10 January 2020


Photo: Anna Danielsson. © Nationalmuseum, Stockholm.

Disregarding entirely the generality of men whose gross retinas are capable of perceiving neither the cadence peculiar to each colour nor the mysterious charm of their nuances of light and shade; ignoring the bourgeoisie, whose eyes are insensitive to the pomp and splendour of strong, vibrant tones; and devoting himself only to people with sensitive pupils, refined by literature and art, he was convinced that the eyes of those among them who dream of the ideal and demand illusions are generally caressed by blue and its derivatives, mauve, lilac and pearl grey, provided always that these colours remain soft and do not overstep the bounds where they lose their personalities by being transformed into pure violets and frank greys.

– Joris-Karl Huysmans, Against Nature (1884)

She comes in colours everywhere, and the chosen outfit this late morning in Stockholm is green, green, green. However, since it’s Hella Jongerius (b 1963) who we are talking about, it is not green as US one-dollar bills, Spock’s blood, Irish identity or David Banner when he is very angry, nor is it – heaven forbid – in any of the greens out of the Pantone plumage. To Goethe, who sampled “light’s suffering and joy” beyond the confines of the lab, green was the representation of heaven and of hope.

Whenever this Dutch-born industrial designer becomes engrossed in a subject, owing a lot to Jongerius’s probity and persistent determination, it will take her to the core and essence of that matter. Her tenure at Vitra as the Swiss furniture company’s art director started in 2005 with a new kind of kick. For years, Jongerius’s obsession buzzed and hummed around such matters as isabelline, puce, orpiment, gamboge, cochineal, hematite, madder, woad, cerulean, celadon, orchil, heliotrope, buff, fallow, mummy, obsidian, bastard, beryl, coquelicot, nymphea, jasper, peridot, quimper, watchet and puke. It is this keen love for the chromatic that has made her think of colour as “a metaphor for life itself”.

“As a designer I feel responsible to be in between the consumer and the Industry because I know what the Industry could make, or what the full potential of the Industry is,” says Jongerius when she presents her personal and analytical Breathing Colour exhibition at Nationalmuseum (the National Gallery of Sweden) this very morning. “And that is why I also work with the theme of colour because in Industry the colours are all created in a certain pigment range that keeps colour very flat. Only a part of the full pizza is used. The biggest reason is of course money and to keep colours stable the whole day long so that they don’t react on the light. Colour is only experienced because of light visions. In the morning, light is very different than at noon or in the evening. I think that if a colour is not reacting on light you really lose the quality of colour and that is what I wanted to show here.”

Hella Jongerius’s entire career has basically been a case of Jongerius versus the Industry, so to say, manifested in her Frog Table (2009) in which a sculptured frog not only (unnecessarily) supports one of the legs of the table but annoyingly takes up considerable space for no good reason – the Industry portrayed as the boastful Mr Toad in Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows (1908). 

“What most design events have in common are the presentations of a depressing cornucopia of pointless products, commercial hypes around presumed innovations, and empty rhetoric,” Jongerius and her theorist accomplice Louise Schouwenberg wrote in their manifesto “Beyond the New: A Search for Ideals in Design” in 2015. “We advocate an idealistic agenda in design [since] the discipline lacks an intimate interweaving of the values that once inspired designers, as well as the producers of their ideas.”

For reasons not quite clear for anyone outside the domain of corporate S&M, Jongerius’s pertinacity is serving her well in the same international design industry that she is in the habit of chiding at every possible turn. Arguably, her greatest strength as principally a conceptual designer – her physical designs are really not that special – is this ability to win these figurative frogs over so that she can beat them at their own game, over the whole table top. Poet, misfit or hippie? All three according to the discontented designer who still works towards a poetic conclusion.

Her first exhibition at the Design Museum in London in 2003 was Jongerius’s door opener to a greater world. When Deyan Sudjic offered her a second show after he took over as director there in 2016, she made it very clear to him – as described in the September 2017 issue of Domus – “that she was not interested in another retrospective. Instead of showing us what she has already done, she wanted to spend some time exploring colour, a subject that has fascinated her throughout her career, to use that research to help give our audience a new perspective on how we see colour and perhaps to use it to help share her future work. It is a theme that has clearly been important to her in her recent work with Artek and Vitra where the sensitive new colours she has given Alvar Aalto’s Stool 60 for example are one of the few entirely convincing such exercises. It is not a banal attempt to modernise an object by using present-day fashionable colours. Rather Jongerius has given us a new way to look at Aalto’s original design not as cosmetic but as a response to its essential form.”

