Meet Designer Hella Jongerius
Ten years ago, designer Hella Jongerius began a research project for Swiss furniture company Vitra. As she parsed through decades of colors, shapes, textiles, and materials, Jongerius developed what has quickly become The Vitra Colour & Material Library. In our new book I Don’t Have a Favourite Colour, Jongerius describes her unique method of research and how its results were applied to the Vitra product portfolio. We spoke with her below to learn more.
You have been researching colors for more than a decade at this point. From where does your fascination with colors originate?
My fascination with colors emerged from the enigmatic, inscrutable quality of colors. They bind together a range of important topics in life, including the aesthetic value of art, the scientific research that goes into color theory, and the sociocultural relevance of color in our society.
Colors are organized into objective systems in the industrial world. What do you think about this approach based on your research?
When I look at designers and color theorists from the mystical Greek color mixtures to Newton’s research and the studies by painter and Bauhaus teacher Johannes Itten, I conclude that all of these interesting ideas were triggered by a subjective interest in questioning color, and that each theory emerged from very personal experiences.
The fact that there’s no objectivity in color is a blessing to me—color is a visual expertise, not a scientific one. Today, there is no place for questioning the objective, all-encompassing RAL, Pantone, and NCS color systems. Millions of colors are categorized and sorted for us. How can we ever intimately relate to color in this situation?
How do you deal with the industrial world’s approach to color?
Colors breathe with the daylight; industrial colors remain the same despite variations in light. I was curious to find out more about how changes in daylight can affect an object’s hues. The weather, the time of day, the season, and the location can all influence a color.
You also pay special attention to each object’s surface. What do you find fascinating about working with textiles?
I find the many angles and forms of textiles fascinating. For weaving, you need both an understanding of abstraction and the technical skill to be creative. A loom is the first computer: it all references the binary system. You can compare a loom to computer systems that are based on ones and zeros. You have to have a very abstract mind to design textiles made with a loom. Thus, textiles have a very multifaceted character. They have this emotionally intuitive and tactile aspect, but also this very technical, abstract side. The split nature of textile work is a really interesting topic that is often difficult to work through.
Moreover, textiles are grounded in the history—cloth work is an old craft. The historic archive fascinates me. We are surrounded by textiles – not only with fashion but with floorings and furniture—so they are very important elements in our lives. And as we live in a digital world, there is a necessary focus on tactility and surfaces. The complexity of textiles and working with textiles is really what I am interested in.
When and how did you start working with Vitra?
In a way, my first project for Vitra was in 2005—the Polder Sofa. Its design concept was based on creating a collage of different textile structures and various shades of a single color. When it was presented in at the Salone del Mobile in 2005, there were four versions of the sofa: Red, green, light and dark—one for each color world.
After designing the Polder Sofa, I joined Vitra as Art Director of colors and materials in 2007. Our intention was to make a color and material system for Vitra in which the special character of both the classic and contemporary designs in the collection would be emphasized, updated, and ordered.
Consequently, I began a research project for Vitra to study the properties and possibilities of colors, textures, finishes, and materials. This long-term project has resulted in the Vitra Colour & Material Library, which is devoted to the establishment and further development of an intelligent system of colors, materials, and textiles that make it easy to create a signature look for offices, homes, and public spaces.
What was your approach in the cooperation with Vitra?
Vitra has a strong foundation in colors and textiles and they wanted to focus on the pair as they started their Home Collection. At first, my work was mainly reviving iconic Vitra designs such as the Eames Lounge Chair. I also worked on new plastic colors and then started curating a wider fabric selection. As the home collection grew, we felt that we needed our own exclusive fabric range so we intensified the work on materials and colors. Our ambition was to create a color and material library as an intelligent and dynamic system. The system included cover materials such as textiles, non-woven fabrics, and leather, as well as solid materials like plastic colors, metal surfaces, and wood treatments. Together these material groups formed a coherent system that still offers many possible combinations and connections, which would then make it easy for costumers and professionals to define a cohesive and lively interior style.
What was the initial aim of developing the Vitra Colour and Material Library? And is it still growing?
The aim of our project is to create an own identity of surfaces for Vitra. We intend to establish an intelligent system of colors, materials, and textiles that makes it easy to create rich environments in offices, homes or public spaces. However we are just starting with the project and the library is not a definite group of colors or materials—it is a growing organism. It is a dialogue with the company and the designers; it is a dialogue with what is happening in the world.
Can you give us a little insight on how the library works? Are there certain colors and materials that can only be paired together? Or textures that are used for specific designs or by specific designers?
In my role as Art Director of colors and materials, I create designer-specific color and material worlds in collaboration with Vitra’s contemporary designers. Simultaneously, updates of the classic designs were developed after consulting their designer’s descendants. Together, the designer-specific libraries result in a wide range of Vitra colors, each with a classification scheme that makes it possible to combine furnishings in vibrant and expressive interior collages. Each product is given a strong personality, yet they blend together seamlessly.
The Colour & Material Library is an intelligent and dynamic system. Its concept starts with organizing all colors in four contrasting color worlds: The reds, the lights, the greens, and the darks. The internal structure of the color wheels keeps many options open: A wheel can remain incomplete, colors come and go, and this incompleteness affords openness. There is no room, however, for thoughtless coincidences. Every choice is inspired and consciously determined.
As the title of your book suggests, you don’t have a favorite color. Can you explain why that is?
I simply can’t say what my favorite colour is if I don’t know for what reason. I need to know the use a color—what is this color for? In which material, for what type of daylight, and for what piece will this color be used? I have no definite answer—it all depends on the context.