One of the reasons I love going to book festivals is because there's always a good chance I'll run into Arielle Eckstut and get to hang out with her. She's married to the hilarious author David Henry Sterry, and together, as The Book Doctors, they help writers publish and promote their works. Arielle's also an agent-at-large at Levine Greenberg, a fabulous author herself (Pride and Promiscuity: The Lost Sex Scenes of Jane Austen), and one of the warmest, funniest people around. The Secret Language of Color, which she wrote with her mom, is both dazzling and profound. It does what the best books do--it makes you see the world differently by examining and exploring the way we react and relate to color and why and how it's so important.
I'm so completely thrilled to have Arielle--and her mom, Joanne, here on my blog. Thank you both!
What was your inspiration for writing this book?
I grew up in an apartment filled with color. There was a room filled with a rainbow of yarns that my mom used for knitting, crocheting and fiber art. Other rooms had kilim rugs, Marimekko bedding, closets filled with hand-embroidered clothing, colorful Indian cottons, purple suede boots. My mom was a fine artist and her art filled the house with its primary theme—color. Whether that love of color was passed to me via nature or nurture we'll never know (though you could definitely make a case for the former, if you saw my maternal grandmother’s cornflower blue silk wallpaper).
My mom has what is the equivalent of perfect pitch when it comes to color. This is actually something you can be tested for. I have not taken the test myself, but I'm sure I'm right up there. Our perception of color was keen and we were always on the lookout for color in its myriad forms. A trip we took to France ended up being a search for the most interesting shutter and door colors. Trips to the beach consisted of collecting rock rainbows. In the meantime, my mom had transitioned from a fine artist into an interior designer and color and materials expert for architects and developers. Her signature palettes became integral parts of schools, museums, courthouses, apartment buildings, etc. After a number of years doing commercial projects, she started a residential interior design business with an emphasis on color.
I became a literary agent even though I really wanted to be an industrial designer. Instead I combined my interests in the literary and the visual and specialized in illustrated books. In fact, I agented two illustrated books by my mom, Room Redux and The Color Palette Primer. These were our first professional collaborations.
Soon after that, a couple of friends and I came up with the idea for LittleMissMatched, a company that sold socks that don't match in packs of threes. The idea behind that idea was to inspire creativity and self-expression in girls through color and pattern. We did what was considered radical in the business regarding color: we used lots of black, even in bedding. We concentrated on a rainbow of colors, not on pink, and we used sophisticated palettes that you would never see in kids’ clothing. These palettes were developed by my mom and me. They were the first thing we worked on together that was color related and we were hooked!
We wanted to do another project together, but we weren't sure what it should be. As we talked, we realized we both were frustrated by what was out there on color. For example, a lot of the excellent technical books on color are in black and white! And none of the books we really liked were as aesthetically appealing as we thought a book on color should be. Further, there was also no true overview of color. So, we set to work.
I love this quote: “Anyone who claims to be an expert on color is a liar. A true expert would have to be fluent in physics, chemistry, astronomy, optics, neuroscience, geology, botany, zoology, human biology--and the list goes on and on.” Can you talk about this a bit, please?
When we started the book, we thought of ourselves as color experts. But as soon as we started researching, we realized how naïve we were. Color is omnipresent in our world. The reason for this is because 80% of what the neocortex (the part of our brain that deals with a lot of higher order processing, like language) processes is visual. And everything that’s visual is colored. So to be an expert on color, you’d have to be an expert on all those things listed in your question as well as many, many others. On a related note, there is so much color misinformation being bandied about the Internet as fact. This is particularly true when it comes to color psychology. You’ll see lots of stuff like “blue makes you feel calm” or “orange makes you happy”. There is no science to back up these claims, but they’re stated as scientific fact even on reputed websites and by reputed experts. It was satisfying to get to the bottom of these “facts”.
What I think is so profound and wonderful about this book is how it really makes you see the world and all its colors differently. Color, you say, is the place where science and art meet. Can you talk about this, please?
Artists of yore were scientists. They were the ones who figured out how to create the pigments they used in their art. In other words, they were some of our first chemists. Then in 1856, a clever young chemist named William Perkin, due to an experiment gone awry, created the first mass-produced chemical dye, i.e. mauve. This was the beginning of modern chemistry as we know it. Within a few years, over 2000 new dyes were created and suddenly artists didn’t have to be chemists anymore. They could rely on commercial pigments that were cheap and easy to come by. Of course, there were still artists with a great interest in science and the creation of pigment. Yves Klein, for example, was famous for creating a brilliant shade of blue in the mid 20th century. And today, there is a real resurgence of mixing art and science. One of our favorite artists working today is James Turrell who works with the science of light as it relates to color.
