Breathing Colour

Hella Jongerius and the perception of colour and form.
Part 2 of 2 of new exhibitions at the Boijmans.

Written by Craig Berry
Designer & Writer

Hella Jongerius – Breathing Colour

The second of two new exhibitions at the Museum Boijmans van Beuningen in Rotterdam documents Hella Jongerius’ passion and results of 15 years of colour research through a series of installations designed to demonstrate how our perception of colour and form is dictated by daylight and time.

Hella Jongerius, born 1963, also studied at the Design Academy Eindhoven and, is she also known as being as a product designer who rose to fame through the Dutch Design era of the 1990s with companies like Droog and Moooi.

Jongerius is often classed as an industrial designer and became known for the way in which she combines high tech and low tech, old ideas and new ideas, industry methods and craft techniques, the traditional and the contemporary; the result is often distinctive product design pieces. Recently she has worked with IKEA and Vitra.

For her exhibition at the Boijmans, Breathing Colour, Jongerius has presented her research into colour and its relationship to form, light and reflection; driven by scientific theories as much as her own personal observations and interpretations. Through her research she is calling for a more intense experience of colour. Breathing Colour is a multi-part and multi-room exhibition which shows how colour can be perceived throughout the day; beginning with early morning and ending at late night; so the time of day changes so does the light and in turn, our experience of colour. The pieces of work on display which she uses to show this are a range of flat and 3D objects in different materials, textures which explain her ideas on colour perception but also examples of her research experiments with mixing and combining colours. In addition, to further strengthen her thoughts on colour perception; Jongerius worked with the artist Matheiu Meijers to select a number of artworks from the Boijmans collection in order to creat a dialogue between the old masters and contemporary artists. Overall the exhibition is about Jongerius’ dissatisfaction with the flatness of colour by the industry and about pitting the power of colour against the power or form.

“Colour is a visual experience, not a scientific one. The fact that there is no objectivity in colour is a blessing.”
Hella Jongerius.

Her idea of the perception of colour being dictated by the time of day and in turn the amount of daylight is the ‘storyline’ of the exhibition; beginning in the morning section where shadows are transparent and colours are generally soft; shown through transparent and translucent pieces of subdued, coloured resin forms and hanging cotton like textures. The starting point for Jongerius is her discovery of the notion of metamerism. Metamerism is when two different colours appear to match. One relatable example is when you might buy a piece of clothing or furniture from a store or showroom and experienced a shock when viewing it again at home; something that companies see as problematic and make ‘safe’ colours which attempt to eliminate this and remain the same colour under every light. Jongerius, as a designer, saw this as wrong and through her work and research is making a plea to embrace metamerism and encourage people to create intense colour which is able to breathe with varying light.

During midday as the sun gets brighter and higher in the sky, colours become more saturated with little to no shadow; those that do exist are short and strong. Jongerius says that during this time colour ‘sticks’ to the surface of objects. After midday the light is less strong and shadows are more visible; the colours are energetic and forms are more clearly defined from these shadows. This idea is expressed through a series of coloured paper shapes with folded and curved forms: a flat sheet of paper has a single uniform colour but when it is folded or crumpled it creates shadows which influence the colour and then become the colour. A curved sheet of paper will change colour gradually which makes it difficult to see where the original colour starts and the shadows begin whereas a straight fold will create an instant ad abrupt shadow, the fold marks this shift. By folding paper you divide each surface, each of the folded planes will have a different shade and each will reveal the complexity of the original colour.

This image below clearly shows her concept, the somewhat conical forms—known as Colour Catchers—each show a wide range of colours despite being made from a single colour; their form and the interaction with shadow creates a broad spectrum of colour. The lamps projecting light into and onto them create these shadows and colour both inside the shape and also how light bounces off them and onto the flat coloured surfaces upon which they sit. This is also dictated through the material choice as colour as some objects absorb colour, others reflect it and the colour of an object is influenced by its surrounding landscape. Some colours inherently reflect more strongly and intensely than others: the most basic example being how black absorbs a lot of light whereas white reflects light like a mirror.

Museum Boijmans van Beuningen – Hella Jongerius – Breathing Colour

This notion of a colour being influenced by its surrounding landscape is something Jongerius has explored in an experiment in how and when to use a specific colour. By placing numerous different coloured flat, curved and folded forms into a light chamber with multiple coloured backdrops and exposing these to various coloured lights she is able to see how a certain material or colour will react in most circumstances.

“My ultimate aim is to pit the power of colour against the power of form.”
Hella Jongerius.

After midday and into the evening when the sun has set, the warm air creates an orange, red and purple light. This atmosphere makes colours seem bleached out or saturated, they flow into each other. As the sun begins to disappear behind the horizon, colour becomes less bound to objects and emerges as an atmospheric phenomenon filling the sky with fiery hues. Finally at the end of that day and into the night the sunlight is gone and our eyes adjust, shifting from one way of looking to another: cone cells to rod cells. Because of this shift we become more sensitive to the contrasts between light and dark and our light spectrum shifts towards blues. Forms fuse together as shadows in a range of blacks fill the voids in and between shapes. Jongerius knows that industrial colours are made by adding more and more black; however she also knows that real painters create depth and dark from mixing complimentary colours.

We give a variety of names to shadows but nothing can define them truly; they are impossible to define as they are intangible, temporary and in a state of flux; constantly shifting, moving and changing which is what makes shadows interesting. Here in the exhibition space Jongerius has developed a number of paints, new blacks which are more intense and rich than standard industrial black; the colours of the objects here are also painted as such to echo their surroundings but still be visible in their own right.

Museum Boijmans van Beuningen – Hella Jongerius – Breathing Colour

Spread throughout the exhibition are a number of specifically selected artworks from the Boijmans collection which have been chosen by Jongerius and Meijers to emphasise the point about how colour is dictated by time; they are examples of how over time artists have been able to express colour correctly as Jongerius sees the standardised colour-matching systems of Pantone, Dulux and RAL as lacking the ambition to develop recipes for intense colours. They produce a wide range of hues, “but they do not sing like the colours in Old Master paintings.”

Taren McCallan-Moore – Untitled (2014)
Marius Bauer – The Palace of the Radjah of Bharatpur (1917)
Richard Artschwager – The Tree (1971)

Henryk Stazewsky – Relief No 37
Bart van der Leck – Vase of Roses (1925)
Lucio Fontana – Edizione gialla (unknown)

Ed Ruscha – Is (1991)
Francisco Goya – After Vice Comes Fornication (1816–1824)
Joseph Beuys – Wille Gefühl Form (1980)

These additional artworks help to emphasise Jongerius’ points about colour; it also means that the exhibition isn’t just about her and her work; she is physically presenting references for her extensive research into colour. These artworks show what she means when she says that artists know how to create true representations of colour which she doesn’t see in the industry today. It is a fascinating exhibition, albeit quite conceptual and it takes an open mind to appreciate it or a mind that is willing to accept that colour today isn’t what it could or should be.

“Long live the instability of colour!”

The exhibition is on at Museum Boijmans van Beuningen until the 12th of August and is worth checking out, the concept is great and the execution through coloured forms is special to see.



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