Jennifer Brook is a design practitioner working at Dropbox in San Francisco as a design researcher. Previously, Brook taught at SVA in New York City, and ran her own research and strategy consultancy.
I’m a design practitioner who inspires and develops individuals, teams, and organizations through facilitation, fieldwork, visioning, magic, color, and analog practices. I create and facilitate weird workshops, teach and practice human-centered design, gather and distill pigment from the earth, and make my own sketchbooks.
On the color beneath our feet
About four years ago I started thinking about this question: how can I understand more about the color of the earth — the world below where I was standing? In New York it’s extremely difficult to find any kind of ground because it’s all paved over.
There was this moment when I was walking down Bergen Street in Boerum Hill, and they were doing some work below the street on the pipes, and this massive amount of earth had been brought up above ground. And so I collected some and used this process I knew through another artist called levigation. All soil is comprised of three elements: pigment, sand/rocks and peat. You can use this process of levigation to separate, in water, the different elements of the soil to yield a pure sample of pigment. So, I grabbed a Ziploc bag, separated the color out using this process over the next couple of days in my studio, and ended up with this sample of pigment that represented the color directly below the earth in Brooklyn. In looking at it, it was an almost exact color-match to brownstone. I’ve had conversations with people about this, and I know now that brownstone was mined in New Jersey — but still geographically relatively close by. That whole thing blew my mind — that in some way or the other, the color, the actual earth, is externalized in this city of cement that you would otherwise not have an direct emotional relationship with.
I had a trip to Spain and Portugal planned and decided to make the trip all about this question. I rented a car and traveled around Iberia for about a month and began accumulating bags of earth in the back of the car. I started the journey by driving north west out of Barcelona, watching, scanning the roadside. Incidentally, road cuts are a great place to forage for color. Over the course of those weeks I collected twelve samples. I would take photographs of the site, record field notes, and then find a rural guesthouse where I could do the distillation process. If you imagine the kind of waste generated in any industrial process, it’s kind of like that at a micro scale with pigment distillation. I need a ton of water and it’s a messy process so I need places where I can work and not make the mess so visible. So yeah, I have stories about doing this in a bathtub in a convent — bad idea, terrible, terrible idea.
Those first 12 pigments didn’t satiate my curiosity. The more that I foraged color from the earth, the more questions emerged. At first I just wanted to get my hands dirty, get into the material, and then later, through doing book research, I started to make sense of this direct experience. Since Iberia I’ve collected about 50 pigments. I slowed down collection a couple years ago to go deep into the research and writing side of it.
What color is the earth?
I have a better answer to this now. We are literally standing on a spinning ball of erotic, explosive color. We don’t have a direct connection to the earth anymore. We’ve lost that knowledge. Most people, when they talk about the color of the earth, think of earth tones, and earth tones have a very specific connotation. Typically shades of brown. But I know because I have earth in my studio that earth tones have an incredible range of color, from pinks to yellows to blues to greens.
Color and Personality
Thinking back to Arper’s provocation that color yields personality: color is personality. Later on when I started working with them as artist materials, and making watercolors or crayons or chalks out of them, I came to discover that each pigment behaved differently. Some are buttery and velvety and a joy to work with; others take more time to open up. They have bodies and personalities.
On the nature of color
Two authors that have helped shape my point of view and put words to things I could only sense: David Batchelor and Michael Taussig. Both Taussig and Batchelor talk about the fact that most of our interaction with the world of color is mediated through chemicals.
Over the last 20 years we have woken up to this in many industries. Food is one of them. We have started to question our relationship with mass produced food. Italy is the birthplace of slow food movement. We’ve awakened to these questions in various places in our lives, but I haven’t seen this awakening with color. Our relationship with synthetic color happens through so many of our interactions with the designed and built world — clothes, furniture, the built environment.
This is a very recent human experience, as synthetic color was only discovered in 1856. Up until that moment, all of the environments that we lived in and existed in as humans were coming from the earth, either via earth pigments or natural dyes. That’s completely changed in the last near 200 years — now our predominant experience is with synthetic color. What does that mean for us as human beings as we are interacting with these environments, objects, and cities that are predominantly synthetic? What was lost?
Additionally, if you look at the history of architecture, design and art, color was very much viewed as feminine and primitive. David Batchelor writes about this in his book, Chromophobia. Those histories were all about subjugation of color. Line and form were masculine. What might it mean for us culturally, socially, if we don’t subjugate color? If we stop considering it secondary? What does it mean to be in relationship with color? To elevate it’s status in our life and in our worlds?
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