“Red is the great clarifier – bright and revealing. I can’t imagine becoming bored with red – it would be like becoming bored with the person you love.” Diana Vreeland
Red is a powerfully symbolic colour and with strongly contrasting meanings. The Red Cross on white background signifies protection, and in meditation the red root chakra symbolises grounding. It is the colour of prosperity, success and the elite – we have ‘red carpet’ entrances and, across Asia, a red envelope of money signifies good fortune. It also defines blood and aggression – as in ‘seeing red’ – and the mark of a poor economy is being ‘in the red’.
Historical and Symbolic
In ancient Egypt, red was associated with life, health, and victory and Egyptians would paint themselves with red ochre during celebrations. In China, it is correlated to fire and corresponds to the south and summer. The Russian word for red ‘krasniy’ stems from the same old Slavic stem as the words beautiful and excellent. This is clearly a ‘power’ colour – it was official banner of the Byzantine rulers, Emperor Charlemagne painted his palace red as a symbol of authority and scarlet is still worn by Catholic cardinals. Red has a far more carnal use too – once the official colour of courtesans’ togas in Rome, it remains widely used within the sex industry today. Traditionally, red ‘blood’ is assigned to femininity, and white ‘seed’ to masculinity and both feature on many national flags and in heraldry. In addition, heraldic use of red indicates courage – perhaps explaining why it was so widely used on military uniforms. It may also symbolise change and a new world order – supporters of the French Revolution wore red, and later it was chosen for flags and iconography of both communist and socialist movements.
In a Cultural Context
Red was always highly prized and a variety of natural dyes have been used since ancient times, including the herb madder – found in the Tomb of Tutankhamun – and the mineral vermilion, found on Pompeii murals and Chinese lacquerware. In the late 19th century, the German chemical industry began developing synthetic pigments, beginning with cadmium red to replicate vermilion, and mars red to replace naturally occurring red ochre (iron oxide). The French Impressionist Henri Matisse was a prominent fan of the new cadmium red. Later, Mark Rothko employed it in even simpler form in sombre blocks on large canvases to signify deep emotion. Today, Anish Kapoor’s sculptural use of red pigment and Yayoi Kusama’s signature polka dots give a contemporary representation of the tragic blood-red symbolism that many artists have found at the heart of life.
Uses in Today’s World
Red has visibility – giving it wide applications to denote danger/caution in traffic and hazard signs and fire equipment. As an accent, it stimulates quick decisions, making it widely employed in ‘Sale’, ‘Buy Now’ or ‘Click Here’ messages. In the media industry, CNN, Netflix, YouTube and TED are ‘red brands’. Virgin Group, a mighty conglomerate including media, transportation and banking, has retained the distinctive blood-red signature reportedly sketched on a napkin when it was a startup record business. In advertising, it may be visual shorthand for glamour and status – models with scarlet lips and nails still feature routinely on sports-car adverts. It also conjures up vitality, making it popular for sports and activity brands. Classic FMCG food and beverage brands, including Campbell’s, Budweiser, Coca-Cola, Kellogg’s and Heinz, achieved worldwide standout and sales with their logos. Conversely, deep shades mixed with gold and warm wood imply sophistication, drama and intimacy, making them perennially popular for hotel, bar and performance settings – think of London’s Café Royal or the Opéra de Paris.
Looking Into the Future
There is so much more to be said about red. It is also the classic colour of celebration, most folk art – and Scandinavia. With my Danish roots, I strongly associate it with happy childhood memories: fresh strawberries with cream and the raising of the national red and white flag on birthdays. Most houses and summer cottages are Scandinavian Red, as were my first school bag, bike and clogs. In the future will see an even greater need to reinvent the use of red to create ‘real value’. I see it is as a great tool for transmitting an aura of warmth and positive virtues in branding and interiors – a real reminder of inviting playfulness. In my book, a good story starts with red.
Concept + Information: Anne Lise Kjaer – www.kjaer-global.com
1) Neon Art by Korean Artist Lee Jung >>
2) a: Red Cross Poster b: I shop and therefore I am Barbara Kruger c: Typewriter MoMa
d: Lord Snowdon in the Guardian – photos by Kjaer Global
3) Video Installation by Tacita Dean – photo © Kjaer Global
4) Anish Kapoor at the Royal Academy + Yayoi Kusama at Tate Modern – photos © Kjaer Global
5) Campel TED x Salford – photo © Kjaer Global
6) Soup Andy Warhol MoMa – photo © Kjaer Global
7) The Red House Oslo >>
8) Childhood Snapshots Kjaer Global – Illustration: Kræsten Krum Byskov
9) Body text image: Mona Hatoum Hot Spot III photo © Kjaer Global >>
Pantone TPX Colours
Cabernet 19-1724 TPX
Chilli Pepper 19-1557 TPX
Fiery Red 18-1664 TPX
Cherry Tomato 17-1563 TPX