Mutant Bastard Yucky Colors of the Apocalypse

Three cheers for the Rose, Veal and Teal!

Lavender is the Yellow of Japan. Hot Pink is the Navy Blue of India. So how did dusty rose, suntan and what my friend, Generation X author Douglas Coupland calls “veal” become America’s first palette? Mae West is quoted as saying, “I used to be Snow White, but I drifted.” We have drifted. I blame Michael Graves. You gotta blame somebody. To be honest, I’m not really sure, but I do remember seeing pictures of fussy, contrived, overproduced “postmodern” buildings, with garish aqua architectural doodads. Maybe something tealish or gray-green, stuck boldly on top in a fan shape. And then the dirty pinks crept in through doors and windows. At first I thought it was an arty anomaly, but it spread like a cancer. It filtered down, and it’s kept us there too long. Down in the mud.

Okay, so I don’t know who started it, but I do know when they started it. The time: 1983. The place: Raleigh, North Carolina. Best Western? Holiday Inn? Quality, Embassy or Something Suites? It suddenly became apparent that while my back was turned, all of the normal colors had been taken away. In their place I found an unholy array of pinkish grays, in every possible mutation. I had been unwillingly introduced to the first family of bastard colors. Grayish maroon. Pale pink gray. Dark pink gray. A lipstick shade by Dior that Polly christened “Vulva.” These have become the shades that express the warmth and hospitality of our nation. I learned their names. They were “Dusty Rose” and “Heather.” The wall, the trim, the chair, the menu. The matching patterned upholstery, sporting all of these hues, sometimes accented with bits of veal. At hotels, bilious beige placards, warmly thanking us for not smoking. But what if we were? In 1982, you’d better believe it. I see Conrad Hilton, twisting in the wind.

The second family, the Teals, had an insidious alliance with the Roses. I saw them everyplace, mixing, contrasting and cavorting, in full view of respectable families: The Browns, the Reds. The Blacks and the Blues. Soon, most things looked like this. I went into a deep depression when I discovered that even Prozac was two tones of teal. How about some Off-Red Roses for a Blue-ish Lady?

In a sporting goods store, a wide variety of articles were to be found in Aquamarine with Plum-grey, Greenish-blue with Off-purple. Backpacks in lilac! Frisbees in Puce! It became suspiciously easy to find teal colored patio furniture and dusky magenta napkins. There’s a fine line between the exotic and the perverted. When a baby’s car seat is usually maroon, that line has been crossed with a vengeance. Please Don’t Step on My Heather Suede Shoes.

But wait, there’s more. Oh, the Sandstone Rose of Texas, Minnesota and Maine! A foray to the West Coast introduced me to the Third family, The Terracottas. This is a large and earthy brood, a Tan Clan, having warm and fuzzy relations with the Adobes. Although they flourish in our cowboy states, they have put down roots everywhere, often accompanying the Teals and the Roses on their architectural journeys. You can see them together down at the mall: a terracotta wall, aqua tables in the restaurant, fitted with magenta banquettes. Boneheads. Of course when used with discernment, a neutral palette has great charm. Possibly with an accent in red or black? It is the ubiquitous, pervasive and weirdly American combination of aqua, tan, and dirty pink that offends me.

Call me a hue-ist? I want clean colors from good families. Colors you recognize. “Hello, Yellow! Howdy, Brown! Hola, Blue, How are You? Hey there, Black, Welcome Bback!” By 1990 it was Too Late. The “Tweeds” catalogue had arrived. Remember “Tweeds”? I ordered something in “Pebbles,” but the quarter inch printed swatch sample couldn’t possibly communicate the dreadful effect when spread out over a human body. The effect was totally Bam-Bam. I exchanged it for an attractive shirt, but what to choose? Seaweed? Peat? Reflection? Frostbite? Roquefort? Bruise? It wasn’t so much the kooky names, but the fact that these colors were all greyed-out versions of actual colors. They hadn’t just named a blue shirt “Seascape”; it actually was an uncertain, in-between shade, a shade you might as well call Seascape, and “blue” was not available. In my own work as a designer, I have suffered the slings and arrows of the prevailing taste. An identity I designed, using red (PMS 032) and blue (PMS 285) was rejected, on grounds that these were not sophisticated colors. One client queried, “Why can’t you use, like, yellow and gray?” Well, I could, but then I’d have to, like, shoot me.

