Colour at the Edge

It gives me great pleasure to be asked by Wendy Murray to be a guest blogger for The Velvet & Silk Cafe.  For my own readers, I hope you will find a little about my background and work of interest.

Although officially, a geographer (obviously attracted by the heavy use of coloured pencils) I have been working in the design industry for the last twenty years specifying contemporary brands of European furniture, lighting and modern art works for domestic and commercial spaces. I then began to specialise in restaurant interiors where I became increasingly interested in the use of colour as a design tool. This passion for colour led me to consult for Valtti paints where I designed colour palettes including ‘Fauvism 55’ which was awarded a Living etc Loves Award. I am currently working on a range of home wares and consulting on colour choice and placement in public spaces.

My work in colour simply relies upon the 10,000 hour rule, I do not have a colour qualification but I have probably read most books ever written on  colour theory (!) and I am in frequent discussions with members of the IACC (International Association of Colour Consultants) and Colour Group GB.

The place where two colours meet is my real passion. The perfect fusion of art and science exists at this point. Being able to alter a perceived colour by placing another colour next to it gives designers a very powerful and dynamic tool. I’m sure you know that placing two complimentary colours side by side strengthens their respective hues and allows them to be more luminous. In their fight for leadership the two colours ‘tout’ or strengthen their parent colours and retract any common hues resulting in a greater contrast.

The greatest energy or dynamism is found along the boundary where the colours touch – further away from this point the effect diminishes. However, if you wish the entire block of colour to have equal strength a simple ‘fence’ or boundary can be added around the colour block which prevents the colours sparring along the ‘front line’ and the heightened contrast will be spread evenly across the block.

red & green showing different strengths

Look at the energy where the colours touch compared to the outer edges. See how the 'fence' allows the energy to be equally spread.

There are far too many examples of colour physics to discuss in one post and there are plenty of examples on previous posts (including one on the effect of colour perception on ageing eyes which is relevant to Part M building regulations – although brand new research now questions this theory but its still too early in the research to change building regs).

In January this year I spent some time in Reykjavik and was astonished by the use of colour in the Harpa Concert Hall.

Harpa Concert Hall

As many members of The Silk and Velvet Cafe are architects I won’t begin to describe the building on its architectural merits although I do think Rowan Moore’s review of the building for the Guardian gives an excellent overview.

In a country full of colour contrasts, fire and ice, darkness followed by eternal day light and torn in half by the North American and Eurasian plates, I guess it is no surprise that Henning Larsen Architects and artist, Olafur Eliasson who designed Harpa have used dramatic colour combinations to full use.

I was stunned by the scale of the building and even more surprised to see the solid walls inside the building were black concrete. Considering the the lack of winter light, I did not expect the architects to choose black walls. Another surprise, is the white floor. Generally we humans feel more comfortable with ‘heavy’ colours below our feet, and ‘lighter’ colours above, (probably because that replicates nature). Entering this interior instantly made me feel very small and extremely aware of the building itself.

The insertion of bright yellow upholstery is a brilliant addition. Black which has a very low LRV (light reflective value) is the perfect back drop to clean bright yellow which has one of the highest LRV’s – the contrast allows the colours the greatest impact.

Image on left is untouched, image on right is inverted. The interior uses unorthodox colour placement to great effect.

The main concert hall, Eldborg or ‘Fire Castle’ takes inspiration from a volcanic crater in the East of Iceland. Red, well known to heighten ones emotions has affected some recent performers who claim their senses have been so sharpened they have been reduced to tears while on stage.

Photo by Ari Magg

The recital hall, Norourljos or ‘Northern Lights’ is shrouded in a vivid blue light to signify endless horizons and also to create a peaceful ambiance for smaller groups of performers.

Photo by Eypor Arnason

The Kaldalon or ‘Cold Lagoon’ has the ability to change colour depending on what event is being hosted. Inspired.

