Breathing Colour: Set Colour Free in Post-Industrialism

Colour can breathe, as all living creatures do. Or it used to. According to Hella Jongerius’ current exhibition in London, colour should be set free from the constraints imposed by industrialisation so we can experience more possibilities of colour.


In the meticulously curated exhibition space of Breathing Colour at the Design Museum, the persistent and ongoing pursuit of a complete colour study is recounted. Various design installations are cleverly conceptualised to spice up the storytelling.



It is in the designer Hella Jongerius’ core belief that colour appears flat in a highly industrialised world. In natural surroundings, however, colour is much more abundant. It is because the visual experience of colour is determined by a complex combination of factors: physically by light and material, and psychological by our brain and culture. Colour that is produced industrially to increase uniformity in terms of quality looks quite static and monotonous.



Therefore, Hella Jongerius, the Dutch designer constantly researches colour, material, and textiles, stepping backwards and turning to traditional techniques. By increasing the instability of colour pigments and making them sensitive to light, she is able to capture the full potential of colour. She may well be considered the modern Claude Monet who chases after light and time out of a passion for colour.



But she does it in her own way. A colour capture is devised, for example, to simulate colours in different lighting conditions with its hollows, shadows, and convex structures.



In addition, she demonstrates the different shades of black she created, proving that colour should be considered as a unity rather than an entity. Black, in this way, is only a general concept, and we could no longer precisely describe our mental image of black with words now that our visual experience of black is largely enriched.



Hella Jongerius also represents the atmosphere and the emotional responses colour generates in different times of the day. With her wall installations, we see colour being born at dawn, delicate and fragile in the morning, and turning warm, energetic, and intense during the day. Colour becomes dark and dramatic as evening arrives, with shadow creating three-dimensional shape and form.



It is interesting to note that although Hella Jongerius is definitely organised and experimental in her approach to colour research, she argues that “colour is a visual experience, not a scientific one” because colour cannot be quantified or qualified. Nor can it be recorded or replicated. At least not fully.


This exceptional exhibition reflects a general preference to individuality over uniformity and customisation over mass production. When colour comes to life with a distinct character, what is the next to be set free?


Words: Yi Tang


Hashtags: #colour #designmuseum #hellajongerius #individuality #design

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