’d be happy to answer if I can, but I didn’t get an email address with your message. try me again? or email me sarahherrickbryant (at) gmail.com