2011-07-25Slow colors

Slow colors

Our current network society is dominated by physical, social and virtual networks. A typical feature of these networks is the capsule: the unit in which we live, work and travel. The road and railway network, the air traffic network, the telephone or cable network and the World Wide Web all function on the basis of cars, trains, airplanes, computers, office units and housing units. In the network society, we live and move in safe spaces that keep out the rain, wind, cold and heat.

The physical network is populated by commuters who travel from their homes to their work environments by train or car. Commuting has cause the border between private and public to become blurred. Train commuters see the space they occupy in public transportation as an extension of their work. On the way to work they read papers for meetings, and on the way back they do e-mail or make phone calls. For car commuters it’s just the opposite. They’re happy if their car breathes a home-like atmosphere. With a mobile space as his only pleasure, the car commuter carries his home to work as long as he can, and when office hours are over and he gets back in his car, he already feels immediately at home. The living environment of the commuter is dominated by interiors that are continually changing meaning, and here color plays a crucial role.

For train commuting, however, it’s difficult to understand why the capsule has become increasingly important. In every new model of train, bus, tram and subway, economies have been made in seat and leg room, while everyone knows that the average human being is only getting taller, and that obesity has become a universal problem. Among public transportation organizations, countercyclical investment has taken on an entirely different meaning. What hasn’t changed in a very long time are the basic colors of the train interiors. The colors of the floor, the walls and the ceiling are white, beige or gray, or a color that might be any one of these, or a color that might be all three together. This connects with the beige trench coat (commuter model) and the anthracite gray Samsonite suitcase (inspector model) with which the train commuter is long familiar. The fact that the train commuter’s work begins in the train is interesting, since the colors we use at home have a great deal in common with the colors in the train. According to the DIY stores, the colors we are most likely to use in our homes are white, beige and gray, with the occasional accent color on a single wall. In trains the seats are usually of a different color, often the color that the transport company uses in its logo. Other commonly used color options are green, blue or red, often featuring a nondescript design. Transport companies that have yellow in their logo usually don’t have yellow seats, oddly enough. Perhaps that color is too light.

How different it is among the car commuters. As a private capsule the car is already highly developed, and every attempt is made to provide each person with as much room as possible. The car commuter can choose from a wide selection of cars, either to purchase or lease. The car commuter can also choose the color of the exterior and can furnish the interior to his own taste. The car is very much like a home − at least it seems that way at first. What quickly becomes apparent is the alarming uniformity of models and colors. The decent, respectable car commuter will select a nice mid-size car that doesn’t depart too much from the others in terms of brand or model. The best-selling leased cars in Europe are the Volkswagen Golf and Polo, the Ford Fiesta and the Opel Corsa. The color of a car is an important consideration, unlike the color of the train, which is usually simply based on the company color. But the freedom of choice enjoyed by the motorist never results in anything exciting. Black is far and away the best-selling car color in Europe, followed by silver, gray, blue and white. Red, brown, green, purple and yellow cars are sold only in very small numbers. The interior is even more extreme. The average European leased car has a black interior. Details in the dashboard and seats may sometimes feature a non-standard color, but, as with the exterior, non-standard colors cost extra. That’s why most commuters go for black. The fact that a car evokes a sense of home is strange, to say the least. Black is only rarely used as a color for a home interior, and never for an exterior. About a hundred years ago, Henry Ford said you could have a Model-T Ford in any color as long as it was black. Now that we can choose a color ourselves, it’s black that we prefer nine times out of ten.

In the automotive branch, the color palette is set a number of years before the vehicle is put on the market, an impossible undertaking if you remember that colors change with every fashion season. On the other hand, you can keep a black suit, a white shirt and a beige raincoat in your closet for a long time, irrespective of the fashion season. For the time being, at least, there won’t be any quick changes in the colors of motor vehicles either.

(photo: Christoph Morlinghaus )

This article was published in Colour in time ; Publisher Terra Lannoo ; 2011