It is exciting to see bold colour choices and unusual colour placement  being used in such an important cultural building and a building which has become a symbol of Iceland’s new energy and optimism.

For me, it is the colour choice and placement that saved this over sized building from becoming an impersonal space. The building provokes powerful emotional and at times unexpected reactions which makes it an exciting and dynamic place to enter and a place that has firmly stuck in my mind.

23 thoughts on “Colour at the Edge

  1. Wow! The Harpa Concert Hall is a great example of how colour can evoke all sorts of feelings and emotions. I love the blue light in the recital hall – it really does look like the Northern Lights 🙂

    My hubby and I keep talking about going on a holiday to Iceland. Now I want to go even more so I can check out this building!


  2. Yes, the blue light is dreaming isnt it. Well I cant recommend a trip to Iceland more. It inspires in so many ways, culturally, geographically and is not like anywhere else on the planet! If you do go, let me know as I have a great list of restaurants 🙂


  3. A really interesting post again, I love your examples on colour energy, well explained, and the section about the Harpa Concert Hall. Thinking of books on colour, not really on colour theory so much as on colour in critical theory: have you read Chromophobia by David Batchelor? (If not i highly recommend it and I think you might find it fascinating).


  4. Thanks Andy. Yes! I have read Chromophobia and I thought it was an excellent read as it really did look at colour choice (or lack of it) from such a different angle and I really found the historical references very interesting too. I might do a post about books soon come to think of it.


  5. Very interesting to hear more about what you do Niki – geographer to designer. Also more about colour theory – I have a few books on this which I must read. I bet you are more of an expert than a lot of people who have qualifications anyway.


  6. Thanks Jacqui, you’ve no idea how much it means getting approval from an artist. One of my demons is not quite knowing how to describe my ‘profession’. Its funny how much emphasis people do put on their degree considering most degrees are only either 3 or 4 years out of a life time of work and experience. I loved my degree & wouldn’t change it but I would also have loved to go to art school too. However, I’ve really enjoyed teaching myself too, it can be very rewarding even if there is no ‘certificate’ at the end of it. I come from a family of artist who did very well for themselves (RA’s) so I kind of hope I have some of their genes 🙂


  7. thank you Niki for another inspirational post! Glad you wouldn’t change your degree 😉 I’m thinking an Icelandic holiday is going to need to be organised by the Littlejohns! LOVING the blue recital hall. Thinking about colour last night we had the most perfect soft, still, sapphire blue night sky in ABZ with the perfect sliver of a crescent moon. Truly beautiful!.


    • Hey, thanks Shona. I certainly know what you mean about the sky this week. The clarity has been amazing hasn’t it and the sharp sliver of the moon with Jupiter sitting so close has had us star gazing too. Mmm, ‘sapphire blue sky in Aberdeen’, lovely description, me thinks we have another colour loving geographer here!


  8. I’m not surprised that you are being asked to guest blog:your breadth of knowledge and the way you convey it is awe-inspiring. I loved learning a bit more about your Iceland trip too. Your original and reverse images in the concert were excellent & made this design-dummy understand how much colour placement really affects our perception of our environment. Great post, Niki.


  9. Great post Niki, I always find your posts intersting and inspiring. I love the shot of the black walls with the yellow and grey 🙂


  10. Great post Niki, inspiring as usual. I love the shot with the black walls and the yellow and grey upholstery.
    Sandra ( thecolourofideas )


  11. Great post Niki inspiring as usual, I really love the shot with the black walls and the yellow and grey upholstery. This might be a double comment, I have been having some trouble because I have an old wordpress account.


  12. You have inspired me to start reading Betty Edwards book on Colour – I have had this book for a couple of years now and have dipped in and out of it – now I am reading it properly 🙂


    • That’s brilliant Jacqui! She had loads of ‘tests’ in that book so you can really try out what you’ve learnt. I always find it lodges in the brain far more easily if you actually carry out the suggestions 🙂


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