24 August 2016 -

Review: Colour, Vision and Materiality

In her article “Sticky Layers and Shimmering Weaves: A Study of Two Human Uses of Spider Silk”, featured in the Journal of Design History (Vol. 29, No. 1, 2016), artist and researcher Eleanor Morgan observes that spider silk has been collected and used for centuries in different parts of the world for varying purposes - ‘to create dressings for wounds, crosshairs for optical devices, fabrics, jewellery, fishing lures and musical instruments’. Her study, which focuses on two specific examples of spider silk objects, questions how we might define these artefacts - as natural forms, whose material and properties are dependent on the species and ecology of spiders, or as artificial objects, formed through the skill and innovation of humans working in a specific period and culture?

Morgan carefully dissects the relationship between human and non-human animals in the design and creation of objects. Using examples from London’s Victoria and Albert Museum and the Science Museum, her work is a stimulating read for scholars, curators and design practitioners alike. But it is one of her case studies, a golden cape constructed from the silk of the Madagascan golden orb spider, that I find particularly intriguing. The cape, as explained by Morgan, does not demonstrate one fixed colour. Instead, it varies from a pale silvery yellow to a bright yellow gold, a consequence of the light conditions of the environment in which the spider spins its silk. When displayed, the golden cape emanates an enchanting glow, ‘catching the light in different ways’. These descriptions prompt further questions; colour and nature, vision and light - how do they intersect to shape our material world, or at least our perception of it?

The relationship between colour and vision in the natural world is explored by the Natural History Museum (NHM), London in their current temporary exhibition, which opened to the public just last month. On display until November 2016, the exhibition traces the evolution of colour via specimens and images of both animals and plants, concentrating on the use of colour in sexual attraction, warning, deception, and camouflage. One of the exhibition’s most significant themes is what animals —including humans— experience when they view the “same” colour, an idea examined through, for example, a display of 112 preserved eyes in cross-section that illustrate how living beings might process colour differently. As NHM researcher Suzanne Williams explains, ‘there is no such thing as colour without eyes to perceive it’. Consequently, the language we as humans use to reference and describe colour, as well as our engagement with it, is called into question— what is, for instance, “yellow”, “blue” or “red”?

Perhaps one of the most striking elements of the exhibition is a reflection on how colour in nature has influenced the fields of art and design. Text labels situated next to a raised display case containing beautiful blue morpho butterflies, explain how the structural colour in the wings of this particular butterfly species —which reflect light in a specific way so that they shimmer— has inspired dichroic glass. This is the very material that artist Liz West has used for her light installation that opens the show. The blue morpho butterfly has inspired the design of the exhibition itself too, reflected in the lettering and on physical panels, graphic and 3D elements devised by London-based Nissen Richards Studio. All in all, the exhibition is delightful and digestible, if not a little small, and encourages visitors to earnestly reflect on how our experiences are more personal than we realise. In the words of cyborg artist Neil Harbisson, ‘we think we are experiencing the same thing, but we are not’.

The multitudinous nature of colour is examined in the Missoni Art Colour exhibition too, hosted by the Fashion and Textile Museum in London. This modest retrospective, which closes next month, reviews the influence of twentieth-century art on the design and production of the Italian fashion brand’s distinct textiles and garments, offering a more straightforward narrative around colour and design. Throughout the show, Missoni co-founders Ottavio and Rosita are seen to emphasise their love for colour: ‘You have an infinite number of materials and colours with no bounds’, enthusiastically exclaims Ottavio in a video. ‘The world is not a colourless one. Just look around you and you will see flowers, butterflies…’, he continues. Elsewhere, Rosita explains, ‘Colour is the story of our life’.

A display of Missoni designs at the Missoni Art Colour Exhibition, Fashion and Textile Museum, London.

The exhibition draws on a transdisciplinary research process, presenting vibrant Missoni creations alongside Futurist and Postmodernist fine art, various hand drawings, and numerous textile samples. A contemporary video-documentary, composed by Turkish artist Ali Kazma, meanwhile, serves as a striking introduction. Arranged as a triptych, this investigates the aesthetics of industrial processes, as well as the connections between society and manufacture. While the show as a whole is not a complete success —hindered, perhaps, by an unusual gallery layout— it does provide a proficient insight into the development and inner workings of a brand with a long and valuable history. This is the relationship between colour and design in its more obvious form.

Fabric samples at the Missoni Art Colour Exhibition.

Each of the components discussed —the journal article and the two exhibitions— explore the subject of colour from varying perspectives. Collectively, they highlight the challenges of unpacking materiality through materials. With a focus on spider silk objects, Morgan questions the role of non-human animals in their making, arguing that a methodological openness towards investigating the historical effects of non-human activities on design can inform ecological design practice today. These ideas can also be traced in the NHM’s Colour and Vision exhibition, which places the human into a complex network that illustrates the relationships between different biological groups. How might this systemic scientific approach inform design history methodologies more broadly one might ask? 

Finally, the Missoni Art Colour exhibition, which spotlights fashion and textile production as influenced by twentieth-century art, demonstrates how transdisciplinary techniques can generate new ways of understanding the historical. The show’s limited engagement with materials, however, and a choice to open the story with mechanical methods of making, situates “design” as a purely industrialised process. Though it may not have formed the scope of the exhibition —itself a retrospective— a reflection on raw materials and processes such as dyeing may have allowed the show’s emphasis on human agency to be disrupted, allowing instead for the consideration of a more networked, even global approach. This then is where the value of design history lies.

Zara Arshad
DHS Ambassador


1. Eleanor Morgan, ‘Sticky Layers and Shimmering Weaves: A Study of Two Human Uses of Spider Silk’, Journal of Design History, (29) 2016, pp 8-23.

2. In shady areas, the web will be silver or a very pale yellow, while in sunlight the spider will spin a bright yellow-orange silk. Ibid, p. 15.

3. Ibid, p. 11.

4. BBC News, ‘Colours in nature - and how we see them’, BBC News, 6 July 2016, [accessed 28 July 2016].

5. Quote extracted from a film shown at the Natural History Museum’s Colour and Vision exhibition.

6. Quote extracted from a film shown at the Missoni Art Colour exhibition.

7. Ibid. See also:

8. Morgan, p. 21.

Additional Resources:
A selected (short) list of artists and designers working extensively with colour and colour theory.

David Batchelor
Song Jianming (based at the China Academy of Art’s Colour Institute)
Ejing Zhang
Raw Color (the studio will present their first solo show at The Aram Gallery for London Design Festival 2016)
Olafur Eliasson


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