imomus (imomus) wrote,

She comes in colours

In October 2006 Pantone Inc -- a business specialized in the specification of colour by numbers, and based in New Jersey -- opened a Japanese division led by Yuko Ishii, an executive who'd previously worked at the Japanese branches of Coca Cola, Budweiser and Disney.

In their press release, Pantone described Ishii's mission for the Japanese market: "To expand the use of PANTONE Color Systems throughout the design and manufacturing sectors, thus linking industries and businesses in Japan to the global community with a universal color specification standard."

That's rather a boring mission statement, and it seems Ishii has ripped it up and done something completely different and much more ambitious. She's not only forged strategic branding partnerships with companies like Sharp and Uniqlo, foregrounding Pantone itself as a fetish brand name, but, arguably, relaunched and re-excited the whole idea of colour in Japan -- a nation which, since the heady, gaudy days of the late 90s has (as we've seen before) retreated further and further into a semi-depressed world of muddy beiges, blacks, whites, creams and greys.

"Some users do not fully understand the breadth of PANTONE products and services," complained Pantone's press release, back in October. "Currently in Japan, the assumption often is that PANTONE is just a “color chip” or “color swatch.” With a strong local presence and new leadership, it is Pantone’s mission to change this limited perception."

In just nine months, Pantone has completely changed its meaning in Japan. Once a fistful of numbered swatch cards that pernickety designers would menace printers with, it's now become a trendy consumer buzzword in Japan, and, some might say, a byword for the newly-acceptable face of colour in a nation which dips in and out of chromophobia.

Some say that colour is an indicator of economic optimism (others measure consumer confidence with skirt hems; boom brings the mini, bust the maxi); Japan is seeing solid growth in its economy these days, and with it seems to have come a resurgence in bright colours (not to mention short skirts, worn with teasing obaknee socks).

On our three week visit last month Hisae and I saw Pantone's "Play! Color!" slogan jumping out at us from all over. From, for instance, the serried, gradated rows of Sharp phones sold by the SoftBank network. There are twenty colours in the SoftBank Sharp Pantone range, allowing you to pick a phone as an accessory to the kind of outfit you like to wear. Japan's cellphone market has always been more feminine and fashion-led than other nations' -- whereas in the West phones were marketed, from the start, as heavy, black male things for businessmen, the keitai shot ahead in the 90s as an essentially female accessory in Japan; small, light, pearly, colourful and dripping with glittery strap accessories.

Pantone colour has made friends with the most chromophobic brands. Uniqlo, for instance, used to be almost Muji-like in its beigeness. Now, though, they've relaunched with a flagship t-shirt store, Uniqlo UT, which steals the best bits of Graniph (the ever-changing designs), American Apparel (the wide colour-choice, reminiscent of United Colors-era Benetton), a bit of Bape Kids (there's a certain kidult feel to the store), then throws it all together with the groovy LED displays from Cow Books and a strategic partnership with Pantone Japan. Walk into the store on the Meiji Dori and you'll see Pantone numbers chugging around, leading you to Damian Hirst-like druggy medicine cabinets filled with the t-shirt colours you crave.

The drug imagery ties in with what David Batchelor says in his book about suspicion of colour -- that colour is associated in masculine and puritan cultures with drugs, and with effeminacy. That particular moment when the uptight, short-haired, black-and-white 1950s turned into the long-haired, psychedelic 1960s seems to be a battle that keeps coming back. Colour wins when peaceful consumer societies are doing well, get confident enough to express themselves, and get a bit girly.

I'm interested, though, in what it means when one company becomes too successful in associating itself with something as free and universal as colour. And what it means when the mere specification of something, through a proprietary system, becomes some kind of claim to ownership.

"Pantone asserts," says Wikipedia, "that their lists of color numbers and pigment values are the intellectual property of Pantone and free use of the list is not allowed" (which didn't stop the Scottish parliament debating whether to specify the Scottish flag, legally, as Pantone 300).

We humans are so reliant on our systems of description and standardization that we often mistake them for the things they describe. Whoever can assert ownership of the description system can assert ownership of the thing described. Like any unnecessary extension of ownership or copyright, this is on the whole a rather bad thing. Think of Craig Venter trying to patent life itself.

Would the genius who could codify and describe smell (and so far nobody has come up with a way to do it) be considered some kind of "owner of smell"? Would such a system refresh and rebrand the whole image of smell, and could it be tied into dozens of marketing campaigns? Would it take substantial advertising to remind us that we have noses, and that noses smell things, and that this is, by and large, a pleasure?

On the plus side, when somebody invests in something as general as colour or smell, they sink a lot of money into increasing our awareness of it. And consumer choice (much more pathetically narrow than it's held up to be) really is widened by, say, the Play! Color! phone range -- no other range of phones comes in anything like twenty different colours. And what happens when you pick out the colour you want, and leave the store, is that the ranged, Platonic, theoretical, proprietorial Pantone colour system -- the langue of colour, the colour strategy itself -- turns into a particular, personal colour choice, a commitment: colour as parole, a "speech act", a tactic, a hack, an act of praxis.

In the store you see colour itself, colour as envisaged (and partly, it seems, owned) by Pantone. But when you get the phone home, it's an object that matches your tie, or your eyes.

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