In the coming months, I’ll be posting a series of reflections on the work of Faber Birren, one of the 20th century’s leading authorities on color. I stumbled upon the writings of Faber Birren decades ago in the library at the Rhode Island School of Design. The illustrations seemed dated even then, yet the content was presented in a way that made perfect sense. Much of my initial understanding of color came from his books.
Birren studied art at the University of Chicago, but did not envision himself in a career as an artist; he became an industrial color consultant instead.
His chosen focus may seem predominantly commercial at first glance (his obituary observes that he “kept constant sales records on color trends in paints, wallpapers, textiles, plastics, home furnishings and the like”), but I find Birren interesting in that his work ultimately bridged together numerous worlds, from industrial manufacturing and advertising to psychology to fine art. He wrote some 25 books and many more articles on color, color theory, and the effects of color on various aspects of human life, including relationships and the workplace. He also diligently collected any other texts he could find on the subject, which, together with his own writings, eventually became the Faber Birren Collection of Books on Color at Yale University.
For all his widespread influence on the field of color and related professions, Birren doesn’t have much of an online presence. He passed away in the late 1980s, and most work by and about him seems to remain largely in print, tucked away in libraries and art history departments. Yet Birren laid a foundation for many of the concepts we now take for granted. I hope to illuminate some of those contributions through this series.