blue + white: a tour through design history, part one
by clé tile | published: Jun 16, 2023
choupette and Karl. Batman and Robin. yin and yang. another dynamic duo? blue and white: the quintessential color pairing, a unifying theme for art and design, and from tabletop, textiles... and tile. we just can’t get enough of it. it’s global, genre-spanning, culture-jumping: from the Middle East to China, Scandinavia to Greece. Wall Street blue bloods to James Dean. from Calvin Klein to collectible design.
the chromatic contrast of deep blue and striking white isn’t just about its visual appeal: the cultural associations are just as dramatic. throughout history, blue and white have recalled both royalty and the working class, urban and rural, traditional and modern.
but how did this power couple achieve such lofty heights?
the biology behind blue and white
we might just be hard-wired to love blue and white. researchers have long known that color influences us. blue is known to be universally soothing due to its short wavelength and its associations with nature — in particular the sky and water. the color white, on the other hand, is perceived through the reflection of multiple colors, so its wavelength varies.
but put them together, and you get something different. add blue to white, and whites appear whiter. juxtaposed, white and blue create a powerful contrast that imbues a sense of balance and harmony. it’s a pairing that’s crisp and powerful, as well as calm and soothing.
the blue nudes, a paper collage series by henri matisse created in the 1950s
branch of a medlar tree by henri matisse in 1944
the chromatic contrast of deep blue and striking white isn’t just about its visual, aesthetic qualities. this combination is the (literal) fabric of culture. archeologists have found that as early as 6,000+ years ago, civilizations around the world used indigo dye and resist techniques to transform unbleached cotton into textiles with geometric and striped patterns of inky blue and white. was it the wide availability of inexpensive blue dye that drove early textile design — or the appeal of blue and white?
we suspect it was bit of both.
blue and white: the first global design phenomenon
before iPhones, before TikTok, before Schein, blue and white porcelain was the first Chinese global trade phenomenon.
but in the way of all good trends and movements, the roots of this trade phenomenon were legion. Islamic potters — and tile makers — were also using the blue and white motif (denoting truth and purity), applying it to everything from ceramics — and tile — to mosques.
in fact, it was the import of cobalt oxide from Persia by the Chinese in the seventh century that led to the creation of those first blue-and-white ceramics that spread along the Silk Road. at the same time, Islamic blue and white motifs were spreading north through Spain, Portugal, and Italy along Moorish trade routes.
the blue mosque, istanbul, turkey
but it wasn’t until 1602, when the Dutch East India Company imported the first Chinese porcelain to Europe, that it went truly — as we would now say — viral. demand took off. and soon workshops throughout Europe began to create their own blue-and-white designs to satisfy the blue and white cravings of aristocrats and merchants.
from palaces to the living room — and beyond
as those vases and plates moved into palaces as markers of taste, class, wealth — and a certain exoticism — so too did the motif spread to other items of “Chinoiserie” in the form of lacquerware, silk, and other decorative items. initially, the province of royalty (and in particular France’s King Louis XV), the Chinoiserie movement became the ne plus ultra design motif of not just royalty, but the merely wealthy… and those who aspired to appear that way.
and this was aided by the emergence of so-called mass manufacturing techniques — not in China, but in Europe. in England, the industrial revolution and the growth of the industrialist and merchant classes drove the creation (and wild success) of domestically manufactured “delftware” in areas such as Stoke-on-Trent, spawning the use of blue and white motifs in English interior design. one of the most popular motifs was the Chinese-influenced Willow Pattern which found its way onto everything from plates to wallpaper, and textiles to tile.
along the way — as they became ever more affordable — blue and white tile moved into kitchens, where homeowners followed the Dutch example of using the practical but decorative tile in intricate backsplashes (one of the first examples of decorating hitherto purely functional areas).
Continue the journey with our blue + white: a tour through design history, part two