Color and Client

by Andrew Holder

"And experience teaches us that in visual perception there is a discrepancy between physical fact and psychic effect." (Josef Albers, Interaction of Color.)

In early November 2010, The Los Angeles Design Group (LADG) receives a commission to renovate the lobby of a residential loft building in Downtown Los Angeles. The client is new to us, a respected regional developer, and we are eager to impress. The brief is both open-ended and severe: make the building desirable to prospective tenants, adhere to a strict budget. Built in 1906, the structure has changed ownership and use several times. Each new owner, confronted with the problem of how to bend the building to a new program, added more walls, but only added walls. There is now an absurd number of subdivisions. The lobby, for instance, is roughly a 20 x 30 foot rectangle composed of twenty different vertical surfaces (a conservative accounting). There are now so many walls that it’s impossible to trace the genealogy of any particular one. Each wall is the result of necessity (fireproofing around columns), program (enclosure around private stairs), or whim (separation of the elevator vestibule from the rest of the lobby). Untangling the use value of each wall would be almost impossible, so we quickly settle on retaining them and restricting our intervention to a graphic with some supporting built material at the scale of furniture. The scheme we concoct uses a large number of slightly tapered parallel stripes. Viewed frontally the stripes look like shading on a flat surface. Viewed obliquely the stripes and the wall blur into a fog. It looks like you can touch cloudiness.

Excitement is tempered by dual anxieties. Anxiety One is that we’ve produced a simple kind of Op-Art. What we’re calling “fogginess” is related to a perceptual phenomenon in repetitive fields of high-contrast tone where the edges between adjacent colors appear to scintillate. While we don’t personally have anything against Op-Art, we understand that in the annals of art history it’s been given something of a bad name as a reductive strategy that flattens the range of experience between viewer and image to a single optical effect. Aligning ourselves with Art History’s Losers, though, sounds like a dare we’d like to take. Anxiety Two is more acute than Anxiety One. We’re worried about using color as the primary agent in this project. Already, at the very earliest stages of this design, we can see that slight changes in tone produce radical differences in outcome. In past projects color choice has never been so central to success—color mattered, but mattered in the service of other architectural moves: camouflaging with tone-on-tone or maybe using contrast to emphasize a point. In this project, though, color will be the architecture.

Color Matter
A month or so after receiving the commission we hold our first design review with the four staff members who comprise Client. Early in the meeting, a member of Client says something about how the design “draws your eye” toward the back of the space and then vibrates it (vibrates your eye, not the space). Immediately, the other members of client adopt the term “eye” and use it to discuss the proposal. We extrapolate that Eye (Eye having now become over the course of our conversation a singular entity unhinged from any particular subject like “you” or “me”) is Client’s proxy for experiencing color. It’s as though Client, unable to convey adequate impressions of each color scheme using the language of sight, has invented a ghost that experiences color as a kind of material substance.

Eye moves through a color terrain that is regulated by an entire physics of colors. In one color scheme, Eye wanders slowly back across a vertical surface and turns little loops in the back corner. In another color scheme, Eye slides fast across a slippery part of the ceiling and splats against a blank patch. Eye senses tactile qualities of color. Some colors Eye touches are hard, while others are soft. The derivations of softness become acute in their specificity. One range of colors is soft and insubstantial like an encyclopedia of fog types: smoky, misty, dusky, murky, aqueous. Another range is solid but pliable—approximating velvet fabric in once instance and thick, spreadable icing in another. Colors are related to the way Eye feels, provoking higher-order emotions and value judgments. One scheme, for instance, makes eye “feel fresh,” another makes eye feel “at home, but in a contemporary way.” Eye makes leaps from the physical quantities of color, to the felt qualities of those quantities, to emotions elicited by those qualities. In this chain of consequence (from quantity to quality to feeling), color assumes incredible power, “vibes” are made literal, physical, even.