Before her Breathing Colour exhibition opened in London in the summer of 2017, Jongerius was the thirty-seventh recipient of the Dutch Sikkens Prize, an international award that was instigated in 1959 to honour “individuals or institutions that are considered to have made a special contribution to the field of colour”. She opened her speech on March 26 by saying that “I feel like an absolute beginner when it comes to colour. Even though I have learnt a great deal about colours, I still can’t really get my head around the subject.” There are a number of notes in Josef Albers’s book Interaction of Colour (1963), however, that surely must have influenced Jongerius’s way of thinking about this, shall we say, supercalifragilisticexpialidocious subject:

With the discovery that colour is the most relative medium in art, and that its greatest excitement lies beyond rules and canons, a more sensitive discrimination was needed.

The more a creative use of colour developed, the less desirable became a merely trustful and obedient application.

As with tones in music, so with colour – dissonance is as desirable as its opposite, consonance.

When Hipgnosis designed the artwork for Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon, the album came out in early 1973, they actually repeated what Isaac Newton had achieved in 1665: he put a second triangular prism next to the first to prove that the pure white light which dispersed into all the colours of the rainbow was not, what had always been presumed, a consequence of some impureness of the glass but instead the true nature of light. It was not yet understood that these spectral colours are electromagnetic waves and that they are only wavelength sensations until our brains convert them into colours. The Dark Side of the Moon gatefold displays six rays of colour whereas Newton had people memorise the Roy G Biv colour acronym of seven letters:

“In a letter written in 1675 to Henry Oldenburg, the secretary of the Royal Society, Newton confessed that his eyes were ‘not very critical in distinguishing colours’. Once he saw eleven in the rainbow. Usually he saw only five – red, yellow, green, blue, and violet – until he looked again, or, rather, until he stopped looking. There were seven musical notes in the diatonic scale. The world was created in seven days. And the rainbow was a sign of cosmic harmony, so it had to have seven colours – and Newton added (saw?) orange between red and yellow, and indigo between blue and violet,” explains David Scott Kastan in On Colour. “Our seven-coloured rainbow was born, though more as a child of faith than as one of science.” 

Newton’s widespread Opticks: A Treatise of the Reflections, Refractions, Inflections and Colours of Light, issued in 1704, was followed by a great many treatises on colour by artists, poets and intellects, however not the physicists. In his book Colour and Meaning: Art, Science and Symbolism, John Gage – another Sikkens Prize recipient (1997) – implies that “One of the reasons why scientific students of colour have been reluctant to draw on the experience of art is that artists are generally considered a small, untypical and commercially insignificant group in society.” 

Hella Jongerius has been on a mission to save the world from “colour anorexia”, and in doing so she has applied the artists’ creative use of colour. “For me, colour is material,” she told Icon in September 2017, “it can help you shape an object, downplay it or lift it up, make it look bigger or smaller, or give a shadow. It’s a powerful tool, but it’s something designers forget, or are afraid of. They think it’s something you do at the last minute or that it’s just decoration. I think it’s something our profession needs more knowledge of.” To prove how much of a colour even black is, Jongerius developed sixteen different paints of black from a number of pigments that the Industry – by convention – considered to be nothing but a hassle.

The desire for dissonance is obviously present in her design. It is the coincidental, the imperfect, contorted, unfinished and the marred which is heightened when her traditional handicraft methods blend in with the spirit of contemporaneity; the hand of the creator, the “fingerprint” of the machine tool and the seriality of the process. In an interview in Disegno (July 2011), Jongerius argued that “there is a generation that don’t want to work with their hands. But I think your hands are intuitive and if you work manually then surprises inevitably emerge. You can recognise it when people only design from a computer and when Google is the only inspiration – you can always tell. You’ll see there’s no tactility, no knowledge of the material.”

Two such series in which her design faces monitored fortuity are the pretty enticing Soft Urn (produced by Droog in 1993) – petite rubbery pots in the same material as skateboard wheels, and hence unbreakable, with the combined aesthetics of a little more colourful future and something dug up together with the Pompeii body casts – and the other is her somewhat warped tableware series B-Set (1997), heated in a kiln so fiery that the porcelain will forget what it was supposed to be. A wonderful thing is that this series is manufactured by Royal Tichelaar Makkum, a Dutch company that has been in existence since the Renaissance.

