It wasn’t long before other industries joined the revolution. Henry Ford had famously said customers could have their Model T any color “so long as it is black.” But in 1924, General Motors introduced its budget-model Oakland in True Blue (with orange accents), and by 1928, Dupont was marketing a line of automobile coatings that included Pewter Pot, Verdancia, Water Glo, Lei Orange, and my personal favorite, Red Shadow Red (described as “a yellow red, suitable for use with brown or beige”). At home, every surface—from bedding to the kitchen sink—became available in various bold and matching hues. The coordination was so great that, looking back, time itself seems to have been colorized: We identify the early ’60s with pastels, the ’70s with over-bright polyesters and earth tones, and the ’80s with neon.
Blaszczyk concludes her book by suggesting that we now live in a “chromo-utopia,” but chromo-anarchy might be more like it. Sure, our clothes don’t fade and our replacement parts match, but the sheer accumulation and variety of manufactured color is as confusing as it is edenic. Increasingly, too, our era demands that we participate in choosing colors, whether through desktop publishing or DIY home decorating—and yet most of us remain radically unprepared to perceive, describe, and use color in any sophisticated way.
In the end, it turns out, the half-victory of Munsell’s system is very much our own. Instead of a robust educational program to learn about color, we have elaborate mechanisms that bring us a extraordinary rainbow of hues—in our clothes, in our homes, really everywhere—without very much understanding. More than a hundred years ago, Munsell feared that the development of artificial dyes would result in a horrible cacophony of badly deployed color. Today, it may be time for a Munsell revival.
Dushko Petrovich, a painter and critic, teaches at The Rhode Island School of Design and Yale School of Art, and is a founding editor of Paper Monument.