My Yale – Breathing Color

Breathe turquoise to cure your arthritis, orange to alleviate your pain. Inhale green to strengthen your nerves, and blue to bolster your life force. Sniff pink to smooth away wrinkles. These strategies are guaranteed to work, according to the 1977 book Health, Youth and Beauty Through Color Breathing. Co-authored by a diminutive modeling school instructor named Yvonne, the book describes a meditative practice analogous to smoking. The practitioner envisions a cloudlike aura of color surrounding his or her body, and then inhales it. Breathing whitish gray helps with “bone mending,” while puffing on golden-white cures cardiovascular disease. Deep pinkish rose fosters a “loving rapport with others,” while pale orchid insures “spiritual attunement.” Grass green will bring monetary gain, but only if the color-breather says, “According to the will of the Father,” lest he appear greedy.

Color Breathing forms a small and frivolous part of the Faber Birren Collection of Books on Color, itself a part of the Robert B. Haas Family Arts Library. The Collection originally belonged to the prominent color consultant Faber Birren, who presented it to Yale in 1971. Born at the turn of the century to a landscape painter father and pianist mother, Birren studied art both at home and in school. He dropped out of college after two years, opting instead to pursue a self-directed study of color. Later, he popularized the business of color consulting and labored tirelessly to demonstrate the breadth of its application. Working with industrial giants like General Electric and DuPont, Birren invented a sophisticated code to signal various types of danger, replacing the catch-all red with “yellow for stumbling, falling, or strike-against hazards, orange for cutting, brushing, burn or shock possibilities, blue for caution, green for first-aid equipment.” He took commissions from the Navy and Coast Guard, specifying colors for vehicles, structures, and clothing. These changes cut down on worker fatigue and helped reduce the Armed Services accident rate by over 85%.

But Birren’s interest in color went past its merely pragmatic uses. He proved by self-experimentation that living in a room painted vermillion does not induce insanity. He also established that most virtuous women would never buy a green billiards table, since green was associated with seedy barrooms, but that they would happily shell out for a nice shade of burgundy. In addition to all this, Birren was a frequent editor, attaching his name to everything from academic texts on color systematization to pop psychology quizzes. He even consulted on Disney’s Fantasia.

When Birren donated his collection to Yale, it consisted of just 177 items; today, thanks to Yale’s librarians, it contains over 2000. There is a first edition of Newton’s Optics, a manual instructing railroad surgeons on how to deal with color-blindness, a hand-colored guide to 18th century English insects, a treatise concerning “substantive dyestuffs on cotton piece-goods,” and a yearly Swedish serial that explains how to use lichens around the house. Strange color names abound. There is a box containing 55 paint chips, each of which corresponds to a different color stagecoach (Indian Red, Tuscan Red, Tacoma Red, Granate Red, Mars Red). A poster from the 1930s advertises such exotic food colorings as Peacock Green and Orchid Mauve. One artist’s book contains 179 watercolor swatches, all varying shades of the stucco walls of Bologna, Italy. Each swatch is paired with an address. Pool-tile turquoise is at 3A Via degli Orefici; split-pea khaki is at 35 Via Broccaindosso; rice-pudding brown is at 4 Via d’Inferno.

The Collection also has forecasts from the Color Association of the United States, which each year sends out 12- by 29-inch charts covered in swatches of the freshest and most fashionable hues. Though the forecasts have no real authority, they encapsulate a given year’s personality — what the authors of Color Breathing might call its “soul color.” In 1986, the year of the Challenger explosion and the Iran-Contra affair, the forecast was a patriotic lesson in geography, with such colors as Tampa Toast, Biloxi Brick, Flint Chartreuse, and Pago Pago Green (even American Samoa got a nod). The colors of 1988 drew heavily from Greek mythology; they had names like Demeter Pink, Orpheus Red, and Circe Claret.

Faber Birren died at the end of that year. Perhaps as a result, the color forecasts shifted from buoyant to crestfallen. 1989 was decidedly drab. The deep vinous red of Circe Claret disappeared, and in its place came the arid brown known as Nude.

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