The Color of Disruption

by Rebecca Huval

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Startup offices tend to look the same; they save the “innovation” for the apps. Exposed pipes or concrete pillars provide an industrial flourish, so web developers can romanticize their work as hard labor. White walls function as a blank page, just begging to have buzzwords plastered upon them. Meanwhile, natural pinewood speaks of cleanliness, friendliness, neutrality, banality, and humanity. Invariably, an accent color disrupts the dull, neutral canvas in the form of a bright couch, a stiff designer chair, a throw pillow or two, or a jarring rug. Often, that color is chartreuse.

The midway point between green and yellow, chartreuse might appear as subdued as pear and pistachio or as zesty as lime. It is the answer to that contested question: Are tennis balls yellow or green? They are neither and both; they are chartreuse. Some shades are more natural than others; the unnatural hues have a sharp yellow zing, while the mellower tones show off refinement. But why chartreuse, always?

Branding. Chartreuse “screams lively or quirky,” Michelle Richter, senior designer at O+A, an interior design studio that has decorated for the likes of Uber, Yelp and Cisco, told me. Tech workers use zany hues because “uniqueness is valued” in the industry, Leatrice Eiseman, director of the Pantone Color Institute, says. “It’s a real attention-getter, and that’s what you need when you’re starting out. It truly is an unignorable color. There are other colors that you hardly see, but not in your chartreuse range.”

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Bandwagon chartreuse offices and interiors around the world include: Meltwater, squaretrade, Microsoft Startup Labs, Airbnb, Cisco, The One Workspace Headquarters in Santa Clara, the AT&T; Foundry in Palo Alto, the publishers of the Myers-Briggs Personality Assessment in Sunnyvale, Zendesk everywhere, chat software producers LivePerson NYC, half of these “inspirational collaborative workspaces” for Generation Y, ad agency 22squared in Atlanta (pictured), this chartreuse abuse at tech company Koninklijke Philips in Somerset, this so-cool-it’s-serious coworking space Kleverdog in Los Angeles, Microsoft in Vienna, an alien-themed collaborative workspace in Spain, and Google everywhere, but especially this shire of chartreuse inside Google Dublin, among others.

Chartreuse balances opposing moods. Green is universally adored. Consistently voted second place in favorite-color surveys, green signifies “calming” and “peaceful,” and connotes nature and ecology across cultures. Tech companies can safely use the color for interior decorating and branding to win everyone over, with very few exceptions. (In China, a green hat symbolizes that a man’s wife is cheating on him.) Yellow, on the other hand, can be a risk: It is the world’s least favorite color. Although it can radiate happiness and extroversion, it can also be diseased, jaundiced, insane, like Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story, “The Yellow Wallpaper,” about a woman driven mad by the “sickly sulphur tint” of her wall decoration. It’s the color of cowardice, like the yellow-bellied wimps of old Westerns. Interior designers want to add vibrancy to a startup’s palette, but they tread gingerly down yellow roads, brick or otherwise.

Together though, yellow and green is a powerful combination. “Chartreuse is the most exciting of all greens,” Eiseman says. “Yellow denotes friendliness and good cheer. You’re adding a bit of sunshine, if you will.”

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Chartreuse gets its name from a liqueur, which in turn was named after the Grand Chartreuse monastery, tucked in a valley in southeastern France. In the early seventeenth century, Carthusian monks developed the pale apple-green drink using a secret recipe gifted to them by one of King Henri IV’s marshals, a blend of a hundred and thirty herbs, roots, seeds, and flowers. It was supposed to produce an “Elixir of Long Life,” and in one sense, it has provided them extreme longevity: Carthusian monks have made 11 million euros off of Chartreuse, allowing them to remain completely cloistered in the Grande Chartreuse monastery. “The Carthusians are the most contemplative and withdrawn religious order in the Catholic Church,” according to the Independent. “They live an entirely enclosed existence.” The order maintains a non-disclosure agreement on the recipe, known to only two monks. If they were in Silicon Valley, the Carthusians’ resume might read: “Crushing it — and herbs — since 1605.”

The term wasn’t used to describe a color in English until the late nineteenth century, when the British fashion-and-literary magazine The Domestic Monthly described a “delicate, pale green, with a yellowish tinge, entitled ‘Chartreuse’” as “a rival to the renewed apple green” which “is lovely in the large feather fans.” (Keep that in mind the next time you buy a large feather fan.) The new pigment bedazzled velvet hats and Chantilly cloaks, until it came to mark a certain fin de siècle aloofness; the phrase “greenery-yallery,” meaning green-yellow, became a putdown for the hue as well as the British Victorian intelligentsia and their affectations. Even then, chartreuse was regarded as a difficult green to match. In 1905, Dry Goods Reporter noted, under the subheading “Choosing an Easter Hat,” that, “Chartreuse greens are among the colors hardest of all to combine artistically, and yet with the new popular bluet are charming.”

