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Alvar Aalto

The Function of Paint

illustration of typical Saturn V paint scheme by Nick Stevens

What color should we paint this?

This question often gets asked toward the end of a project when all the "important" decisions regarding the design of a building have been made. With names such as "Positive Red" and "Lavish Lavender", it's easy to dismiss the selection of paint colors as an frivolous choices to be made.

But color is important. Not only can it radically change the perception of a space (dark colors make a space seem smaller while light colors tend to make it seem larger), paint can also do things. To make my point it helps to momentarily step outside of the world of architecture.

Camouflage is probably one of the most obvious examples of the use of color to serve a particular function. Although camouflage is typically thought of as the use of color to hide something from view, it can also be used to confuse as well as to conceal. Dazzle camouflage used on ships in World War I is probably the best example of this (for an excellent podcast episode about check out this great 99% Invisible episode). Since no single color proved effective for concealing a ship in all weather conditions, naval architects instead tried to develop a paint color that made it all but impossible to determine a ship's size, speed and heading. 

Another example of this is the type of confusion camouflage is used by automakers when they test new vehicles on public streets before a formal public unveiling. Obviously making a car invisible is a problematic endeavor, but they can make make the appearance of the new vehicle harder to discern. More interestingly, they sometimes use patterns that are intended to confuse not the casual observer, but the autofocus system of the cameras used by auto magazines and blogs trying to publish the spy photos of upcoming vehicles.

But just as paint can be used to confuse, it can also be used to clarify. The color patterns on rockets, for example, are there so that observers on the ground can better understand what is going on during a launch. At higher distances and greater altitudes it can be difficult to tell if a rocket is rolling about its long axis and alternating bands of black and white help observers tell weather or not the vehicle is stable. This explains the distinctive black on white banding of the Saturn V launch vehicle (the pattern is so iconic you can buy a version of it as cycling jersey). However, be careful that you don't paint too much of your rocket black - sunlight can cause problematic spikes in temperature as black paint absorbs heat more that white paint (there's lots more about this and why we paint rockets like Nazis in this extensive blog post).

The story goes that early modern architects eschewed paint in favor of a more honest expression of materials but the reality is more complicated. Frank Lloyd Wright used earth tones to make his design seem even more a part of its surrounding landscape. Alvar Aalto used strategic blasts of color in his elegant interventions into the Finnish landscape.

How do we use color in our practice? Well, it varies. In some projects we work to match an existing palate of colors. In others we take a cue from the dazzle camouflage playbook to try and break up the mass of a building while referencing a company's logo. In all cases, however, we seek to employ all the tools at our disposal to create a design that is appropriate, beautiful and functional.

Even if someday that might mean using the color "Lavish Lavender".