Jongerius was brought up in the Dutch countryside, in a house full of her mother’s sewing machines, pattern designs and textiles, though it was the men in her family who offered her young self a few good ideas about independency. She claims that it was “the freedom and non-conformism of the art world” that in 1988 drew her to Design Academy Eindhoven, which was hardly (and hardly surprising) an ideal place for Jongerius after all. In 1993 she set up her Jongeriuslab in Rotterdam, which grew with the success stories, until she finally moved the studio to Berlin in 2009 in order to reintroduce herself as the constant outsider – and to redesign the North Delegates’ Lounge at the United Nations’ East River base in New York together with a small group of Dutch designers.

The cover design for the catalogue to Jongerius’s Misfit exhibition in 2010 at Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam depicts a drawing of one of the almost three hundred vases from the Coloured Vases series. For her many vases, manufactured at Tichelaar in Makkum, Jongerius applied layers of different kind of glazes based on both the synthetic mixtures used by the Industry today and old mineral pigment formulas from (oddly enough) the early days of the Industrial Revolution. Consisting of one hundred and fifty colours in all (many of the vases are also painted), the work was presented as a viable colour wheel at Boijmans.

In the January/February 2011 issue of Frame, Jongerius applauded the “unbelievably rich and irregular” properties of mineral colours: “They really melt into the ceramic, while the industrial glazes remain on the surface. And it’s noticeable how the vase changes form because of the colour – colour reacts with shape.”

Boijmans was also the second venue for the Breathing Colour exhibition in 2018. The show at Nationalmuseum in Stockholm is its third instalment and the one that the designer is most content about. Two shows worth mentioning after Nationalmuseum’s reopening in the fall of 2018, after a four-year-long complete and very satisfying overhaul, are the excellent Danish Golden Age (in painting) exhibition and one about die Mauer and beyond, 1989 – Culture and Politics, which worked as a pretty good primer to the full-blown buffoon world that is Sweden today and where the lives of others carry on in the absence of a wall.

Cilla Robach, curator at Nationalmuseum, enjoyed Breathing Colour at the Design Museum in the summer of 2017, “and I thought it was so exciting because she is an industrial designer, but these are not products. It is about the process, about the artistic research method, how she has tested and rummaged around with colour, texture, material, form, light and shadows. This is a process description that is very visually attractive,” she affirms.

“Hella Jongerius talks about how flat the industrial colours are. If I buy a coffee maker that I perceive as green in the store but which feels brown at home in my kitchen, perhaps I would return it, and then it becomes difficult and problematic for everyone. But if we can see that colour is just something that isn’t solid or stable but vivacious and personal, something that can enrich our world, it can give us an emotional connection to things that make us nurture and care for them so that they last longer. I find this to be the basic purpose of her work.”

That modern colours are rubbish is testament in the Netflix film The Two Popes (2019) during the conversations between Pope Benedict XVI and his successor Pope Francis in the Sistine Chapel, which was laboriously recreated in full scale at Cinecittà Studios in Rome. The problem here is not just that there is no individual in the world with the might to copy Michelangelo straight off the bat, but that the colours themselves look so lifeless.

Matching Jongerus’s pieces in the Breathing Colour show are twelve old-to-very-old paintings by Dutch and Scandinavian artists, most of them portraits, and the designer explains that they were chosen from the perspective of light, colour and atmosphere. Cilla Robach fills in that what Jongerius requested from the collections were pictures of “interiors and people with a slightly contemporary feel so that you can recognise yourself a little in them”.

When Ken Nordine recorded his album Colours in 1966, he made thirty-four spoken word vignettes directly addressed to each colour as if all of them were characters to be loved (or at least liked) in good times and in bad. The purpose of the many and oddly beautiful colours next to each other that are covering the podiums, and the cubes on these podiums, in the middle of the exhibition is to shack up with a strange looking group of round origami-like objects that has some visual punch, but they fail to do what they are there for. 

Jongerius has a name for these things, “colour catchers”: “They are a kind of an abstract way of looking at shapes out of our daily life. The colours of the bases are reflected on the shapes. It is about reflection and shadow. A shadow is never black but a reflection of the object itself,” she says without mentioning the origin of these hollow structures. “From the early 18th century onwards, many colour systems and diagrams were designed and applied in both the arts and sciences,” Alexandra Loske explicates in Colour: A Visual History. “Other diagrams are more fanciful and experimental, in the shape of triangles, diamonds or stars, or attempting three dimensions with ‘colour globes’, pyramids and cubes.”

