‘the art of mixing grey’

 

The book by Bente Lange on The Colours of Copenhagen has a section on the pigments used to make grey paint. On historic buildings in the city the range of greys used is amazing from soft stone colours through dark steel grey to warm greys tending almost to dull green. Of course the pigments used are never simply black added to a white base but might have touches of Prussian blue or ultramarine or even Italian red.

Bente Lange describes the “grey of the Baroque” as “a cold heavy colour made by mixing carbon black into white” and she refers to a painters’ handbook from 1799 that “contains recipes for mixing … silver grey, linen grey and ordinary grey” and there are evocative gems just dropped in to the short account of grey pigments that ground black was made “by charring young shoots from grapevines”, linen grey was with white lead, varnish and Berlin blue “ground separately before mixing” and stone colours might include “shavings” from cut stone in lime putty with “brown ochre as needed.”

Bente Lange, The Colours of Copenhagen, published by The Royal Academy of Fine Arts School of Architecture Publishers in 1997

Copenhagen blue II

Torvegade and Christians Kirke from Overgaden Over Vandet

 

Having said that for me blue is the colour in the urban landscape of Copenhagen that seems to be strong and reflect how I see the city, there are very few buildings that are actually painted blue. 

There are several reasons for this and not least it’s that early blue pigments derived from lapis lazuli for ultramarine were incredibly expensive and the cheaper Prussian blues that were available from the early 18th century onwards were fugitive so they not only faded but could decompose in the air. Although Cobalt blue, an industrially produced blue pigment, was stable and lime proof, even that paint was considered to be too expensive for use across a facade.

Also, I have read somewhere that Danish architects and painters considered blue to be a very strong and dominant colour … ‘stronger’ than red … so to be used carefully.

Some historic buildings in the city are now painted blue in shades that vary from cornflower blue to blues that are much closer to purple and they certainly lift and brighten a line of buildings but there really should be a rule that one blue house in a street is fantastic but two is too much so once one owner has gone for blue that should be it.

 

Det Blå Hjørne / The Blue Corner

The infill building in Christianshavn by the architectural studio Vandkunsten known as Det Blå Hjørne or The Blue Corner (bottom right) dates from 1989.

This is - as the name implies - a corner plot which can be difficult for both the plan of a building and for the design of the facades but here the corner is not even a right angle as Dronningsgade and the side road of Store Søndervoldstræde meet at an angle of about 120 degrees.

In addition, making the commission for a new apartment building here more difficult, this is a part of Christianshavn where relatively modest historic houses have survived so it gives an important impression of what domestic areas of the inner city must have been like in the 17th and 18th centuries before ordinary houses were replaced with grander or more commercial buildings. The building is at the quiet end of a beautiful and complex courtyard that retains more old courtyard buildings than in many blocks. 

But Vandkunsten were bold, dividing the new apartments between two buildings to leave a narrow view into the courtyard at the corner and played with all the rules so the roofs are mono-pitch - the older buildings have pitched roofs with a ridge - and the choice for wall finish is metal sheet so it almost feels like a final parry with convention, that the cladding is deep blue. The total effect works well as it gives the building a semi-industrial feel and if there is any single aspect of the historic centre of the city that has been lost or changed with too little appreciation of the consequences it is that Copenhagen has lost far too many of the workshops and early industrial buildings that once filled many of the back streets and courtyards.

 

Kunsthåndværkermarkedet / The Craft Market on Frue Plads in Copenhagen

 

 

In the middle of August each year, there is a craft market on Frue Plads - the square next to the cathedral in Copenhagen.

Organised by Danske Kunsthåndværkere & Designere / The Danish Association of Craft Workers and Designers, this is an opportunity to see and to buy some of the very best ceramics, glass and textiles made in Denmark. These photographs of ceramics were taken this time last year and show the quality and the range of works sold here.

The current series of posts on this site is looking at aspects of how colour and texture are used in Danish design and Danish architecture and it seems curious that, on the whole, the current fashion for both buildings and for interiors in Denmark is for muted colours and, generally, very little or very restrained use of texture but in ceramics you find such strong forms or shapes and incredibly confident use of colour and texture in works that push both the material and the glazes used to new levels.

 

Kunsthåndværkermarkedet / The Craft Market 2018
Thursday 9 August 12 - 19
Friday 10 August 10 - 19
Saturday 11 August 10 - 16

 

colour in the work of Finn Juhl

 

 

It's probably sacrilege - and just saying this might mean I'm banned from the design museum - but I still find it difficult to like the furniture designed by Finn Juhl.

Written down, that seems like a terrible confession but looking at the furniture from the classic period of Danish design - so ostensibly at the furniture from the 1950s and 1960s but also back to the 1940s - I find it much easier to appreciate the robust lines and solid shapes of furniture by Børge Mogensen; the complete mastery of cabinetmaking techniques in work by Hans Wegner or the cool and rational engineering of furniture by Poul Kjærholm. I suppose, in the end, these judgements can only come down to personal taste.