Every page is filled with a fascinating fact. A bull doesn’t charge a red cape because it’s red. It charges because of the movement. Many cultures don’t give orange a name. What are your favorite color facts and why?
ROYGBIV, the pneumonic that Sir Isaac Newton came up with, to define the rainbow was completely arbitrary. He chose seven colors not because there are seven fundamental colors, but because he wanted to imitate the musical scale. He originally chose eleven colors. But just as easily could have chosen 20 or 4. In fact, the “I” in ROYGBIV stands for indigo, which we no longer consider a fundamental hue.
2 The grass really is greener on the other side of the fence. This is due to optical laws. When you look down on grass, you see the dirt below, pebbles, maybe even a gum wrapper. Whereas, when you look across to your neighbor’s yard, the angle at which you’re looking eliminates all that other junk.
3 After black and white, red is the first color to be named in every language, no matter what your longitude or latitude. Scientists postulate this has to do with the fact that our blood is red.
The book is totally gorgeous. Did you have a hand in the design?
The book was designed by Bonnie Siegler and Andrew Capelli of Eight and a Half Design. Let me tell you, these people are design geniuses! They also were unusually collaborative for designers (as designers, ourselves, we can say that!). And there was lots of collaboration. We were responsible for all the photography. My mom did the bulk of the photo research and that had a profound effect on the look of the book. My mom also created the palette for the book. But most of the inventive, fun, fascinating design details were a result of Bonnie and Andy’s fabulously creative brains.
What’s it like to work with your mom?
The good things about our partnerships have been that my mom is a good starter and I'm a good finisher; my mom likes to get things done before a deadline and I need a deadline to motivate me; we respect each other's taste and opinions, so even if we disagree, we listen to each other; my mom is a detail person and I'm very good at seeing the big picture; I'm happy (sometimes too happy) to compromise and my mom is more likely to stick to her guns when she really cares about something; we share an aesthetic vision that is similar, but not the same.
The downside of our complementary personalities is that they can clash. For example, my mom was sure we wouldn't finish the book by the deadline because we had so little time to write. Because she likes to start early and not be rushed it was a crazy timetable. On the other hand, I didn't start writing when I should've because I didn’t have someone breathing down my neck. So the timetable made us each crazy! But due to our differing personalities, we got it done.
I also was really taken with the sly humor throughout the book (i.e. magic mushrooms, are they bad for for you Yes! If you don’t want to trip. No! If you do want to trip, and the effect: Whoah.) What kind of fun was that?
Funny that you should ask! There was actually a lot more humor throughout the book to begin with. Lots of outright jokes. But our editor felt that the book changed from our original intent and that it was much more deep and deserved more reverence. Let me add, that our editor is one of the funniest people we know. We thought she was going to love all the jokes. And even add some of her own. So at first we balked at taking out some of the humor. But as is usually the case with great editors, she was right. We were forcing jokes rather than having them come naturally and elegantly out of the text.
I’m fascinated that you both are involved with color, Joann is a color consultant and Arielle is part of the Color Association of the United States. What exactly do color consultants do?
My mom consults on everything from the color of someone’s bedroom to large scale urban design projects. She’s also done dozens of schools (we can’t tell you how much color, alone, can change a school environment), museums and even a building for the FBI where she had to get security clearance. Speaking of the FBI, my mom proposed a terra cotta for the communal part of the building. The head of facilities immediately balked at such a bold use of color. But after my mom met with the interiors committee (which included FBI agents) and explained her motivation behind the choice, they agreed. And in the end, they loved it and were delighted not to have to live with the kind of institutional colors they had previously been stuck with.
My mom and I are both part of The Color Association of the United States. I’m on the children’s committee and my mom is on the interior’s committee. We both help forecast colors for these industries two years in advance. People are so terrified of color that they don’t want to choose colors themselves. This is for good reason. For example, car manufacturers don’t want to end up with lots full of a particular color car that no one likes. So they depend on experts like us to help them come up with a palette that is pleasing and commercially viable. And hopefully innovative as well. Take the orange cars that are popping up everywhere this year.
What was the most unexpected part of writing this book?
Writing this book the equivalent of getting a masters degree in a program designed by and for us. To learn and share the information enriched us and made us work hard as a team—not just in the old patterns of mother and daughter, but in new ways that stretched us both. And that made it a truly life changing, life expanding experience.