11 Jan 2017   webgap

The Harvard Library That Protects the World’s Rarest Colours

Harvard University is renowned for its library collections but one in particular, is more colourful than most. Compared to mouldy stacks of monochrome printed textbooks, the Forbes Pigment Collection gives the impression that its thousands of small glass jars are filled with ground-up rainbows of the rarest colours.

The collection began with the twentieth-century globetrotting of Edward Forbes, who wanted to catalogue the pigments used in classical Italian paintings and tell cunning fakes from genuine masterpieces.

Considering that today, colour is almost entirely digitised, whether it be finding a new swatch to go with your updated interior design or something striking that you can incorporate into your graphic design, this process is in no way as intense or laborious as before. The practise of ‘colour collecting’ was formerly the preserve of ‘colourmen’ who would source exotic and sometimes bizarre pigments from around the world. Some of these sources are no longer available, such as rare minerals only found in conflict zones and the brown resin used to stick down the wrappings of ancient Egyptian mummies.

Some of these pigments were poisonous and others were just outright noxious, being comprised of toxic metals or crushed beetles. All of which adds an extra dimension to the Collection’s main purpose of maintaining a colour catalogue against which questionable pigments can be compared.

While a sharp eye is required to compare different pigments, much of the Collection staff’s time is spent using more scientific means to analyse and understand the key compounds in a pigment – compounds which can reveal the pigments origin, properties and even its age.

Techniques such as Raman spectroscopy, mass spectrometry, gas chromatography and electron microscopy are employed to map out the precise chemical composition of a pigment. Why go to these lengths? Well, particularly in the art world, the provenance of a painting can mean the difference between a multi-million-dollar price tag and the rubbish bin.

A “rediscovered” Jackson Pollock painting was proved to be a fake back in 2007 when the Collection’s technicians proved that one of the pigments spattered on the canvas was in fact only created some 20 years after the great abstract expressionist painter passed away. The colour in question is known as Ferrari Red and presumably, potential buyers were accelerating away from the auction house once the painting was proven to be a rip-off.

Curators at the Forbes Pigment Collection delight in telling the stories behind some of their more unusual colours – when they’re not busy rebuilding the Collection so that it remains relevant to the analysis of twentieth-century and contemporary art, of course.

How about cadmium yellow, a vivid canary colour made from toxic metals and once used in Lego bricks? Or dragons’ blood, which disappointingly comes from a type of palm, rather than a large fire-breathing lizard? If you wore make-up today or had a cheese sandwich for lunch, chances are you’ve used pigments derived from the Brazilian lipstick plant. It produces annatto, a dye used in cosmetics and dairy products.

With new colours being discovered all the time, the Collection’s work remains very relevant. If you ever wondered what a world without colour would be like, consider Vantablack – a new nanotube-based black that is so dark, the human eye perceives it as a hole.

18 Jan 2017   webgap

Architecture that’s built to heal

A great deal of architectural talent and energy goes into designing iconic, sculptural buildings, which can add to the aesthetic identity of a place. Unfortunately, these designs are often far removed from most people’s daily life and the issues which concern them – such as their health.Many of the structures designed for health purposes, especially in developing countries are achieving the exact opposite. Patients visiting badly-designed hospitals have been said to return home with new, more virulent infections – or not at all. Healing either delayed, or incomplete – all due, in part, ...

25 Jan 2017   webgap

How One Design Studio Is Keeping Traditional Craft Techniques Alive

Wallpaper has sadly become an aphorism for anything visual that’s simply there in the background and barely given any attention – a little like television. The incredible collections from New York’s Calico Wallpaper look set to change that dismissive perception and – perhaps more importantly – breathe new light into traditional craft techniques in interior design that have been in danger of fading and peeling away.Calico Wallpaper’s designs are not afraid to embrace modern technology. Their ‘Inverted Spaces’ collection drew on satellite imagery from NASA, while other collection ...

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