However, having said that, furniture by Juhl began to make more sense - at an intellectual level rather than in terms of style or taste - after seeing the book on his watercolours by Anne-Louise Sommer and seeing the designs by Juhl for the cabinetmakers' exhibitions - where he showed his furniture - and his drawings for the room in the museum in Trondheim that he designed and furnished and, of course, with his drawings for the furniture and designs for the interiors for the UN building in New York.

For Juhl colour and setting were as important as form and style when he designed furniture. He is hardly unique amongst architects and designers at that period - so Le Corbusier experimented with large areas of strong colour in his interiors - but Juhl uses colour much more in his furniture than most of his Danish contemporaries. His palette is distinct with dark, dull sage greens, a fair bit of dark turquoise and deep ochres and deep maroons.

Much of his furniture was upholstered, with plain fabrics, so without patterns apart from the weave, but sometimes with strong contrasts between the colour of the seat pad and the colour of the back and for the cabinetmakers' exhibitions he used the same strong dark colours on the walls of the room sets so clearly the extravagant contours of the wooden chair frames were to be seen in silhouette against the right colour.

Several cabinets designed by Juhl were painted with strong technicolour shades - probably the Glove Cabinet - a folding or double-sided drawer unit from 1961 - is the best-known example with each drawer painted a different colour.

I'm even tempted to suggest that the use of tan leather for the large chairs such as Høvdingestolen / The Chieftain designed in 1949 is as much about getting a large area of consistent colour - about a subtle reflection of colour rather than using a textile that absorbs light - as it is about upholstery.

 

Watercolours by Finn Juhl, Anne-Louise Sommer, Strandberg Publishing (2015)

A Visual Inventory by John Pawson

 

 

This is not so much a review as a simple signpost to an important book.

A Visual Inventory is a collection of annotated images with the photographs taken by the British architect John Pawson when travelling. The book is about colour and about light - so how colours change with different qualities of natural light - but the images are also about the photographer being aware of and sensitive to shape and form and texture and pattern and of age or how buildings and landscapes and materials change over time … those basic elements of all architecture and all design. Above all, the photographs invoke a strong awareness of place as different latitudes and different climates can be associated with what are often distinct colour ranges or tones and with specific patters and forms of building.

Above all the book is an insight into how an architect and designer sees his world and what draws his attention and what, specifically, he looks at and records for inspiration in his work.

Single images are printed on each page with short notes but are set in pairs across each double-page spread and linked by shapes or subjects or location. None of the photographs have been cropped or altered so the process of taking the photographs is clearly considered with care so they reflect, in a straightforward and honest way, the reaction to the subject by the photographer at a specific moment.  

John Pawson also has an Instagram site that should be bookmarked by anyone trying to appreciate and understand our landscapes and our buildings in terms of colour and tone and texture.

 

A Visual Inventory, John Pawson, Phaidon (2012) 

John Pawson on Instagram

Anatomy of Colour

 

 

The Anatomy of Colour begins with types of paint - from distemper to lime wash to milk paint and more - and then Patrick Baty sets out the sources of pigment for those paints so through white paint, black paint and then on to each colour through the blues, the browns, greens, reds and yellows - so, generally, for each colour, he traces the development from natural pigments, from plants and minerals, to the by-products of emerging industries and then on to the first pigments by industrial chemists. 

Historic practices and techniques for house painters are discussed; there are fascinating reproductions of historic catalogues for the paint brushes and the tools of professional painters and the author looks at the early organisation of guilds and paint companies. However, for designers, the important contribution of the book comes from the extensive number of historic colour charts reproduced along with summaries of early colour theories and detailed discussions for each major period or each major style and fashion, that helps set historic design within the context of colour. He combines longer sections of text with carefully designed double-page spreads and uses longer captions effectively so you can sit and read the book cover to cover or you can use the book and its images as a reference encyclopaedia seeing where cross references take you.

We tend to describe styles and the relatively distinct periods of interior design in terms of the forms and types of furniture that were popular in a certain period and we also recognise distinct patterns that appear on furniture or are reproduced on textiles but certainly styles or periods can have distinct preferences for colours or, and more interesting, for the juxtaposition of certain colours. Even the choice of materials can be determined by what are fashionable or unfashionable colours so distinctly orange Oregon Pine was popular for a relatively short period and Formica was as much about having a wide selection of deep strong colours as it was about having a smooth clean surface for food preparation.

Reproductions from historic paint charts and books or articles about colour theories by contemporary artists and designers show how the presentation of colours and any general discussion about colour can influence our choice of colours for our homes. We may not even realise we are being influenced because, of course, although we feel now that there is almost infinite choice, what we see clearly here is that what designers select and what companies produce and make available and what they advertise all influence that choice.

