New Cooper Hewitt Exhibit Takes a Fresh Look at the History of Color

Saturated: The Allure and Science of Color delves into product design, subway wayfinding, industrial standardization, consumer culture, and more.

Saturated Allure Science Color exhibit Cooper Hewitt
Poster, Knoll International, 1967; Designed by Massimo Vignelli Courtesy Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum

Saturated: The Allure and Science of Color (on view May 11 to January 13) explores the history and application of color theory through more than 190 objects dating from antiquity to the present day. “The exhibition draws on the extraordinary collections of Smithsonian Libraries and Cooper Hewitt to examine how design advances our understanding of what can be achieved when we experiment and innovate with color,” says Caroline Baumann, director of Cooper Hewitt.

The exhibition explores the allure that color has held for artists, philosophers, and scientists—like Isaac Newton, whose 1704 color and light treatise Opticks is on view, and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, whose 1810 Theory of Colors directly challenged Newton’s earlier hypotheses. As this cast of luminaries suggests, Saturated covers fascinating territory, revealing the history and process behind product design, subway wayfinding, industrial standardization, consumer culture, the production of dyes and pigments, and optical perception. Taking examples from the trend consulting agency PeclersParis and its biannual Colors Trend Book, visitors can make their own color palettes with an interactive display.

Cooper Hewitt’s commitment to historical and contemporary design is captured in this illuminating exhibition, which builds on Color in a New Light, a 2016–17 show at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. Today, designers and philosophers are applying the history of color theory as a foundation for future innovative designs and ideas.

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