In Britain, when the second world war ended, there were many mills who wanted to get back into the business of spinning yarn and producing quality knitwear for domestic and export markets. Only a small proportion of such companies survived the economic pressures of the post-war decades (when wool was threatened by synthetic fibres) and, later, the effects of the Thatcher government’s intentional neglect of manufacturing. Just a handful of these factories now remain: in Yorkshire, in the Midlands, in the Scottish Borders. If you have ever worked in one of these great mills, or perhaps have had a chance to visit one, you might have been struck by a very particular shade of green. It’s a green that’s on the paler side, sometimes blue-ish, sometimes grey-ish, not quite pastel in hue, and often similar to the colour of a surgeon’s scrubs.
Distinctive shades of blue-ish, grey-ish green, or green-ish, grey-ish blue, adorn countless British factory walls that were painted in the late 1940s and early ’50s. And much of the carding, spinning and winding machinery of that era seems to be painted in similar shades as well.
I have been inside many British mills (first as a teenage “picker” and later, as a middle-aged yarn and knitwear designer) and have often noticed these distinctive shades. The metalwork of machines from earlier eras was often painted black, dark grey, or darker green, while the factory walls of other countries were simply painted white. Why, then, in those few British textile mills that made it through the difficult post-war decades do these blue-green shades preponderate? The answer lies with Robert Francis Wilson, and the British Colour Council.
Let’s return to 1915, when the transatlantic supply chains which governed the fashion and textile industries were disrupted by the first world war. Designers and manufacturers in the United States found they no longer had access to the Parisian swatches and shade cards which determined colours for the coming season and so decided to get together to create their own palettes and forecasts. The Textile Colour Card Association of America (TCCA) brought together a distinguished board of industry experts whose knowledge ranged from industrial chemistry and textile production to mass-market retail, distribution, and the understanding of American tastes and trends. The TCCA board not only agreed upon a shade forecast for each coming season, but provided a colour standard which each strand of the textile industry quickly began to follow, from milliners to button manufacturers. Where once the fashionable American consumer might have tried in vain to match her new shoes with her hat, now she might visit both her tailor and her shoemaker, requesting a harmonious ensemble in precisely the right shades of “wireless blue” ” or “lizard green”
The dual purpose of the TCCA was to support American manufacturing and promote consumer culture, and in both enterprises it proved remarkably successful over the course of the decade that followed. In the United States, the new TCCA colour standard simplified the production and retail of everything from shoes to swimwear, while colour forecasting by a national board of experts (rather than by the individual brands and designers who dominated Parisian fashion) removed some of the uncertainty that was often attendant on a notoriously fickle industry. Textile manufacturers in Lancashire and West Yorkshire looked back across the Atlantic with no inconsiderable degree of envy. The TCCA and its activities had given American industry a very particular kind of edge! Britain was being out-competed and it was time to up its game!
By the mid 1920s, British textile manufacturers were demanding the establishment of a national organisation similar to the TCCA to “place colour determination for the British Empire in British hands and thus provide members with early and authoritative information on colour tendencies.” Influential Lancashire trade bodies like the Calico Printers’ Association and the British Cotton and Wool Dyers association combined with the members of West Yorkshire organisations such as the Bradford Dyers Association and Leeds and District Worsted Dyers Association. They were joined by representatives of the large, influential mills of the North West, like Keighley’s Prospect Mills, Salts Mill in Saltaire and Bradford’s Lister & Co. Together, these founding members established the British Colour Council which, within a year of its establishment in 1931, had picked up 350 industry subscribers, including members from the burgeoning wool trade in Australia and New Zealand. Robert Francis Wilson was appointed as the new Council’s art director.
The talented and hard-working Wilson had studied art with Dame Laura Knight and had been completely obsessed with colour from his first experience of mixing paint and applying it to canvas as a boy. He spoke lyrically of how a deepening understanding of pigments had intensified his love of colour “I realised the sheer beauty of greys,” he enthused “the misty greys of early summer morning or autumn afternoon, the greys of wet roofs and slag heaps.” Wilson combined a creative temperament with practical understanding of the demands of industrial modernity and was as doggedly British as the wet roofs and slag heaps whose greys he loved. He saw his work with colour as both national and nationalist, unabashedly aiming, through his development of specifically British shade forecasts and standards “to do for colour what the great Oxford Dictionary has done for words.”