It is absolutely right to describe this book as an anatomy of colour because, in a careful and scholarly way, the technical development of household paints and the theories of colour and the preference for certain colours in certain periods is dissected. It feels, in a good way, like sitting in an old-fashioned lecture theatre with high banks of seats to watch someone with skill take something apart, with care, to say now look at this … isn’t it fascinating … and this is how and why it works.

 

The Anatomy of Colour, The Story of Heritage Paints and Pigments, Patrick Baty, Thames & Hudson (2017)

old paint shops in Copenhagen

L1210372.jpg

only the shop sign survives on Grønnegade

 

 

Looking at the historic shop signs that survive around the city shows just how many paint or colour shops there were in Copenhagen. Most of these shops and small companies have gone but they supplied high-quality pigments and paints for house painters, furniture makers, sign writers, carriage makers, boat builders and painters of coats of arms.

 

the paint and pigment shop on Esplanaden - still in business

the old Sadolin factory on Holmbladsgade

 

Flügger

 

 

There have been posts before on this site about the Danish paint company Flügger.

They produce carefully-curated ranges of historic colours as well as developing new ranges or new colours for their paints for commercial and domestic use.

Looking at their paint charts, divided into historical periods, is a very good way to think about which colours and which combinations of colours were fashionable through each major style. Furniture and interiors have distinctive forms and patterns - or even deliberate lack of pattern - and certain materials came into and went out of favour so furniture in pine, dark exotic woods, oak and then coloured plastic and steel all have distinct qualities of colour. Also, of course, the quality of artificial light - its power and its cast of colour - and the temperature - so warm yellow light or cold light with a blue tint - all change the appearance of an interior and with fashion colour can be restricted in range or density or even be fragmented across a pattern or focused in great blocks of colour.

The Flügger web site is well worth exploring - particularly the sections on colour.

Flügger

Flugger site.jpeg

Terra Consilia - Liquid Life 2017

 

 

For the Biennalen for Kunsthåndværk & Design / The Biennale for Craft & Design in 2017, the designer Margrethe Odgaard looked at colour and geographical location by analysing and reproducing in paint the natural earth colours from Denmark - so the colours of the underlying geology of Jutland - and then compared them with the brown earth colours commonly found in paint boxes and household paint - so often Sienna and Umbra from Italy with the colours taken from Italian paintings or from the colours found on Italian buildings.

The Danish earth colours were reproduced in paint and applied to large areas of glass for the exhibition and the catalogue posed a simple but very important question: 

"Every culture has a unique colour identity that is closely associated with the local light …. Might we learn something about ourselves by getting to know the colour notes of the soil we were raised on?"

Important? Well I would say crucial. In a multinational world we are beginning to question if, on many different levels, one size really does fit all? Because we talk less often about colour, by accepting colour choices from a peripatetic designer working for an international company aren't we undermining our sense of place? Should we be able to choose colours from and for a place?

Copenhagen blue

native values R:0 G:77 B:117
Adobe RGB R:43 G:77 B:116

 

 

Exploring the city through different seasons and in different lights, one of the dominant colours is the deep deep blue of the water of the harbour and the even darker still water in the lakes and in the sections of the city defences where they survive. 

The water picks up blue from the sky and carries flashes of colour in the reflections of buildings and trees but it has an amazing quality and depth with a green tone and that forms a frame or base for buildings close to the water.

International critics and authors discuss Danish design at length but few seem to be aware of specific location - as if Danish architecture should be judged in some non-specific place - but Copenhagen has an almost unique combination of factors when it comes to location. 

From it's latitude the sun and therefore the angle of the light is low, or relatively low, for much of the year and that effects the quality or intensity of the light and changes the nature of the shadows; there is little industry or heavy industry here, compared with many capital cities, and, although there is traffic, there is, thankfully, not much vehicle pollution so the air is clear. The city is surrounded by water- relatively deep but calm water - and there is water in the city in large areas of lakes and moats to the defences.

In part, colours in stained-glass windows take on very specific qualities because they are framed in black … the matt black tending to grey of the lead cames. In much the same way, the colours of the buildings and the roofs in Copenhagen take on their quality and their character because, so often, they are seen against the sharp clear blue of a northern sky or are seen above and against water and with the light bouncing up off the water.

 

 
 

note:

the colour swatch at the top was produced using a digital colour meter on these images  taking about 20 samples of what appeared to be, by eye, the most typical and the dominant blues. Curiously the colour is greener and heavier than I would have anticipated from the way colours change across the image. The camera is a Leica M9 and the lenses respond to Copenhagen light in an amazing way. Maybe not completely scientific and maybe not objective but still worth doing ... the blue is close to the colour chosen for the background of the logo here for copenhagen architecture & design news

through a glass darkly

 

Over the last twenty or thirty years, much of the new architecture in the city has been designed with huge areas of glass across outside walls and this reflects back blue from the sky and the water but also, as you look through the building, you see colours or distorted colours of sky or water or an urban landscape beyond. 

