Next Year’s Colours

The choice of colour is a big decision in any design project. Mark Sinclair talks to colour expert Beatrice Santiccioli who has helped answer this thorny question for clients such as Apple and Nike

I find that my inspiration is very unpredict­able,” says colour consultant Beatrice Santiccioli. “It comes from accidents. You turn down the wrong street, you see an old garage door, an old store sign pulled down.”

This in fact happened only the other day while Santiccioli was driving through her adopted home of San Francisco. She took some photographs of the old sign (the darker shadows of its patina caught her eye) and, with closer inspection, a 1930s typeface revealed itself from underneath the dirt.

In a sense it is Santiccioli’s job to look at things this intently, to keep her eyes open for colours. To date she’s done this in collaboration with a range of companies – from one of the oldest porcelain makers in Europe to a chic urban bicycle manufact­urer, through to contemporary brands such as Nike and Apple – proving with each project that she has quite the eye for detail.

Santiccioli grew up in a small Tuscan village near Florence. After studying at the city’s Art Institute and, later, at Milan’s esteemed Polytechnic School of Design, she worked in Italy before settling in the US 15 years ago. She now has her own design studio in San Francisco where she works as an independent graphics and colour consultant, which sounds like an inter­esting – if somewhat mysterious – job to do. So how does it work?

“Basically a client will contact me to arrange a presentation of the particular object they have that needs a colour palette,” Santiccioli explains. “It might be a high-tech product, or a material like paper, or even a textile. They then outline a descrip­tion of the potential cost, the age of the user, if it’s for use in the office or in the home. So, if it’s a chair, for example, will it be for lounging in or for working?”

Based on this information Santiccioli is, more often that not, free to present her interpretation of what colours would best suit the particular project. “From our first meeting, the clients understand that it will be a direct dialogue between them and me. It’s all about the factor of interactivity,” she adds, in summation of the process. “It’s about how people respond to certain colours.”

In Milan, Santiccioli studied under Bruno Munari and Augusto Garau and the teaching of both, in colour theory particularly, was to become influ­ential on her career. In an interview with Loop, the aiga’s online journal, Santiccioli claimed that while studying with Garau she had produced “exercises based on colour and form theory that investigated the different balances between colours … the energy of different shapes”. Munari’s insights were quite different and taught her to value personal experience above all: to travel, to photograph and collect things, to capture, ultimately, the colours that surrounded her.

This balance of the practical (hand-mixing colours from primary pigments, creating her own hues) and the experiential (visiting different environments for an understanding of the cultural significance and psychology of colour) informs much of her work and dictates how she divides her time between experiments in the studio and research trips abroad. (Though, as a true colour-obsessive, Santiccioli also admits to often taking a walk around the outside of the local factory or work­shop that she happens to be visiting, if weather permits, on the off-chance of seeing something she can use.)

In addition to sourcing colours from her travels, be they extracted from California, India or China, Santiccioli also designs individual colours herself, creating specific hues in her studio-cum-laboratory. “For solid colours, I work in gouache and mix them that way,” she says. “If the final object is going to be made of a translucent material then I use dyes and water to get the effect of the light going through it. Some of the colours that I’ve created I haven’t even used yet.” Every colour that ends up in a project, or is awaiting a future client, is then bottled, boxed and stored in the studio. Hundreds of vials contain her colour mixes, each accompanied with a note of its own unique formula.

An early project for Swatch enabled Santiccioli to work on a whole range of potential colourways and pattern designs. “The Swatch project helped me to develop a certain agility as the collection changed every six months,” she says. “We had 30 watches to design over the various seasons and with each one this narrow, vertical shape was the same. It’s challenging to work to such a confined area but at the same time it forces you to look harder at what you can do.”

One of Santiccioli’s most rigorous projects was her work on a promotional book for Gilbert Papers’ esse range of coloured papers, commissioned by the company’s Kathy Kemps and Chicago-based designer Rick Valicenti. Santiccioli created a series of 20 different colours, in hues that aimed to say something about the time in which they were created, but would also remain relevant in five years’ time. Rather nicely, the objects that Santiccioli sourced, that directly inspired her choice of colour palette, were then photographed and paired with pages made up of blocks of the final coloured papers.

Santiccioli’s longest working relationship is in fact with Apple and goes back to 1996. She has worked with the company on an undisclosed list of products which includes the iMac with its famously translucent coloured shell (and whose hues are no doubt to be found in those carefully archived vials). Due to the company’s notorious confidentiality agreements, Santiccioli is frustratingly unable to comment much on her work for Apple except to say that, as you might expect, Apple employs “a methodology of colour in the very early stages” of all its projects.

Another collaboration with a high-tech product saw her working with the Danish bike company, Biomega, which boasts Marc Newson, Ross Lovegrove and Karim Rashid on its design consult­ancy team. Santiccioli was responsible for the beautiful colours used on this range of urban bikes, which included a Cocoa and a Park Green, a metallic Indigo Blue and, for fans of neutrals, even an Aspen Pearl White.

Santiccioli’s research methods are refreshingly lo-tech. She frequently captures colourways using water-colours and pens (occasionally photography) and her concoction of hues using Dr Martin’s dyes seems closer to the meticulous act of creating a range of potions. “In order to have a record of everything I make, I measure each eye-drop of colour in a mixture,” she says of the process of colour creation. “Of course, I need my own formulations written down if I’m ever required to recreate something.”

Santiccioli is lucky in that her job is different every day. The objects and materials she works with are as varied as the colours she creates and she has good reason to believe in the power of her designs. “Products are like little people, or, at least, they’re like an extension of the person,” she says. “Products communicate things and colour is often the first means through which people engage with something. If a good colour combination works with a particular material and creates a positive reaction, then I’ve succeeded in my work.”


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