Have I got hues for you? The role of colour in office design

Colour forecasting is one of the often under-the-radar disciplines that help to identify and shape trends in product and interior design. That is why designers keep an eye out for the latest announcements from Pantone or DuPont for their colours of the year, seek the guidance of organisations such as the International Colour Authority or consult colour forecasters as they work to stay one step ahead of the game and offer clients the very best advice. But how do those responsible for forecasting colours go about it? One idea we can dismiss straight away is that they are merely reacting to what they’ve seen on a catwalk. There is more science to it than that and influences can flow in both directions with trends in interior design and the arts influencing fashion designers.

That is why the Color Institute at Pantone looks at a range of things when deciding on its colour of the year including cultural developments, tastes and fashion, socio-economic factors, current events and the arts. As well as making its headline pronouncement, this also allows the firm to determine wider trends across the entire colour wheel.

Nor should we assume designers slavishly follow specific colours. Forecasting is an acknowledgement of a shift in tastes, not a diktat. So office designdesigners remain free to incorporate colour trends into their work, or not depending on their own ideas or those developed in conjunction with a client. Indeed, it is one of the great strengths of informed colour forecasting that it should provide a touchstone for such discussion to take place, especially when they are carefully predicated on cultural and economic tastes and trends. From the client’s perspective, this conversation can show that a designer is in touch with what is happening in the world and in people’s minds.

We are fortunate to enjoy not only greater awareness of colour trends when making decisions about interior and product design, but now also have the materials and technology that allow us greater choice about how to apply what we know and experiment with colour. Identifying trends in colour is only the first step.

One organisation that takes the role of colour in office design seriously is also one of the world’s most influential in its field. Indeed there can be few furniture manufacturers in the world with so prestigious a heritage of design excellence that it warrants the creation of a museum to its work. And of those that may exist, none can compare to Vitra, the firm that has done more than any other to shape our thinking about interior design and the objects with which we populate the built environment.

The Vitra Design Museum in Weil-am-Rhein is a showcase for the works of 20th Century giants such as Charles and Ray Eames, George Nelson and Verner Panton. Even in  a world in which words like icon and classic are bandied around with such reckless abandon, there is no mistaking the iconography of the products on display. Even for those people with only a passing  acquaintance with furniture design, many of the products are replete with associations. They carry a powerful emotional kick that is rooted in their beauty and effortless functionality. That is why  these products are not shackled by time or fashion and are still routinely specified and loved to this day. When we see an Eames chair, we know instinctively what it means.

That is not to say the world hasn’t changed of course. The timelessness of design classics does not obviate the need for new ideas. Indeed, the Daylight Wheel, Hella Jongerius, 2011ephemeral nature of work demands that we must constantly strive to reinvent the things with which we surround ourselves in the office. Which is why Vitra continues to innovate. To meet changing demands while holding an unbroken line to the design principles that have shaped our world. One of the new ways they are innovating is in their application of colour. At 2013’s Milan International Furniture Fair, Vitra showcased for the first time its Colour & Surface Library, developed in partnership with Hella Jongerius (top and right). Last year the firm announced it was to extend the project to cover new materials and new colours.

The intention of the colour and surface library is to create a unique colour and material scheme and develop designer-specific colour and material libraries for the world-famous designers who work with the firm. In Milan, classic pieces from Charles and Ray Eames, Jean Prouvé and George Nelson were used to showcase this new colour theory, reinvigorating some genuine iconic designs and emphasising the role colour can have in redefining design.

Vitra believes the library will challenge the widely held notion that colour can be taken as a secondary and separate decision from other factors. In the Colour & Material Library the Dutch designer Hella Jongerius emphasises the important role of colours and surfaces in contemporary design to demonstrate how the intelligent interplay of design, materials and colour can produce stunning results.