We wonder if Eye is Client’s lingual invention to convey an actual sensory experience that can’t be adequately conveyed using the language of sight. (It sounds nutty, for instance, to say “I see smoky.”) Conversely, we wonder if Eye is more real, like a processing layer in the mechanics of perception that relays conclusions to Client. In other words, where is the experience occurring? Is it occurring in Client, or in Eye? We decide not to care. In either case, color has bloomed as an entire ecology. We leave the meeting with Client under instruction to pursue three schemes further.

All three schemes are fairly low contrast and complex, pairing a background color with a complementary gradient. Low contrast, murky, we start to think of these schemes as sophisticated muds, or maybe sophisticated make-ups.

Color Gender (Or Color by Association)
Weeks later, we meet again with client to present the evolving design scheme and our color refinements. We show Client a series of options.

Client picks a favorite, a lavender background with reddish stripes in the foreground. The selection takes less than ten minutes. A member of Client asks if the lavender color is too feminine. Another member of Client suggests that the femininity of lavender is a consequence of demography. Older people, he says, are more likely to think of the shade as feminine; younger people will understand it as neutral and cool. Conversation pauses for a moment while everyone in the room absorbs the consequences of this exchange. The unspoken corollary is that as age increases, so does certainty about the lavender’s gender bias For Client, the source of lavender’s femininity is a kind of crust of historical associations that have built up around the color, so that it neatly becomes shorthand for a collection of objects that are presumably “feminine” (dresses, eye shadow, panties). Client thinks age is afraid of this history and its power: we shouldn't meddle with lavender because we don't know what viper’s nest of lavender memories we might be poking around in. Youth has no memory of this lavender history and thinks that color power is in the here and now, that we can use lavender however we like. We control lavender’s outcomes by the act of using it. Client adjourns the meeting. We are asked to reduce lavender’s femininity by any means necessary and make sure the selected palette can be matched to the materials specified in the drawings.

Color Beauty
At the office we are still stuck thinking about color in physical terms. There has been an internal debate about how prominently the foreground colors should read against the background. How much contrast? It is an issue of whether we want our graphic to appear as a distinct figure or as a cloudy thing almost indistinguishable from the background wash of tone. We split the difference and settle on something in between. We are excited to find the result can register as either strategy, depending on viewing distance. With slight adjustments, the colors are very similar to the palette that made Eye feel at home, but contemporary: three medium-hot reds and a pale brownish-lavender.

We return to Client with big painted swatches of the selected colors. Client unanimously likes them. The pale brownish-lavender—intended as the background wall—is singled out for particular praise by Client in a list of the color’s quasi-physical attributes: there are traces of many other colors visible in it (blue, brown, white, purple, and even red); it is friendly to other colors, appearing to borrow shades from its context; it is contemporary but not popular; it takes light well and is held up against the fluorescent ceiling fixtures and the day-lit windows as proof. It is pronounced a beautiful color. We wrongly assume that this list of attributes is unequivocal in its support of brownish-lavender. The beauty of the color must be robust. Two days later, portions of an upstairs hallway on site are painted with large test patches. Client hates them. The beautiful color now becomes a campfire around which people sit and tell melodramatic tales about good attributes going bad. The blue undertones of our brownish-lavender make it look like a circus again the hot reds. Brownish-lavender’s susceptibility to the color of ambient light make it gray, so that walking down the hallway is like being trapped in a submarine. Each story is a simile predicated on exactly one of the attributes we had assumed to be unassailable. The structure of these similes– “likening” our color to all kinds of circumstances–tells us something about the way color beauty works: it is not underwritten by attributes that are good in absolute terms. Instead, beauty is an associative principal that attaches itself to color.

