Design Around the World- Part I

Case Studies

I attended a class last week hosted by Sherwin-Williams about the cultural influences of color, which was fascinating because it discussed what various colors symbolize to different cultures.  For instance, let’s take Japan (which happened to be featured in the Sherwin-Williams’ magazine Stir. )

According to Robyn Griggs Lawrence, who authored a book on Japanese- inspired home design, Japan’s true colors are not the harsh, artificial hues of a modern city like Tokyo, but subtle colors taken from nature.  Greens, earth tones, forest colors and beach or ocean colors figure prominently in Japanese design.  Strong colors are used very sparingly, and there is less emphasis on filling a room with “stuff” and more emphasis on open space, allowing for a feeling of tranquillity.

You’ve probably heard of Feng Shui – the Chinese art or practice of creating harmonious surroundings that enhance the balance of yin and yang.  Well, Japan has a design aesthetic called wabi-sabi, which is considered by Griggs Lawrence as the anti-feng shui because it encourages the use of one’s intuition as opposed to rules.  Wabi-sabi is a look that’s simple, uncluttered and uses handcrafted items that are meaningful to the owner.  Hmm, seems that “Less is More” isn’t just a Bauhaus principle! 

Let’s take a look at the color symbology of Japanese design:

White: Was considered the sacred color of the gods and symbolized purity.

Pink: Actually has a masculine association!

Purple: Was used in ancient Japan for priests’ robes, kimonos for exalted people or cloths for wrapping valuable objects.  It symbolizes nobility and privilege.

Green: Symbolizes new life, with the soft sage of green tea being a favored shade.

Blue: Because indigo was a plentiful color in ancient Japan, it became the color of working clothes and household textiles.  Navy and white is still a favorite color combination symbolizing coolness and freshness.

Red: Symbolizes fire and blood, it was a sacred color in ancient Japan used in shrines and for expressing prayers.  Under the Chinese influence it became associated with wealth.

The Japanese have preferred complex, neutral tints since medieval times, unlike the Europeans who believed that mixing colors to create new dyes was wicked- a threat to God’s natural order and had to work with the palette created by the natural materials available.  In Japan, there was no such belief so color mixing was done freely, producing beautiful, complex hues.

If you’d like to learn more, check out The Colors of Japan by Sadao Hibi and Kunio Fukuda (2000, Kodansha International Ltd.)

Thanks for traveling with me!

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