Thursday, February 02, 2006

Colors of Rome: Color in Italian Design

Bright toys evoke a rich tradition of spectral surprises

by Carla Diana

ROME, May 30, 1997 -- Rust-colored walls with [Image]
streaks of mustard yellow. Glistening slate blue
cobblestones. Mellow green patinas on copper domes.
Chocolate brown shutters closing on eggshell tinted
windowframes. And a canopy of burnt sienna rooftops
draped along the horizon. This explosion of colors
surprises you every time you emerge from a doorway in
Rome. They're so intense that even the transient visitor
can't help being affected by them.

The colors that exist here today aren't a wash over
surfaces or a splash of paint here and there -- they come
from a rich tradition, applied layer over layer and
infused into the entire environment. The image of the
Roman empire as a collection of pallid white structures
is misleading: Caesar and Augustus surrounded themselves
with polychrome marble and intricate mosaics. The
aesthetic continued, leading to majestic frescos, ornate
murals and glowing stained glass windows. The average
building facade isn't grey: it's a blushing peach or a
spunky orange or perhaps powder blue. Even mother nature
plays the game by offering a climate where bright palm
trees and dark evergreens grow side-by-side in city
parks.

With all this vibrance happening outdoors it's no wonder
that the insides of homes tend to display a healthy
palette of colors as well. People here are willing to
show off colorful products that don't always find their
way to markets in other countries.

Swatch has taken advantage of its cult status in Italy by
offering a quirky upright cordless that is prominently
displayed in almost every Roman electronics store. It
comes in colors like electric blue and bright
yellow-orange with a matte finish. Other offerings
include red and blue Bang & Olufsen phones, a scarlet
Sony Discman, Motorola cellular phones in forest green
and maroon, and navy Aiwa speakers. The colors of
cleaning products are even bolder than the electronics,
and the chore of vacuumming can be a little less dreary
when you get to tote a hose attached to a fire-engine red
canister across the carpet. So far I've seen vacuum
cleaners that come in red, orange, sunflower yellow, U.S-
mailbox blue and turquoise, and clothes irons in similar
shades.

Inside the home, colors emerge at their brightest in the
kitchen, a result of the Italian passion for culinary
delghts. It starts with the Roman's choice in foods: deep
red cured meats, rich green artichokes, golden olive oil,
and gelato in a range of pastels. The Italian designer
Alessi has found his expression in kitchen tools. His
humorous corkscrews, bottle openers and stove lighters
(gas ranges aren't automatic ignition here -- they need
to be lit with a match or lighter) are this society's
pricey objects of desire, and bright colors are an
intrinsic part of their character. The non-designer name
stuff can be found in all colors of the spectrum as well,
and thoughtful designs in high quality materials
emphasize just how important cheese graters, nutcrackers,
hand mixers, blenders, and coffee grinders are in this
culture. Despite the risk of investing in a huge imprint
of color as a fixture in the room, refrigerators and
ranges in offbeat hues are more common here than they are
in the States, coming in colors like navy blue, cyan and
yellow-orange.

While providing a bombardment of sensations, the colors
have a wonderfully soothing effect, as if they were an
antidote to the city's choas. Amid the Italian train
strikes, the stores closing at odd hours and the mail
that takes a month to get here, colors provide the
unexpected details that always make a smile creep onto my
face.

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This column is an etown.com exclusive.

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