Hella Jongerius’ (1963, the Netherlands) work combines the traditional with the contemporary, the newest technologies with age-old craft techniques. She aims to create products with individual character by including craft elements in the industrial production process.
Jongerius sees her work as part of a never-ending process, and the same is essentially true of all Jongeriuslab designs: they possess the power of the final stage, while also communicating that they are part of something greater, with both a past and an uncertain future. The unfinished, the provisional, the possible – they reside in the attention to imperfections, traces of the creation process, and the revealed potential of materials and techniques. Through this working method, Jongerius not only celebrates the value of the process, but also engages the viewer, the user, in her investigation.
In 1993 she founded the Jongeriuslab studio, where independent projects are developed as well as work for major clients, including the upholstery fabric company Maharam, the interior design of the Delegates’ Lounge of the United Nations Headquarters in New York, cabin interiors for the airline KLM and the installation ‘Colour Recipe Research’ at the invitation of curator Hans Ulrich Obrist for the MAK (Vienna). Since 2012, Jongerius has served as Art Director for the rug company Danskina and since 2007 as Art Director of colours and materials for Vitra. Recent projects include the publication of the manifesto ‘Beyond the New’ (2015) and the installation ‘A search behind appearances’ (2016) for La Rinascente department stores, commissioned by Serpentine Galleries; both with Louise Schouwenberg.
Many of Jongerius’ products can be found in the permanent collections of well known museums (such as MoMA, New York, and Victoria and Albert Museum, London, and Boijmans van Beuningen Museum, Rotterdam).
Hella Jongerius lives and works in Berlin.
What is the upcoming exhibition ‘Breathing Colour’ about?
Breathing Colour is an installation-based show that takes a deeper look at the way colour behaves, exploring shapes, materials, shadows and reflections. Through a series of studies and unique experiences the exhibition will make us question: How does the light during the day influence the colours and materials? What is the relationship between form and colour? When does a colour lift up a shape and give it a new dimension? What is the role of shadow? All elemental aspects of design. The ultimate aim is to pit the power of colour against the power of form.
Can you explain your aim to ‘pit the power of colour against the power of form’?
In my work I think about how coloured objects affect other objects and how all the objects behave in a certain setting. How important is size or volume for a colour and how do coloured objects influence one another? The different materials have an impact on each other and certain colours can accentuate horizontal shapes, while others are better for vertical forms. And then the lighting conditions or colour temperature also changes a space. There are many facets that require research beyond these questions, because the relationship between colour and shape is a puzzle with many solutions. There’s no truth, it's subjective, but I try to understand the matter.
What makes a colour beautiful?
Colour touches on so many different aspects of design: words, shapes, materials, physics, space, light. Experiencing colour is completely dependent on its physical, visual, artistic and cultural context. Beautiful colours for me are made with high-end pigments, which result in colours that breathe with light – taking on new hues under different lighting conditions.
Why choose colour as a medium?
Colour is very subjective. It is different for every person, every surface, shape and under changing lighting conditions. This makes colour mysterious and ever changing. Through colour, I want to relate to the user, so the subjectivity of the colour experience is my starting point. I don’t want to educate people in colour harmony. My goal is to design colours that are made from high quality recipes, which celebrate shape and surfaces. We aim at creating a new colour vocabulary, as a reaction to the flat globalised colour industry and above all to celebrate the full potential of colour.
What are your main goals with this upcoming exhibition?
With this exhibition, we hope to build up an archive, create a tool for interpreting, tickle the eyes of the viewer, let the viewer see the breath of a colour, show a broader perspective behind the industrial pallet, show how powerful a colour can be in taking over a shape, or even transform a shape and show all options that lie in the grammar of colour, as an on-going toolbox. I want to make a plea for colours that breathe. When we look at how colours are mixed for industrial production, we see a great difference between the industrial way, and the way artists make their colours. Industrial colours need to be stable in all lighting conditions and of course the selection is limited for financial reasons. Industrial limitations take away the quality and richness from the colour world we live in. The colour recipes that industrial designers like me must rely on are produced by companies who strive for stability and uniformity. However, instability can enrich products and improve the user experience.
What do you miss in industrial colours?
I miss the dash of red in most industrial recipes for green that gives the colour its intensity, I miss a true black in plastic granulates. I miss colours that breathe with the changing light. I miss the changeability, the options, that will allow us to read and re-read an industrially produced colour, like we do with works of art. ‘Breathing Colour’ is a call for colours that respond, and that will allow being influenced by the nature of the light hitting them. The most important aspect in the quality of a colour is its pigments – this is the recipe that lies behind the colour. Perfectly arranged, immaculate industrial colour systems don’t offer us the full potential of colour. With this exhibition, I hope to build an archive and create a tool for interpreting colour. I want to show a broader perspective than the industrial palet and demonstrate how powerful colour can be in transforming shapes and objects. Breathing Colour is a manifesto for colours. I rebel against the flatness of the conventional colour industry.
