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Lessons In Seeing From The Woman Who Revived Le Corbusier’s Color Scale

Color expert Katrin Trautwein “could never live anywhere that has white walls.” Her three-room apartment in Uster, Switzerland is proof of that. But she rejects the “naïve” notion that yellow is necessarily sunny, or that beige is always bland.

Don't drain away the color (Joe Buckingham)
Don't drain away the color (Joe Buckingham)
Ulrike Hark

USTER On my way to visit someone who's made a name for herself as a specialist in color, I expected to be bowled over by optical stimulation. I couldn't have been more wrong.

On entering Katrin Trautwein's flat I had the sudden feeling of being enveloped in a safe cocoon. It feels like evening – but no: it's 2 p.m. As Trautwein, wearing jeans and tennis shoes, leads me through her three-room flat in Uster (near Zurich), she tells me: "This is an evening apartment. It's the only time I'm ever home. If I were home during the day, I would paint the walls in lighter tones."

Trautwein is the head of a paint company called Farbmanufaktur KT.Color, also in Uster. On weekends, she heads off to Germany where her partner lives in a house and where her dog can run in the garden. She says she left the 50-kilo mixed breed at the office today, which I feel is a shame: I would have liked to see the massive animal ambling through this atmospheric setting, with its one wine-red wall that starts in the hall, continues through the open living/dining area and carries out onto the terrace. The effect is classy and sophisticated.

As is often the case with design professionals, Trautwein's furniture choices are Classical Modern, like the chrome side table by Eileen Gray and the chaise longue by Le Corbusier. She gives sway to her taste for the unconventional and handcrafted in her choices of art and accessories. She found the painting of a village scene that hangs in the dining zone at a flea market. She runs her hand over the smooth surface of an old, richly and skillfully carved wood medicine cabinet in the bedroom and says: "I always have to touch things to see how they feel. It's the same with color: you have to want to touch it, to feel its texture. That's the secret of successful color."

Over the black leather De Sede couch is a painting by British artist Paul Harper that includes the sentence: "Life is never dull in your dreams." Trautwein's life is not dull, period. She lives with and for color. A trained chemist, the 49-year-old has created a company whose reputation extends well beyond Swiss borders. She says she's always been curious about how colors come together, the cultural contexts they emerge from, and how they work architectonically.

Revisiting Le Corbusier's color keyboard

In the mid-1990s, she began reconstructing the legendary color scale developed by Swiss architect Le Corbusier. Between 1931 and 1959, he used natural pigments to create what he called his "Clavier de Couleurs' (color keyboard) with over 60 tones. The natural elements in these colors, like cinnabar in vermilion and lapis lazuli in blue, render them extremely expressive. Light hits them so softly that they all go together, the way wild flowers do in a meadow.

But Corbusier's original "recipes' were lost until Trautwein began the self-imposed task of analyzing the colors from whatever remaining supports she could find. The next step was to mix the paints – using only natural pigments. In 1998, Paris-based Fondation Le Corbusier, which manages the Le Corbusier estate, gave her an exclusive license. Trautwein still produces the colors, although she gave up the license voluntarily a year ago: "They wanted high profile marketing, and that went against my company credo," she says.

To indulge her arty side, Trautwein gives talks about color, and acts as color consultant to designers, decorators and people building their own homes. But she doesn't put much stock in the "psychology of color" approach, a favorite of decorating magazines. She finds breezy formulas like "blue is calming" and "yellow has a positive effect on mood" to be naive, even false.

Trautwein dismisses the notion that a yellow room is ‘sunny." In a darkish setting, yellow can instead look dingy and sad. Under those circumstances, the color expert advises, people are better off with a warm, light brown such as the one she has chosen for her own bedroom. Either that or a natural grey-beige.

"People have a healthy, built-in understanding of color," she says. "It's based on nature. It's very grounded. Le Corbusier knew that." Color supports architecture, says Trautwein, which is why it belongs in the domain of architects – not psychologists.

Does the expert have any advice for the rest of us? Yes. The hallways of apartment buildings, entrance halls, and small spaces like guest toilets – any place where one does not spend a lot of time – can handle a great deal of color. "You can really let loose with red, green, lilac in such areas," Trautwein says.

Another thing: don't paint the walls one thing and the ceiling white because you believe that will create a feeling of height and space. "The opposite is true," says Trautwein. Pure white is in-your-face, and walls or ceilings painted white come right at you, whereas darker tones like umber suggest depth and distance, because they lead the eye in. "I could never live anywhere that has white walls," she says.

I look around at the patina effect of Trautwein's own apartment with new eyes, and suddenly the idea of freshly-painted white walls – commonly accepted as a panacea to make things look fresh and clean – seems by comparison nothing short of crass.

Read the original article in German

Photo - Joe Buckingham

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