Most of the time, I live in New York, where, when colors are dirty it’s because they are covered in actual dirt. The rest of the time I live in Sweden, where colors like red, yellow, blue and green can still be found in all their unblended purity. Of course, Scandinavia is famous for its brightly colored textiles, but they still permit “regular” colors in parts of Europe and Asia, I believe. I’m not saying all colors have to be bright, but they should be at least classifiable.

In Italy, you can order a piece of fruit for dessert. A nice peach, or something. On a pure white plate. Strawberries and cream! In a French restaurant in France, you get a piece of meat and some potatoes, without nasturtiums, ground cherries, or pistachio foam on it, and where no indigenous branches have been carbonized in order to grill it to “perfection.” But what meat! What potatoes! Not that it’s relevant, but I often give meat as a gift. I always box and wrap it up beautifully. A bloody filet mignon makes a fabulous birthday present, in my opinion.

But here, we cannot leave well enough alone. In everything from soup plates to nutcrackers, the place I notice the yucky colors most is in America: the real, non-New York America, the America I know nothing about and on which I have no right to pass judgement. I see them in floor tile, fabric, those evil plastic chairs. In sneakers, soaps, and the seats at the movie theater. But what the hell, us New Yorkers are a snotty, judgmental lot, and besides, nobody asked My Permission to take the real colors away. I’m not tickled heliotrope. I’d like to get a glossy, opaque, non-metallic, cobalt blue car. I can’t even find a green sweater. Really! Somebody find me an emerald green sweater. Real green. Fingerpaint green. Oh, and please do not mention your Comme des Garcons sweater for 4200 bucks? With an on-purpose hole in it? This does not count as clothing. It is Fashion. Real people can’t and won’t spend that kind of money.

Normal colors have associations. They have meanings. A short list of subjective connections might include: Purple: Hippie, New Age, Goofy Grape, Oregon. The seventies. Navy: Conservatives, and, of course, the Navy. France. Big Business. Red: Positive, Communism, Blood, Tomatoes. Fire Truck. Green: Ecology, Grass. Money. Eco Marketing. Gray: Age, Concrete, Industrial, Boredom, Rain, Minimalism, Dust. Orange: Designiness, Gayness, Hipness, The Sixties. Holland. Oranges! Pink: Little Girls, Barbie. Cupcake frosting. Bubblegum. Cancer!

None of these are too farfetched, are they? In product design, there are some notable exceptions. I love those white Macs. Unapologetically snowy. But the Hewlett Packard printer is… uh, veal color. Sick! In recent years, most electronics products opt for a titanium finish, avoiding the color question altogether. Wussies. Of course if you’re collecting original Eames, and shopping at Vitra, there’s nary a mauve in sight. Yes, Ikea is one exception. But even they have given in to beige, a bit. And If Marc Newsom designed your car, it’s probably a fantastically legitimate color. I just don’t know anybody who has one. I’m talking about regular stuff. Not the stuff you see in design-porn magazines. The 80 percent that is the rest of it. Something Must Be Done. Or maybe not! Maybe nobody has noticed, or nobody cares.

Pantone had nothing to do with this. They just call ’em, they don’t pick ’em. Li Edelkoort had nothing to do with this. A professional trend spotter, she predicts for corporations which colors are hip now and therefore sell to the unwashed masses in the future. She asks her friends, “What colors do you like?’ and they say, “Oh, I’ve always liked tomato soup.” And suddenly there’s a shiny new tomato soup colored Ford Explorer in your garage. Of course you had nothing to do with this, dear reader. But if you do, please come forward and declare yourself, so that we can dunk you in a pinkish sauce. For all I know, these heinous hues are the grassroots favorites of every American, and rightfully deserve their de facto status as our true family values. Perhaps we should rethink the flag. Three cheers for the Rose, Veal and Teal!