At one end of our bathtub is a demolition derby of plastic ducks, a dinosaur, and a mermaid Barbie in a formfitting pink-and-blue outfit, her bright-blond hair streaked with red and blue. The dinosaur is orange (what colors were dinosaurs?), with a tiger’s black stripes fanning out from its backbone. The ducks are bright yellow—naturally—but also hot pink, shiny black, and in one case (because there should be no limit to a child’s delight) a squeezable spectrum of green, purple, orange, yellow, and blue.
We grown-ups, of course, have our own “beautifully, unapologetically plastic” toys, and they keep getting “more capable and certainly more colorful.” That hype came from Apple’s design guru, flacking the leap beyond shades of gray and chrome in 2013: the iPhone 5c in white, blue, yellow, pink, and green, with mix-and-match cases “designed to add fun,” not “just to add protection.” Who isn’t entranced by the vibrantly pleasing surfaces of things in an intoxicatingly colorful world—although who hasn’t also been taken aback by the weird unreality of it? “Food-coloring pink, dead yellow,” my wife sighed as she shopped for her new toy, settling on a dark-gray device with a white case.
As the American silk dealer Ward Cheney had already figured out back in the 19th century, “Color is one of the most influential factors in the saleability of products.” He had no idea what a neon surfeit of manufactured color—dyed, painted, digitized—lay ahead as the engine of consumerism amped up childish enchantment into churning desire for, as Apple puts it, “bright combinations,” the more, the better. By now, the electrical and chemical industries, and the expert “colorists” hired by countless companies, have applied their magic to far more than our fancy silks and shiny gadgets. Everyday staples—toothbrushes, running shoes, cars, homes, the entire urban environment—have become exponentially more colorful than Cheney could have imagined. In turn, most of us might be startled to learn that not so long ago, the world was far more somber than we can imagine.