The glass used varies in quality and does not reflect light in the same way from one building to another so some windows seem blank and flat, like holes in the façade, sucking in the light, while others are like tinted sun glasses, hiding everything inside but reflecting back everything outside. 

Some glass, particularly older and more irregular glass, can have really amazing qualities seeming, in comparison with modern plate glass, like comparing pewter and polished steel in metal … because the older glass has a warmth and softens and distorts images and reflections.

Certainly, the way the light is reflected by the glass means that the appearance of a building can change dramatically at different times of day, as the sun moves round, or can look very different if you approach from a different direction so you, rather then the sun, moves round.

 
 

Copenhagen warm

 

 

In the older buildings in the city, the palette of colours is warmer and richer … with stronger earth colours and more texture and more irregular surfaces because colour is laid over heavy plaster that is often repaired. The colour is not flat but less consistent less mechanical, richer and deeper. 

 

 

a zing of yellow in the city

 

 

In the city, the buses and the ferries are a very deep yellow and these provide a real zing of colour that moves across the urban landscape against the buildings or against the blue of the water along the harbour.

It's the depth of the yellow colour that is so striking. Is this egg yolk yellow? Certainly very little white so it's not a pretty yellow like a flower … darker and deeper than a daffodil but not as sharp and painful on the eyes as the yellow of oil seed rape flowers so the bus and ferry yellow is not a botanical colour so better described as mechanical … a chemical or mineral yellow.

 

 

subtle colour and soft tones in the city

the entrance to the National Bank designed by Arne Jacobsen

 

 

Many of the buildings in the city use pale stone or pale marble or are painted and in subtle or subdued colours with tones of cream and stone and soft grey. 

Or maybe subtle is the wrong word - because the ochre of the Nyboder houses could hardly be described as subtle - but these colours provide a solid and a calm background to the life passing by and passing through these buildings. 

There are few sharp pastels, few day-glow colours, few sharp or acidic colours but toning down colour is not boring and nor is it a safe or an easy design option … it is possible to get it wrong, particularly when colours on neighbouring buildings do not work together … so going for a stone or grey or off white colour it's not a lack of design … very much the opposite because reducing the palette range means that the juxtaposition of tones becomes more important with darker or lighter tones defining architectural features by making some parts set back and some break forward in order to emphasise planes or emphasise details or pick out a pattern or carving or texture or moulding.

 

 

The east lobby of the Design Museum is a fantastic space that some people might, initially, find boring but it is like a quiet and carefully-constructed poem in tone and texture with subtle contrasts so juxtaposing smooth dark grey marble with the warmer, softer and broken textures of the grain of the wood blocks of the floor and contrasting those surfaces with the deep, matt wash of grey across the walls. This did not happen by accident but is the consequence of considerable thought and careful choice.

Even within the museum there are different sets of these tones. On the staircases flanking the entrance there are much greener tones in the soft sage colours of the stone flooring and painted handrail and dado of the woodwork of the staircase.  

 

Copenhagen colour at night

 

 

 

Away from the main shopping streets, electric lighting in the city is kept low … that's both the level of light is surprisingly low and, generally, the height of street lights is low … a lot of lights are fixed to buildings at about first-floor level although in some streets some fittings for more general lighting are suspended from wires strung across the street but there are also various forms of low-level lights along footpaths and custom lighting on slopes and steps at ground level so light rakes across the footpath. On some paths and steps, there are even lights along or under handrails.

As the sun gets lower, the sky goes through violet and mauve colours that deepen to navy and then, as artificial lighting takes over, there are washes of colour - the colours of the bricks or the stone or the render - tailing off into shadows that mark or define many facades and for modern, glass-clad buildings, it is often at night that the interior arrangement of offices and staircases and walkways is revealed.

For a city where commerce is so important, there is surprisingly little advertising with neon lighting … so around the town hall square and along the street towards the train station, where it seems appropriate, and otherwise on a few major apartment buildings like those on the Islands Brygge side of Langebro or along the lakes where you can find the famous Irma hen laying eggs. 

Shop fronts are illuminated but signs are often painted and might or might not be spot lit for night time rather than being back lit.

So, for a large and densely-populated city, light pollution is relatively well controlled.

It is still possible to walk around the central harbour and see lights reflect up off the water sparkling with light from cars and from buildings and with the light from boats.

Another interesting Copenhagen experience is to walk through the residential areas and witness the Copenhagen 'no-curtains' habit. Talking to someone working in the design industry but who lived over the bridge in Malmö, she said one guilty pleasure she had was to walk around the city in the evening to look in through windows to see how people in the city live and how they furnish their homes.