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In the nineteen fifties, chartreuse arrived in modern interiors, which flashed bright shades in the optimistic spirit of the post-war boom. Yellow-green entered the realm of kitchen cabinets and sofas in the US, where it married natural avocado tones with futuristic style, indicating a rosy outlook on the nation’s prosperity. With more money in their pockets, middle-class shoppers distinguished themselves through the uniqueness of their consumer choices. In the 1956 issue of Billboard, a chartreuse jukebox was advertised “as colorful as its colorful music.” Chartreuse was for consumers with personality, who danced next to their in-home musical machines — not unlike the dose of charisma and futurism startups use it for today. The tartness of the color ratcheted up in the sixties, when it entranced viewers on psychedelic posters and tapestries, and was deployed to make department-store products groovier, from dresses and purses to plastic phones and microwaves. Finally, in the seventies, it rooted itself in ecological propaganda. “But by the eighties, everyone had gotten tired of yellow-greens,” Eiseman says. This trend is visible in Pantone’s “The 20th Century in Color” graphic (from the book of the same name, co-authored by Eiseman): Chartreuse raged through the fifties to the seventies, but its popularity went dormant in the eighties and nineties.

Then the first dot-com boom vomited primary colors onto every interior surface. Leslie Bamburg, interior designer of Lab Experiment, worked in Bay Area startups in the late nineties and saw it firsthand. “Companies like Google were just getting big and making their splash with these crazy offices that were all about whimsical fun, like treating work as a place to play rather than a place to work,” she says. “It was all primary colors, bold and vivid, and it felt like a playground.”

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In the early aughts, chartreuse regained its footing in the home once interior designers saw it with fresh eyes after two decades of letting it rest. First, it popped up in smaller, boutique home accessories lines. Over time, big box stores such as IKEA and CB2 picked up on the trend in their furnishings for home offices. “I think it was around 2010 when CB2 had a huge amount of offerings in chartreuse,” Bamburg later wrote to me in an email. In the houses of the sixties and seventies, chartreuse was paired with brown and orange; accompanying gray and black in recent years, it felt like a whole new color.

Tech companies, which began looking to home design to evolve their interiors, matured their color palette with the aid of chartreuse. “I’ve noticed a move toward sophistication,” Richter says. “It’s less about having the loudest and proudest color; it’s more of a blend and a layering of palettes. Startups are growing into their roots.” As an accent color, the overly exploited chartreuse is the ideal compromise, with the vivacity of a primary color, but the urbanity of a more complexly blended shade. “Employers want their employees to feel excited, energized and creative, and chartreuse encourages those things,” Bamburg says.

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As a home interior designer who has also worked in office design, Bamburg noticed that the tint, which creeped from homes into offices, shifted back home again, like a green ouroboros. This is the logical outcome of today’s employers wanting workers to practically live in the office: Startups create workspaces that look and feel like home, so young employees who spend most of their time at work acquire their first interior design influences at the office. “The differences between a twenty-something’s apartment and their office is becoming smaller and smaller. The things popular in the residential design world have been influenced by the tech world, and the things in the tech world are influenced by the home. It reinforces the office’s home-away-from-home quality.” (Is that Mark Zuckerberg, studying Chinese with a tutor in his in-home office, painted in a pale chartreuse? Yes it is.) “The new thing is to make these places feel comfortable and welcoming,” Bamburg says. “That helps the bottom line if employees feel like they’re at home and they never want to leave. I see more comfortable spaces like living rooms, basically, in offices.”

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The result is that chartreuse has become “the new bright orange,” Bamburg says. “Ten or fifteen years ago, bright orange was the hot color of the moment — it was vivid and exciting, but because it got so overused, it fell out of favor. Chartreuse is in that camp now. It’s used everywhere, but I can also see it becoming so overused that people back away just in reaction to it.” But if the ubiquity of chartreuse comes to an an end, it’s only a temporary one. “Most colors, especially bright colors, have their moments in history and come and go and come back again decades later,” Bamburg says.

Eiseman believes the future of chartreuse can be found in the Chartreuse Mountains as easily as in her own garden in Bainbridge Island, near Seattle. “Chartreuse combines so well with other colors. Looking at bright yellow-green, you can see it as a background to other flowers or a foreground. You can’t look at it and think, boy, mother nature made a boo boo. You look at it in the context of nature. Some people say, ‘Oh, you should never do yellow-green with purple’ because that’s their personal take on it. But you see hydrangeas in front of chartreuse you go: ‘Oh my god, it’s gorgeous.’ If we look at nature and keep our minds open to color combinations, it can be quite incredible.”

Photo of Chartreuse by Dominic Lockyer; retro kitchen image via retro renovation; and photo of Koninklijke Philips office by Interior Design