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How Design in the 1950s Used Color to Influence Consumers

By the mid-1950s, the war era’s somber hues had thoroughly dissipated, and designers were bringing exuberance to everyday objects, from pink telephones to aquamarine automobiles. Industrial Design magazine, in their annual design review of 1955, acknowledged the pervasive and newly uninhibited use of color.1  American kitchens in particular, the review noted, were breaking out of their formerly sterile conditions and into pastel palettes, with appliances now resembling edible pastries in soft yellows, greens, and pinks.

Now that so many colors were available for everyday products, manufacturers were faced with having to choose. A special field of study devoted to the psychological responses to and cultural associations of color paralleled the rise of industrial design in the postwar era. In order to actively engage with the subject, the Society of Industrial Designers (SID) joined the Inter-Society Color Council in 1949.2   Muller-Munk was among SID’s representatives, with Egmont Arens as chairman.3  From their organization’s perspective, industrial designers had a potentially powerful role to play in influencing consumer behavior through the astute use of color.4 

It was at this moment that Caloric Appliance Corporation, based in Topton, Pennsylvania, engaged PMMA to devise a design concept for its new 1955 line of gas ranges and ovens.5  The result was a successful product that remained largely unchanged until decade’s end. Caloric’s marketing feted the “brilliant years-ahead styling” of PMMA and the stoves’ “tasteful use of color.”6  Consumers had their choice not only of various range sizes and modular configurations of doors, burners, and ovens, but also of colors—the stamped steel body came in traditional white and five different colors.7  PMMA’s design also featured incandescent “colortone” lighting options in the illuminated backguard, with bulbs available in “frosty blue,” “minty green,” “rosy pink,” and (for the perennially conservative) “cool white.”8 

Small-scale goods, too, owed much of their consumer appeal to up-to-date color choices. In 1958 Schick, Incorporated, a national company based in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, introduced the Futura model to its line of Lady Schick electric shavers. PMMA brought restrained elegance and refinement to a product that was intended to be both feminine and functional. The firm’s model makers experimented with clay forms, ultimately settling on a compact, faceted shape that was centrally weighted and easy to grip. While previous Lady Schick models relied heavily on surface decoration, Futura’s form resembled an exquisite gemstone.9 

The luxurious new Lady Schick benefitted from the best consultants in the field. PMMA teamed up with package designer Francis Blod, who created the miniature hatbox-shaped carrying case, and commercial color expert Faber Birren, who selected four personalized shades—“frost white,” “blush rose,” “flame red,” and “turquoise.”10  Birren was a luminary among a growing number of professional color consultants working in concert with architects, industrial designers, and manufacturers.11  By 1960 every new Caloric stove included a kitchen color plan by home color stylist Beatrice West, while at Westinghouse, Melanie Kahane created fabrics and wallpapers coordinated to the company’s Confection Color appliances in shades such as “Frosting Pink” and “Lemon Yellow.”12 

Lady Schick Futura electric shaver in multiple shades, 1958. (Tom Little/Carnegie Museum of Art)

Understanding the behavioral impact of color not only served to boost sales for individual products, but also offered an opportunity to improve daily environments. PMMA’s Sylva-Lume luminescent ceiling for Sylvania is a case in point, designed to soften modernist interiors through colored lighting because, as Muller-Munk said, “lumens alone do not make for happiness.”13  In February 1957 Muller-Munk presented the new architectural product to his client with the following challenge: “The Sylvania Sylva-Lume system was developed by a creative group for a creative profession … it is up to you to follow through where we left off.”14  Composed of a suspension grid with three-by-three-foot modular units of colored vinyl, Sylva-Lume offered architects and businesses a customizable lighting palette of pastel colors that broke up the large light-diffusing plastic ceilings that were “as monotonous and standardized as if they had been invented for a race of robots.”15 

PMMA built upon the Sylva-Lume experience in a related project with Westinghouse engineers who were developing the technology to create “bulb-less” lighting systems—luminous panels of glowing phosphor encased between sheets of coated, electrically conductive glass. Branded Rayescent, this “thermoelectric electro-luminescent” technology produced a “cool, shadow-less light which can be varied in brightness and in color” and be used not only as a ceiling, but also as walls and flooring for a total environment with a full spectrum of color options.16  PMMA designed room environments showcasing these panels, as well as the sculptural anodized aluminum “mobiles” used to pass electric currents and alternatively cool and heat the room17  With the touch of a dial, inhabitants could adjust color, light intensity, and temperature, altering a room’s mood with these “chameleonlike, color changing panels.”18  Ambitious projects such as these anticipated the light environments soon to emerge in 1960s avant-garde art, and positioned PMMA at the cutting edge of color as a design tool.

