Color experts, including a Bainbridge Island woman, looked into their cups and saw the future Seattle clearly has credibility when it comes...

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Color experts, including a Bainbridge Island woman, looked into their cups and saw the future

Seattle clearly has credibility when it comes to coffee.

What you might not realize is that coffee — or, rather, coffee giant Starbucks — can claim partial credit for another cultural trend: the rich, deep brown likely cluttering your closet, covering your sofa and even sitting in your flower vase.

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In the mid-1990s, when Starbucks was popping up everywhere, most people found themselves buying glammed-up coffee. But color forecaster — and Bainbridge Island resident — Leatrice Eiseman spotted something else going on.

Eiseman, executive director of Pantone Color Institute, noticed a change in the public’s attitude — especially among the younger generation — toward the color dark brown, which previously had an earthy, utilitarian reputation. Now, in word-association studies, people described brown as “rich” and “robust,” as opposed to “dirt” or “earth.”

Eiseman thought that was no coincidence.

“Brown coming in a more elegant kind of way can truly be attributed to Starbucks,” she said. “They literally invented this whole new concept of, ‘It’s not a cup of coffee, it’s espresso.’ “

Eiseman is part of a specialized group of professional forecasters who are the invisible force influencing what colors walk down the runway, and the shade of paint on your living room walls. They spot concrete phenomena such as Starbucks that power a trend, and come up with a forecast.

Then they let the rest of us know.

Forecasters once handed down color predictions that were treated like edicts. (Homeowners are still suffering the after-effects of 1970s-era avocado.) But there’s more to a trend than declaring a color is “it,” and expecting consumers to follow.

The environmental movement, for example, is fueling green’s popularity. Forecasters noted the public’s tolerance for the shade rose in the 1990s (post-avocado, people had had little patience for green) and the growing popularity of environmentalism has made green a symbolic, and more acceptable, color.

Likewise, the Starbucks-inspired deep, rich brown has cycled through clothes and the home. Now, cosmetic lines such as Bobbi Brown have chocolate collections.

All of this, says Eiseman, who has been in the forecasting business for 25 years, demonstrates a color trend with staying power.

“What’s astounding to me is it keeps gaining more and more momentum,” she said.

Knowing where to look

The building blocks of color forecasting, which include pop culture, economics and technology, are visible everywhere … but you have to know where to look.

“It’s not mysterious,” said Deborah deBeauchamp, fashion-marketing professor at the Art Institute of Seattle. “It’s an awareness of the mood of the times, the essence of the times, the zeitgeist of the times. They’re trying to figure out where these colors are moving from, and where they’re moving toward.”

Color prediction as a separate industry took root in this country during World War I. Milliners once set the color trends, based on the styles emerging from Paris and Germany. But with the war, they lost their pipeline to the latest trends, and wool and silk manufacturers decided to release their own color forecasts.

That led to the creation of what became the Color Association of the United States — now one of three main color-forecasting groups, along with Pantone Color Institute and the Color Marketing Group.

The groups are made up of professionals from industries including automotive, home, fashion and others who regularly develop predictions and choose colors and palettes a year or two in advance. The main difference among the three is their forecasting methods, and different industries depend on different groups.

But their influence is undeniable. Their handiwork keeps color modern and streamlines the shopping experience at the mall, at the auto dealership and at big box stores.

They call the colors of the world, deBeauchamp said.

“You see the pipeline working that way,” she said. “You see colors happening in high-end manufacture. You’re going to see it in Target in less than a year and continuing into Wal-Mart and Kmart.”

The green scene

Eiseman was leafing through Variety magazine several years ago when a vivid yellow-green popped out at her from an ad for the 2001 animated movie “Shrek,” still in production at the time.

“I looked at the color of ‘Shrek’ and I thought, ‘Whoa, that is amazing,’ ” Eiseman said.

The color had been out of circulation for years. But Eiseman knew that the environmental movement had made green more acceptable, and that children are more open to whimsical colors.

Other factors sealed it for her that this was a color to watch:

• Children watch beloved films endlessly on video.

• “Shrek” probably would have a sequel. (In fact, No. 3 is coming next year.)