There are many colour systems with thousands of hues. Why isn’t this rich enough in your opinion?
The all-encompassing RAL, Pantone and NCS colour systems offer millions of colours, categorised, structured and sorted for us. We can choose from a large amount of varying hues. As a tool, this can be helpful for designers and interior architects. But how can we ever intimately relate to colour and its subjective effect in this scenario? The largest part of the effect of a colour is made up of its quality. The perfectly sorted colour systems with their immaculacy seem to neglect this aspect.
You’ve done a lot of research, working like a designer, an artist but also like a scientist. Is there a specific topic you’ve stumbled upon in your physico-chemical research that visitors of the exhibition will also learn about?
I will share one example: metamerism is a phenomenon in colorimetry that makes two colours appear to match even though they might not actually do so. This can happen especially when viewed in different lighting conditions. I think everyone once bought a piece of furniture or clothing in a certain colour, and experienced a shock, when unpacking it at home. A colour might look great under the fluorescent lighting in a shop but it might look very different in plain daylight. Some colours look dull in the morning but come to life at dusk.
Lighting conditions also change throughout the course of one day. Can you describe these colour changes for us?
The morning brings us light, and light brings us colour. Light starts low and moves upward. The cold air creates a crystal clear glow with a bluish hue. Colour reflections are atmospheric non-material. Morning tones are pastel coloured, soft but fresh, with less yellow and no black. There is a visible distinction between lightness and brightness. Diffuse morning light has a hazy feel but at the same time some bright reflections. Light starts low and moves upward, shadows are misty. Translucent becomes opaque. Shapes come into being, material becomes form – coloured light reflections.
How do reflections enter into the equation?
A reflection casts something back, throws it back into the surroundings. Gloss reflects sunlight, producing circles and shimmers in space. A strong colour reflection can fill a whole room. A transparent volume works as a filter and colours the light that passes through it. Curtains colour spaces; stained glass filters sunlight. Some colours reflect more strongly and intensely than others. Naturally, black absorbs most light, while white functions almost as a mirror in reflecting sunlight. If you take notice, you see just how much is coloured by reflections: whole walls and spaces are toned by it. A grey day is therefore even greyer because there is not enough intense light to cause these reflections. Red and yellow form a mist of the same colour tone around themselves. Clear blue lends depth and a cloud of colour. Of course, this also depends on the surroundings. On a black background you see almost no reflections, while they come to life against a white one.
Then at noon, light changes?
Then comes the sharp light right from above at noon, bringing very brisk contrasts and structure. Colours look greener and more reddish. When the sun reaches its highest point in the sky, the intensity of light reaches its climax and brings brightly saturated colours to life. Sharp shadows create a powerful contrast with the energetic hues. The light resonates on the object. Pigments come to life. Aside from the reflection, direct sunlight also gives our objects an extra colour element – the shadow. A shadow gives an object its space. Shadows are an object’s projections… A shadow is not grey but actually a combination of all colours surrounding the object.
What is a Colour Catcher?
The colour catchers are a design that shows an abstraction of all the daily objects that surround me. They are the ultimate shape to research colour, shadows and reflections. They are my canvases. The Colour Catcher is a constant object to see shadows, hollow and convex surfaces and reflections, to make visible tactile colours in varying lighting atmospheres. A study on the colour of shadows. Objects in grey tones placed on colourful fields. If we fold a piece of coloured paper a few times, we get several divided or sliced colours. Each plane of each folded surface acquires its own tone. The vertical surfaces are darker, the horizontal ones catch most light. When shadows hit these surfaces they also fracture into many shades, where every fold or bend creates a new palette. The folded surface reveals the layered quality and refraction of a single colour. The folding turns the form of an object into a generator of new colour tones.
What is the installation ‘Woven Movie’ about?
Made up of ten woven textiles, each depicts a colour catcher – one of the exhibition’s recurring motifs – at a different time of day. You can view the textiles individually or as a sequence of still frames in a woven movie. The textiles are made from different materials, textures and finishes, using a process of optically mixing yarns to create the desired visual effect. The work endeavoured to find weaving solutions that could be applied at a large industrial scale. We may think of colours as something constant, but they are in fact extremely unstable and responsive to the continuous changes of daylight.
Why are textiles and materials important?
We live in a digital world, where touch is essential. The surface and colour of an object defines how we interact with it, how we use it at first and over time. A sense of touch and feeling things strongly influence the relationship between object and user.
After all these years of experimenting and researching: would you call yourself a colour expert?
I feel like an absolute beginner when it comes to colour. Even though I have learned a great deal about colours, I still can’t really get my head around the subject. Colour is one of those truly wonderful subjects that will always keep you feeling like a beginner. It is this quality that makes colour so worth it – just like life itself.