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The Weird And Fascinating Story Behind Design’s Iridescence Craze

Rainbow hues, color-changing films, and iridescent glazes have been steadily coating the design world for years. Co.Design investigates why.

The design world is having an iridescent moment. You may recognize it in Sebastian Scherer’s lovely pendant lights, designed to look like “a permanent iridescent soap bubble”. Or in Patricia Urquiola’s cool gradient Shimmer collection for Glas Italia from 2015. Last year, Tom Dixon released a collection—called Iridescence—of warped, lustrous waresinspired by the rainbow sheen of an oil spill.

The prismatic visual effect of light, color, and reflection has also made its way into the fashion and architecture worlds. Designers like Wanda Nylonhave embraced the color-changing brilliance of iridescence shimmying down the runway. Holographic accessories are gracing store shelves. As far back as 2009, graphic designer Peter Saville and architect David Adjaye debuted a gradient-sheen staircase for Kvadrat’s London showroom.

A + I architects. Canvas Worldwide office, Los Angeles, California. [PHOTO: VIA A+I]

As the executive director of the Pantone Color Institute, Leatrice Eiseman has been watching the trend since its conception. “I would say we started to tune into this 10 to 11 years ago,” she tells Co.Design. Eiseman traces the popularity of translucent designs rendered in glass and plastics back to Philippe Starck’s famed Louis Ghost Chair, designed for Kartell in 2002 as a modern update to the Louis XVI chair. Originally produced in clear acrylic, the chair has since become available in various colors, and other designers been influenced by the concept. “Over the years [the style] has gotten more and more sophisticated and more beautiful,” Eiseman says of iridescence.

It’s also gotten more ubiquitous. Experimentation over the past decade by artists and designers have made the materials, glazes, films, and finishes that produce these effects far more refined and accessible. Meanwhile, recent events have made the aesthetic an apt reflection of a cultural moment that has whipsawed between sunny optimism and despair. As the story behind the iridescence trend shows, it’s all a matter of perception.

THE ORIGINAL FINISHES FETISHISTS

Starck’s influence can be seen most directly in the works of designers using colored glass and plexi to create furniture pieces and home accessories. At Kartell, Starck had continued his line with furniture for kids. The Japanese design studio Nendo has recently created pieces in a similar style, with its plastic rocking horses for Kartell and elegant glass cabinets for Glas Italia. The recent work of artist Barbara Kasten is comprised of pieces that toy with light through plexiglas planes.

Los Angeles designer Nobel Truong makes plastic furniture that is striking in its composition of geometric shapes and the colorful shadows that are projected onto the floor when light shines through. She describes her influences as a combination of Bahaus geometry and material transparencyand Memphis Group eccentricity and color. But when it comes to how her pieces play with light, she names the California Light and Space movement as her primary influence. “[James] Turrell, John McCracken, and Larry Bell, and their works with plastics, translucency, and lighting installations spoke to this theme of finding motion in the motionless,” Truong says.

Originating in California in the 1960s and ’70s, the Light and Space movement was concerned primarily with the use of light and geometric objects in creating ethereal environments that affect the viewer’s perception. These artists were influenced by their own environs, both natural and artificial; the quality of L.A. light, the changing surface of the nearby ocean, and the materials at use in the city’s ubiquitous car culture were all inspirations. Because of their innovative manufacturing processes and pioneering uses of acrylic, resins, and paints, these artists also earned the label “Finish Fetish.”

Many of the most prominent members of the movement have enjoyed a resurgence as of late. Over the past couple years, for example, Bell, Robert Irwin, and Doug Wheeler have all had major gallery retrospectives. In 2013, the Guggenheim put on a huge Turrell exhibition, and his immersive piece Light Reignfall opened at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art last year.

Diogo and Juliette Felippelli, the husband and wife team behind the L.A.-based design studio JOOGII, think that seeing the Turrell piece at LACMA had a subliminal affect on their electric line of iridescent acrylic furniture. Their pieces are also comprised of geometric shapes, and coated with a dichroic film that changes hue and saturation with varying light. Called French Touch, the furniture collection is also inspired by ’90s French house music and early Daft Punk. “I feel like there’s been a lot of call backs to ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s, when the world was a little more colorful,” Juliette says.