Color Me Pantone
The chromatic wizards of graphic design chart a quicker route to accurate interiors specifications
Bonnie Schwartz -- Interior Design, 7/1/2002 12:00:00 AM
Graphic designers, who have long had the benefit of a universal color system, must think contract designers an odd lot. Rather than specifying a standard number for a particular color, they must explain to each supplier what color of carpet or solid surfacing they have in mind by resorting to such inexactitudes as "sky blue" or "pale turquoise, stronger in the green than blue range." But things are about to change. Pantone, the company that enables magazine art directors and their ilk to speak a precise numerical language, is moving into the contract field. Pantone for Architecture and Interiors, a product that grew out of the Pantone Textile Color System for the fashion industry, was unveiled at NeoCon last month, and design professionals are already buzzing about the news. According to marketing manager Laurie Pressman, the company has fielded over 500 requests for information since the launch. Such firms as AI, the Philips Group, and Swanke Hayden Connell have confirmed that a universal color language could be relevant to their work.
According to Lisa Herbert, Pantone's executive vice president of interiors and fashion, contract designers have been using Pantone's fashion-oriented system since 1984. "The new system really grew out of the one for fashion, with interiors-oriented neutrals, mineral grays, whites, and the like added," Herbert explains. "It took us a long time to push into interiors because we didn't understand the complexities of the industry."
Which is how Gensler, an interiors firm that employs almost 2,000 people in 24 offices worldwide, got involved in conducting in-house focus groups on how the product could be most effective in a different market. Says Gensler vice president and design director John Bricker, "At first, some of our staff thought that a system like this might impair the creative process. There was a lot of resistance." Once Pantone conducted demonstrations, however, the Gensler team started to reconsider. Bricker continues: "The librarians got it immediately. The system can help us match colors to, say, a firm's graphic identity, rather than us having to approximate."
Similar to paint chips in dividing colors into numerical families, Pantone for Architecture and Interiors consists of more than 1,900 color swatches in cotton, paper, or digital formats. Because a designer can call a manufacturer and simply ask what might be available in a particular code range, the system allows the designer to match solid-surfacing materials such as laminates, hard and soft flooring, leather, and fabrics exactly. This reduces the time and cost associated with custom collaborations between designers and suppliers.
At Mohawk Industries, the world's largest flooring manufacturer, 25 to 30 percent of the business is custom. "Sometimes we'll do 10 color samples for a client. Each of those samples can cost $500. With a codified system, maybe we'll get it on the fifth try rather than the 10th," says vice president of marketing Sam Bracken. The company's Mohawk Group division and Pantone recently signed a licensing agreement to color-key all the running line samples for the Karastan Contract, Durkan Commercial, and Durkan Pattern brands. Every SKU will be matched to a Pantone color, so designers will be able to communicate about products much more efficiently. Bracken is also excited about the color-forecasting arrangement that he and Pantone have forged, giving the Mohawk Group a head start on product that corresponds to Pantone's trend research.
The Mohawk Group is one of only two licensees so far—the other, Autodesk, makes software—but Pantone has its game plan worked out. When a manufacturer adopts the system, Pantone will provide a specific code number to each of the company's colors. "One reason that a numerical system is so useful is that so many projects are created in one location and implemented far away," Herbert points out, adding that a universal color language crosses physical and linguistic boundaries more easily.
While Pantone's new system clearly harbors a lot of potential for interior designers, how useful can any system be before it's adopted by a critical mass of manufacturers? "People who aren't on board will continue to do business as usual," predicts Bricker. "The status quo works to a certain extent. We can do our jobs without this sort of formulation, as we have forever." Even within Gensler, not everyone uses the system, and those who do say that it currently touches the designer-supplier interface more often than designer-client exchanges. What's Bricker's personal point of view? "If something communicates design guidelines globally, why not take advantage of it?"