The return of brown

Colour Trend charet from 1900-3

By Phil Tristram

Back in the seventies at school, my then art teacher confiscated my black paint. She said I was using too much of it and wanted me to try other colours. Although miffed (I was in my black period), the ban forced me into experimenting – and it worked! My paintings and drawings were transformed as I discovered new techniques of blending and layering colours to get different effects. And it was the start of my fascination with colour in art and design, and the intriguing and complex science of its use. 

Today, we are surrounded by far more colour than we were back then. In the sixties, colour themes were bright, vivid and matched the swinging, psychedelic mood. My parents had bright orange walls in their hall, and my trendy aunt and uncle had a bright purple carpet in their living room. But then, towards the end of the decade, people and designers were looking for change. As the seventies emerged, consumers embraced styles reflecting earthy tones, seeing them as ‘sincere’, ‘stylish’ and ‘contemporary’. 

I recently found a picture of myself from 1974. In it, I’m wearing a dark brown V-neck jumper with beige stripes around the waist and neck, and three beige stars across the chest. Under the jumper, I’m wearing a dark brown shirt with beige piping edging the rounded collar. My trousers are chocolate-coloured Oxford bags. My shoes were not in shot, but I’ll take a wild guess at them being beige. 

At around that time, my mum knitted me a big, chunky Starsky & Hutch Cowichan cardigan. It was cream and dark brown. (To my horror, I see that these are now available on Etsy.) 

A few years later, while in a local pub, a thought struck me: I was drinking a dark brown pint at a very dark brown table. The walls were a slightly lighter brown, the carpet was dark chocolate brown with tiny flecks of beige. The ceiling was meant to be white but it was actually brown, stained from thousands of unfiltered cigarettes. Most of the cars in the car park were brown, as were most of the clothes worn by the drinkers. These were brown times.

Then, very slowly, we emerged into the eighties, and with them came colour. Lots of bright colour! Again, the colours matched the attitude of the people. Maybe it was my age back then, but there was a huge sense of growth and change. People were highly motivated to be the best at what they did. And all things brown had finally gone.

But, like most things, colour is cyclical. Brown did make a comeback in the late nineties and early noughties. I remember we had a beige sofa and Elephant’s Breath walls. But I don’t remember wearing brown clothes.

Twenty years on, brown seems to have almost gone again, apart from the occasional UPS delivery person. (How has that happened? A quick Google confirmed that ‘UPS has been using brown as the brand colour since 1919’, and in 1998, ‘UPS Brown’ became a US trademark colour).

Looking back 100 years or so, it’s clear that, at that time, colours were very muted and earthy and leaned towards more natural tones. Gradually, as science and manufacturing developed ways of producing brighter, more vivid colours, these started to appear more in everyday life.

Today, we are surrounded by screens that can produce millions of colours. In the print and fashion world, designers can use printed fluorescent and neon colours, which were seen only in lighting up until recently. In the automotive industry, some manufacturers have produced paint that can reflect three different colours, depending on which angle you’re viewing from. Interior designers have access to pigments that react to an electrical current, and so can be turned on and off.

Will those brown days ever return? Probably not. Looking back, I can see we are due to start another period of earthy bias. Will we soon start seeing Dead Salmon-coloured cars with a Pond Water vinyl roof and Rusty Shipwreck interior? Will we ever see men wearing Bournville Chocolate suits matched with a Magnolia shirt?

I’m sure I just saw a new Porsche in brown – or was it dark red? And I just noticed my headphones are beige…

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