“I took the colour catchers as a symbol for the different stages that light goes through during the day – just to know where you are,” Jongerius says with a diminutive laugh. Breathing Colour is premised on a twenty-four-hour periodicity, like the circadian movement in The Swimmer (1968), one of the greatest films of the 1960s, before Ned Merrill (Burt Lancaster) reaches the first swimming pool in the neighbourhood and decides to swim home: “Pool by pool they form a river all the way to our home. I’ll call it the Lucinda River, after my wife.” This is a day that goes from a summery Slim Aarons-y poolside mood to the total autumnal breakdown of the treacherous swimmer. Breathing Colour ends (or begins) with black walls, black colour catchers, dark paintings and the designer’s black weaves as window covers (“where the light is having a coma”), for how can you have a day without a night?

Jongerious chooses to begin her presentation where we would find the Piper at the Gates of Dawn: “This is an invitation of the morning light. In the morning the light comes up and there is a lot of water in it which makes it hazy, and the temperature of the colour is blueish, very gentle and fragile so the interpretation we make is paper weave in pastel colours. In translucency you see the reflection of the morning.”

The almost three hundred vases from the Misfit show are lined up after their colour schemes on a large shelf construction, paused by a few paintings (one is a Renaissance portrait of JC by Dieric Bouts) against a very “now” orange fund. “Later in the morning, say eleven o’clock, yellow comes in the temperature of colour,” she continues. “This is the afternoon so the light comes from above with a very strong yellow colour, and the colours are very sharp. Further in the afternoon there is a more reddish colour.”

J-K Huysmans was only thirty-six years old in 1884 when his masterpiece Against Nature was published. The connection between colour, philosophical ideas and the flavour of life looms large through Chapter Two in which Huysmans’s supreme dandy Jean des Esseintes is making design decisions for his new Fontenay house: 

Blue inclines to a false green by candlelight: if it is dark, like cobalt or indigo, it turns black; if it is bright it turns grey; if it is soft, like turquoise, it grows feeble and faded. There could be no question of making it the dominant note of a room unless it were blended with some other colour.

Iron grey always frowns and is heavy; pearl grey loses its blue and changes to a muddy white; brown is lifeless and cold; as for deep green, such as emperor or myrtle, it has the same properties as blue and merges into black. There remained, then, the paler greens, such as peacock, cinnabar or lacquer, but the light banishes the blues and brings out their yellows in tones that have a false and undecided quality.

No need to waste through the salmon, the maize and rose colours whose feminine associations oppose all ideas of isolation! No need to consider the violet which is completely neutralised at night; only the red in it holds its ground – and what a red! a viscous red like the lees of wine. Besides, it seemed useless to employ this colour, for by using a certain amount of santonin, he could get an effect of violet on his hangings.

The Pravdas in Sweden have all concluded that Hella Jongerius is a “world famous” designer and consequently has a great show to give us. But her clout on the Industry is only one thing. When Des Esseintes is reasoning with himself in his splendid isolation, he also prepares us readers for unhampered new proposals to the beauty and mystery of colours. For her Breathing Colour exhibition, Jongerius has followed Goethe’s belief from Theory of Colours (1810) that “light and its absence are necessary to the production of colour”, and it might be a good place to start for a show like this. Still and all, Breathing Colour falls short of its mission to attest how colours actually “breathe” with the light, and the exhibition is far too cold and insipid. 

When the cops ask Nicolas Cage to describe the strange meteorite that struck his family’s property in Colour Out of Space (2019), he replies that “It wasn’t like any colour I’ve seen before.” That is not the way to describe Breathing Colour, unfortunately.

In Beanpole (2019), the most stunning piece during last year’s Stockholm International Film Festival, Kantemir Balagov depicts the life of endurance in Leningrad straight after the end of WWII through the friendship of two young women whose garments, in bright green or red, work like insults of happiness. A few dots of colour by a master filmmaker is just what it takes to give complete meaning to the artwork of The Dark Side of the Moon album where the green among the six rays of colour inside the gatefold loop forms a cardiac cycle, a heartbeat.

Hella Jongerius – Breathing Colour at Nationalmuseum in Stockholm through March 1, 2020.