This essay is excerpted from the book Silver to Steel, published by Carnegie Museum of Art, DelMonico, and Prestel.

The exhibition Silver to Steel: The Modern Designs of Peter Muller-Munk is on view in the Heinz Galleries at Carnegie Museum of Art from November 21, 2015 to April 11, 2016.


Endnotes

  1. “Annual Design Review: Trends: Color,” Industrial Design 2, no. 6 (December 1955), 36.
  2. “Report of Executive Committee Meeting with Representatives of Newest Member Bodies,” Industrial Designers Society of America (IDSA) Records, Correspondence, 1949–1953, Inter-Society Color Council, Special Collections Research Center, Syracuse University
    Libraries. The Color Council consisted of various national Industrial Designer’s member organizations.
  3. The other delegates were Julian Everette, Harper Richards, Hudson Roysher, and Viktor Schreckengost. Philip McConnell to Egmont Arens, September 13, 1949, IDSA Records, Correspondence, 1949–1953, Inter-Society Color Council.
  4. See Egmont Arens, “The Dynamic Use of Color,” Speech to Inter-Society Color Council, March 8, 1950, IDSA Records, Correspondence, 1949–1953, Inter-Society Color Council.
  5. Arthur Gregor, “The Roots of the Product,” [source unknown], 59, PMMA archives, Scrapbook 3.
  6. Caloric advertisement, Retailing Daily, January 4, 1955.
  7. “Annual Design Review: Trends: Color,” 43.
  8. “Introducing the Fabulous New Ranges by Caloric,” Retailing Daily, January 4, 1955, 132.
  9. The shaver’s design patent (186,433) is in the name of Raymond A. Smith and Roger Protas. Filed January 14, 1959.
  10. Undated press release, Lando Advertising Agency, PMMA archives, Lando Binder 2.
  11. Ibid. Author of the landmark book Functional Color (1937), Birren had consulted on Walt Disney’s Technicolor films in the early 1940s, revolutionized factories with color safety standards during World War II, and transformed postwar commercial products, notably for DuPont and General Electric. See Regina Lee Blaszczyk, The Color Revolution (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2012), 222.
  12. “Free with every Caloric range … kitchen color plans by Beatrice West,” [advertisement] Sunday Herald, October 2, 1960; and Ideas for Westinghouse Confection Color Kitchens (Westinghouse, 1960), Westinghouse Collection, MSS 424, Detre Library and Archives, Senator John Heinz History Center, Box 94, Folder 2.
  13. “Light Panel Ceiling Makes Gay Use of Color and Baffles,” Architectural Forum 106, no. 4 (April 1957): 178.
  14. Peter Muller-Munk [remarks], “The Place of Lighting in Architectural Design,” Sylva-Lume News Conference (February 19, 1957), New York City, p. 1, IDSA Records, Box 24, Folder:Lighting.
  15. Ibid.
  16. Press release, Science Talent Institute, “New Advances in ‘Electronic Light’ Revealed by Westinghouse Scientist,” March 9, 1957. Westinghouse Collection, MSS 424, Detre Library and Archives, Senator John Heinz History Center, Box 83, Folder 6, “Press Releases: 1956–1957,” p. 1.
  17. “First Full-Scale ‘Hot-Cold-Light’ Panel Exhibited Here by Westinghouse,” Press release, January 19, 1959, PMMA archives, Lando Binder 3.
  18. Press release, Science Talent Institute, “Windows of the Future May Provide Light at Night, Westinghouse Scientist Says,” September 11, 1957. Westinghouse Collection, MSS 424, Detre Library and Archives, Senator John Heinz History Center, Box 83, Folder 6, “Press Releases: 1956–1957,” p. 1.