Color Public
We are called to Client’s offices for an emergency meeting to evaluate other options. Lavender is identified as the problem color. No one wants to abandon the color scheme entirely (at this point a collective exhaustion is setting in), so it is proposed that maybe a related color will solve the problems. We identify five similar colors and have large swatches painted in the hallway adjacent to the scene of our recent failure. Client conducts a kind of color focus group by inviting real estate brokers to the upstairs hallway, where they are asked their opinions of the lavender alternates. As these sessions are being conducted, building residents also stop us in the hallways to offer their thoughts. Opinions initially vary, but everyone (even those who like the color) has an idea about what should be done instead. Some suggest a predominantly blue scheme, one wants a “sophisticated” gray palette, others think the hallways should remain white and under no circumstances be treated with color.

Client had imagined that it might be able to find clear public assessment of our lavender, or better yet, a color average that would be more or less appealing to the largest possible number of observers. It is not clear, however, that there is a shared a-priori opinion of color waiting to be discovered. Instead, it seems the opposite is true; that audiences gather to color as an opportunity to form opinion. Color is a sticky-sweet honey pot; it lures individuals, aggregates them into groups, incites group opinion. Color creates publics. A popular, universally loved color is now an unpopular, universally hated color. The other color swatches seem guilty and unlikeable by association. The reds we had paired with the lavender background—never really a subject of critical attention—are now rejected without further discussion. We meet again with Client, who delivers a parable about real estate in a desperate attempt to get us to invent better color combinations. In residential real estate, says Client, property sells when it is neither attractive nor unattractive. In a careful state of poise between these two poles, buyers seem not to see what is actually there, just a projection their own domestic fantasies. Public appeal necessitates blankness.

Color Theater
We briefly consider fatalistic possibilities. Maybe Client wants us to find a color that isn’t really a color. Or maybe we should go monochrome or beige or black or white. Instead we choose to imagine that Client is being more literal and intended to accent the part about projection. Each of the modes in which color has operated so far—conceived in terms of matter, gender, beauty, public—is a theater of operation. In each of these theaters, color must perform. This is more or less the same kind of performance that has become a popular term in contemporary architectural discourse, but here the emphasis is not on absolute performances of the kind architecture often likes to imagine it is producing, such as the aerodynamic performance of a wing shape or the cornering performance of a Formula One car. These are shiftier performances, no less related to the real properties of matter and energy, but not measureable in such neat, singular scales. These color performances come and go, their success contingent on the script being performed, the theater itself, and the crowd in the theater. Good performances are nice, but there are always other performances to be given in other theaters—perhaps infinitely many other performances in infinitely many theaters. Color does not get to choose its theater, and it must be taken as a happy fact that the theaters of operation will be itinerant and unpredictable. To perform in only one theater is to become first a vaudeville act, then a nostalgia lounge act, and then, finally, Celine Dion at her own purpose-built theater in Vegas where the mechanics of the theater itself must be intricately conceived as life support systems for a voice that is no longer credible to be heard on the radio.

In this configuration, though, color is not just a patsy performing at the whim of the observer. Instead, color can achieve agency by being a promiscuous actor. Color can, no big deal, move from role to role. Charismatic colors can recruit audiences from one theater to another. Like Elizabeth Taylor’s Cleopatra. Like a pink men’s shirt. We begin to work with “skewed gradients,” varying both the lightness of a color and the color center. We graduate purple in five steps from dark to light, but each step is skewed differently, and very slightly, to blue or gray or red. It’s a scheme that might start a gender conversation with Client, but it binds easily to other theaters of operation and other performance criteria. The skewed gradient schemes meet performance criteria but are not of them.

We pick one.

Client thinks it looks like a club. Someone in our office thinks it looks Papal. We've found our girl.













Andrew Holder is a founding member and co-principal of The LADG, a practice committed to realizing an experimental, materialist agenda through built work. Recent projects include RK Apothecary, the Surefoot flagship store in New York, and the renovation of the 620 Main building in downtown Los Angeles (currently under construction). He is currently teaches at the UCLA graduate department of Architecture and Urban design, and has held teaching appointments at SCI-Arc and Otis College of Art and Design. Andrew is a recipient of the Truman Fellowship, The Pamplin Fellowship, and the AIA Certificate of Merit.