Color is one of the most relative means of expression, as the famed color theorist Josef Albers once said. It’s also one of the most evocative. From the Red Room in the Black Lodge to the pastel pink pastry boxes of Mendl’s Bakery, color conjures up strong psychological associations. Should we feel apprehensive—as is the case with David Lynch’s unsettling interiors—or revel in sweetness, as in Wes Anderson’s surreal dreamscape? Just as film directors reach for specific colors to create a mood, so too may we. During a hellaciously stressful and anxious time wrought by the novel coronavirus, color can become a coping mechanism.
Experts at the Pantone Color Institute, a global color consultancy, have been thinking a lot about the COVID-19 pandemic’s cultural effects, and how color fits into the picture.
“We look at things through the lens of color,” says Laurie Pressman, vice president of the Institute. “Of course, this is a public health crisis, and it’s not like a public health crisis is looked through a lens of color, but we’re thinking about: How is this going to affect what people need from color? How is this going to affect what people want from color? How can we help use color as an antidote to what’s going on?”
The Pantone Color Institute’s primary business is trend forecasting and advising brands on what colors they should consider for their products. This involves predicting what people might gravitate toward based on what’s happening in the world. Through initiatives like its popular Color of the Year program, now in its 20th year, Pantone also works to familiarize people with the language of color and color as a form of expression and communication. While Pressman says it’s too soon to speculate on how the pandemic will affect consumer marketing, she is thinking about the pervasiveness of uncertainty, stress, and anxiety right now and how that might lead us to seek out products and spaces that are soothing, relaxing, and comforting. And color can be a significant player in achieving those sensibilities.
It wouldn’t be the first time hues were used to soothe. For hundreds of years, color theorists have ascribed psychological characteristics to hues based on intuition. Warm colors—like reds, yellows, and oranges—are associated with active feelings, while cool colors—like blues and greens—are widely believed to be calming and healing.
Chromotherapy (considered alternative medicine to some and pseudoscience to others) has been hawked as a remedy for illness since Ancient Egypt. In the early 1900s, a New York City psychiatric hospital even had a “color ward” to treat patients: a black room to soothe “manic” patients, a red room to treat “melancholia,” violet for “insanity,” blue and green rooms for the “boisterous,” and a white room for someone who is “practically well,” as a 1902 New York Times story stated. “[S]o completely is a patient surrounded by an atmosphere of a particular color, deemed best by physicians for his particular mania, that the vibrations must act on him,” the reporter wrote. Rudolf Steiner, who founded Waldorf education, believed that classrooms should be painted in specific colors based on the developmental age of students.
The interest in how color affects mood, and maybe even mental health, hasn’t waned since the early 1900s. Recently, researchers interested in the effects of interior design on stress and anxiety have studied the body’s response to color, hoping to find some scientific backing to anecdotal assumptions. In a small experiment, researchers at the Aalborg University of Copenhagen blindfolded subjects, connected them to EEG machines (which register brain activity), and exposed them to different colors of light. Their brains were more active when their bodies were exposed to red and blue light. Green light yielded calmness and relaxation. Another study found that blue light helps people relax more than if they were using white light.
Science is still trying to prove how color affects our bodies and minds in a quantifiable way, but Pantone’s decades of experience in the area have led to an intuitiveness about what color can accomplish for our moods. Pressman believes that color can serve as an antidote to today’s trying times in three ways: by calming us, by soothing us, and by offering some much-needed positive energy.
“Now is not the time for grays,” Pressman says, the color many people gravitated toward after the 2008 financial crisis, to which the COVID-19 pandemic is drawing comparisons. Instead, she recommends meditative nature shades like blues, greens, and browns as calming options. To soothe us, she suggests colors that gently warm us, like pastel pinks, burnt oranges, and terra-cotta shades. To brighten moods, she looks to reds and yellows.
“I need to feel positive because of all the uncertainty in the air and am trying to summon up the energy,” Pressman says. “So to put on that red shirt, to put on that yellow pillow, or something that sparks optimism and energy.”
Pantone’s Color of the Year for 2020 is Classic Blue, which was chosen for its association with feelings of calm, confidence, and connection. Classic Blue was finalized in the summer of 2019, well before the pandemic, but it feels especially relevant now.
“We just knew going forward, people needed confidence, they needed stability, they needed strength, they needed dependability,” Pressman says of picking the color of the year, which is more about a cultural statement than trend forecasting. “We’re looking forward, but at the same time we are fearful and we need that solid foundation so we can comfortably and confidently cross that bridge into this new era. This kind of color—with its ability to elicit feelings of calm, with its feelings of sincerity, and a feeling of anchoring and continuity—fosters resilience and can be protective.”
When it comes to applying these colors to our homes, Pressman suggests thinking about how you want to feel when you step inside the door, how you want to feel in specific rooms, and using color to create those moods. For example, a very bright optic white could look beautiful, but feel stark. A creamier white or a white with brown undertones could make the color more warming. Using yellow in an entry hall, she says, can add sunniness. Meanwhile, something like a terra cotta could add instant warmth. Pastel hues, she says, are very popular right now and very livable.
“I think a lot of people are living in really open spaces, so you have to find ways to inject color,” Pressman says. “It may not be that a room has only this one color, so even if you are in a warm room, it doesn’t mean you can’t bring in some energizing reds. ... It’s all about the balance here of warm and cool. It’s not just one or the other. That balance is really important.”
For as many colors that exist in the world, there as many theories about how they make us feel. “Color deceives continually,” Albers wrote, referring to how adjacent colors change the way we see the same hue. When it comes to using color to make you feel happier and more comfortable in your home, go with the combination that makes you feel good, however you define it.