• Another movie, “Monsters, Inc.” had a character sporting the same green.

Eiseman felt she had plenty of reason to believe that the movie would be a phenomenon — and would take the color along with it.

The bright yellow-green color trickled into the adult market, too, as parents were influenced by what their kids watched, and started to accept it in their own wardrobes.

“It’s up to us, who are the color forecasters armed with this information, to be able to pick up on what we think is going to be influential, know that it is going to have a longer shelf life,” Eiseman said. “We really have to do our homework.”

Forecasters are quick to note that their projections are simply guidelines, which consumers and manufacturers will modify. The Color Association of the U.S. comes up with 24 colors in a fashion forecast, said director Margaret Walch. Only a few will turn out to be big sellers, but all the colors will be used in some way.

“Ideally you want a color to command high visibility say in Bergdorf’s [Goodman] or Barneys’ [New York] window,” Walch said. “And you also want it to instill volume sales; that’s ideal.”

Coordinating colors through forecasts also has a practical benefit for shoppers, Eiseman said.

For instance, you might be confused if you walked into 10 different carpet stores and the colors didn’t work together, then went to a home-furnishings store and those colors didn’t match the carpet choices. Manufacturers need color direction to help you in their stores.

Think of them as your guide through a dense color forest.

“It makes it easier for the consumer,” she said. “It does give them a sense of direction when they walk in.”

Color and cultural change

The rise of a color can also be connected to subtler elements, such as changes in the country’s economic or cultural climate.

Immigration, for example, has contributed to red’s popularity, said Margaret Miele, the color psychologist at New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology.

Red, she said, is a joyful, positive color in Latin and Asian cultures, with associations such as luck and happiness, whereas in Anglo-Saxon culture, it typically has been affiliated with violence and sexuality. The influx of immigrants has changed the color’s connotation, and people like red more than they used to.

“Baby boomers might buy a red leather sofa,” Miele said. “It’s showing an idea that you’re staying young, you’re staying modern. We’re getting a more positive connotation of red than we once had as a society.”

A more somber factor helped white’s recent resurgence, the experts say.

The color is expected to last well past the traditional summer period, continuing through fall and into winter.

Eiseman notes telling factors including brides returning to traditional white, the rise of minimalism, a makeup line inspired by the white look in the movie “Memoirs of a Geisha,” and white tea. But, she said, white also tends to gain strength during times of economic uncertainty and strife such as wars, and this gives it more staying power right now.

“At a time like this, when you look back historically, people do have a tendency when there is great stress to cleanse the palette … a need to purify, to cleanse, to simplify,” she said. “White speaks to all of those.”

Color in your life

Shoppers are savvier than ever and have far more options, but forecasters are not a dying breed. Leave it to Eiseman to cite new evidence of brown’s staying power, growing in our own backyard on Whidbey Island. There, she points to the Chocolate Flower Farm, which sells dark maroon foliage and plants.

The boutique nursery, which opened in 2005, has sent chocolate-colored flowers to Walt Disney World, San Francisco’s Ghirardelli Square gardens and botanical gardens in Green Bay, Wis. One San Francisco resident wanted to remake his garden in chocolate flowers.

“It’s just kind of a primal response,” said owner Marie Lincoln. “Calling them dark plants or black plants is a turn-off, but when they envision chocolate, they just fall in love.”

OK, so brown is secure in its popularity for the moment (though expect it to morph into tan and butterscotch for the spring). But what about the rest of the color palette?

Colors from the 1800s, early 1900s and the 1940s such as purple are providing inspiration for 2007, said Sandra Imre, a Seattle-based color consultant who is a member of the Color Marketing Group. Down the road, the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing will add cultural colors.

“Essentially we’re going to see more color, more vivid color, more globally inspired color and more color that plays upon contrast harmonies rather than making color a more bland experience,” Walch said.

As for the hottest color for spring, Walch predicts that yellow, which has been showing up as an accent color, will make the biggest splash.

“Yellow is a color that’s been most underplayed and is going to have its day,” she said.

Nicole Tsong: 206-464-2150 or ntsong@seattletimes.com