green: history and mystery
by clé tile | published: Dec 10, 2021
(left) nature and its infinite palette of greens: a perennial inspiration photo: Annie Leibovitz for Vogue; (right) herbs transformed, photo: Gentl and Hyers
Green, the color of nature, is having quite a moment. Not one but six paint companies have chosen a shade of light green as the color for 2022. But green has been showing up everywhere for a couple of years now–from kitchens to shoes to nail polish.
Why green? It boils down to our collective longing for fresh starts, hope, and healing. During the dark days of the pandemic, we turned to nature for respite and renewal. (Think the plant craze, forest bathing, and biophilic design.) We also pondered our own mortality and that of the planet: green, the color of sustainability, symbolized our collective yearning for action and change.
But the last two years are just a blip in time. Color-obsessed as we are at clé, we thought it was high time we shared green’s somewhat checkered past. Spoiler alert: it didn’t always have the positive associations it has today–which makes it even more interesting.
The Color of Nature
For colors to be used–whether in painting or textile production or tile–they first have to become pigments. Until the advent of synthetic colors in the 18th century, pigments were often developed from plants and flowers, minerals, insects, and even mollusks.
While green is all around us (it’s found in the chlorophyll in plant cells) it turns out to be a particularly challenging pigment to create from scratch. When extracted from plants, green pigment will appear vibrant at first but eventually turns to black.
Ancient Egyptians experimented with vegetable and mineral-based pigments but had little success. The Ancient Greeks didn’t have much luck either.
Ancient Romans finally came up with a solution to the problem by soaking copper plates in wine to create verdigris, a blue-green pigment obtained through the weathering of the metal. Verdigris went on to be used for coins, stained glass, frescos and more–even to color the manuscripts of medieval monks.
Green remained a challenging color to reproduce until the 18th century. Chemical pigments would then give the world access to the full range of green shades, from chartreuse to emerald to viridian and more.
The Color of Death?
The other problem with green was that (at the outset at least) it was literally deadly.
The first widely popular chemical green pigment was William Scheele’s 1775 bright green dye. The problem was that Scheele’s Green was, in fact, more toxic than arsenic.
green dye used in paintings through the ages (source)
In Europe, women in green dresses were soon falling ill at an alarming rate. Children with green bedroom walls sickened. Then there was Napoleon Bonaparte, whose death might have been caused by the pigment. And yet, it wasn’t until the 1960s that Scheele’s greens were formally banned, replaced with non-toxic chemical dyes.
Green was prominent in culture as well–again with a dangerous edge. Highly addictive Absinthe–with its distinctively green glow–was a wildly popular spirit among Parisian creatives. Rumored to cause hallucinations (did Van Gogh slice off his ear while under its influence?), its addictive nature was implicated in the deaths of poets such as Baudelaire, and artists–most famously Henri de Toulouse Lautrec. In the US, absinthe was banned in 1912, and only re-introduced in 2017.
(left) absinthe (source); (right) belle epoque absinthe advertisement for the so-called “green fairy” (source)
Green Comes Home
Over the years, green waxed and waned in popularity as a color for the home. Despite continued issues with toxicity, green was one of Victorians’ favorite colors–a trend that lasted well into the Art Nouveau and Arts and Crafts periods.
The deep, rich greens of the 18th and 19th century fell out of fashion for several decades. When green finally experienced a renaissance, it did so with a broader spectrum of hues including soft pastel mint in the 50’s, muted avocado trended in the 70’s (another era of environmental awareness), morphing into bright lime in the 80’s.
(left) Morris & Co. green wallpaper, design: Zoe Feldman / photo: Stacy Goldberg; (right) green cabinetry, design: Heidi Callier / photo: Haris Kenjar
Green’s return to the zeitgeist is just the latest in the journey for a color that can range from patrician to pop, earthy to electric, misty to mysterious.
And that’s its charm: the ability to tell a multiplicity of stories and evoke a myriad of moods.