blue + white: a tour through design history, part one

by clé tile | published: Jun 16, 2023

An abstracted painting of a white building in a blue background.

window at tangier by henri matisse, 1912, source

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.

A bright white building with a domed blue roof.

santorini, greece

A bright white building with a bright blue arched door.

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.

A blue abstracted figure painting on white.

the blue nudes, a paper collage series by henri matisse created in the 1950s

A pencil sketch on a blue matte.

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.

Intricate pattern on a blue and white vase.

ceramic bottles, ottoman dynasty 16th century (source)

A blue and white vase.

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 interior of a domed roof in glass and tile at the blue mosque.

the blue mosque, istanbul, turkey

Many domes of the blue mosque seen from below.
Antique blue and white patterned tiles with an intricate floral motif.

late 16th century tiles from turkey or syria (source)

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.

Two plates, one vase and one canister in a blue and white pattern.

blue and white ceramics c. 1662 – 1772, Qing dynasty China, (source)

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.

A two drawer very ornate cabinet.

18th century cabinet, louvre museum (source)

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.

A plate with a blue and white landscape depiction and border.

willow pattern on ceramic (source)

A plate with a blue and white landscape depiction and border.

English willow patterned plate (source)

Potter Josiah Wedgwood created his own export phenomenon in the form of “jasperware,” or simply Wedgwood, as it’s known today. during the Victorian era, that blue and white motif became increasingly intricate and was used extensively in porcelain, wallpaper, upholstery and textiles.

A blue and white vase in the style of a Greek greek amphora, but from England in 1789.

the apotheosis of homer vase, 1789 (source)

A ceramic white plaque with 19th century cherubs.

Bacchanalian boys plaque, 19th century (source)

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

explore our collection of blue and white tile