Throughout the 1930s, Wilson created brand new colour standards for a wide range of British industries from hosiery to horticulture, and developed novel ways of naming and classifying colours. Wilson’s new standards and nomenclatures of colour were enormously important (and will be returned to in another essay) but I want to turn now to the 1940s, when the outbreak of war meant that the production of dyes, pigments and paints in Britain was necessarily restricted to a fairly limited palette. Robert Wilson’s work for the British Colour Council suddenly began to focus far less on the business of industry standards and consumer forecasts, and far more on the basic importance of colour to the everyday lives of the men and women who were involved in Britain’s war effort.
During the early years of the war, Wilson was approached by factory inspectors who had noted the uniform “cold bleakness of whitewashed walls and the drab painting of machinery,” that characterised Britain’s mills. He also spoke to army officers who complained of the dark and dingy conditions they endured in their barracks and mess rooms. If Britain had any national colours at all, Wilson was told, they seemed to be “tobacco and old stout” or “custard and cocoa brown.” Could anything be done to enliven the dark and gloomy national palette? Might simple environmental changes – an alteration of colour scheme, perhaps – cheer the collective mood and morale? Wilson leapt at this new opportunity, and determinedly set his hand to using colour as a mechanism to improve the working conditions of those who laboured at home, for Britain. He saw this task as a public service, and took to it with characteristic gusto.
During the war, Wilson visited hundreds of factories and offices all over the UK. He spoke to men and women, watched them working, and asked them what they felt about the spaces in which they worked. He stood where they stood, sat where they sat, and put himself in positions where he might understand the physical and psychological experience of labouring in such environments every day. He discovered offices where dark mahogany furniture and walls of olive drab absorbed all natural light. He found production lines where poor overhead lighting and machinery painted in dark hues of black or grey increased the likelihood of accidents (or in one case, the production of inconsistently coloured baked goods). He noted how gloomy, dingy working spaces with an appearance of neglect made workers feel that they were, themselves, neglected.
On a visit to a wartime signal station, Wilson spotted “how distracting the reflected lights were on the curved surface of teleprinter apparatus above the tapes on which messages were being received. The two bands of reflected light were the same width as the tape on which the message was appearing and consequently most disturbing to the operator. It was vital,” Wilson noted, “that attention should be concentrated on the messages which in many cases were of a secret nature.” There was, Wilson felt, a very simple solution, and the “application of matt paint” in this case quickly prevented the distracting appearance of reflected light, protected the operator’s eyes from further strain, and enabled them to read the messages.
Everywhere that Wilson went, he insisted on straightforward improvements in industrial lighting, the use of red, orange and yellow as “warning” shades (combined with a simple system of legible shapes and symbols for the colour blind), and the painting of walls and machinery in much paler colour schemes than were then customary. In this latter enterprise, he often faced considerable opposition from factory bosses, – “criticism, and in some quarters, ridicule was met with” – but he continued to push his case until, he noted with some satisfaction, there was “an awakening to the fact that the painting of machinery in colours more pleasing to the eye has been found to have a tonic effect on workers.” Bosses often objected that light colours might prove to be divisive: surely some workers might virulently dislike mauve, while others would hate pale blue? But Wilson simply applied the colour, and then asked workers if they liked it. And the responses to Wilson’s bold, bright lighting schemes and the cheery shades he favoured were uniformly positive.
Of the 200 workers in this hosiery mill who were asked by Wilson whether they liked “the idea of using colour to brighten up machinery in factories”, 199 answered with a resounding yes.
Though Wilson often said that he considered each industrial space individually, it was very clear that his favourite shade – especially for machinery – was green. “I have often been asked,” he wrote, “why green as a colour is used so much in interior decoration – in factories and offices, in hospitals and schools. The answer is quite simple and logical. Green is the colour of nature and so suggests serenity, rebirth and tranquility.” Green was, Wilson wrote, easy on the eye and always “suggestive of hope.” It was also a colour he clearly loved personally, writing lyrically of “the dark green of holly contrasting with red berries to the delicate types of greyed greens contrasting with the rich reds and multicolours of carnations, to the soft green of the leaves in which yellow primroses nestle.”
But it was what Wilson described as a “light greyed pastel green” that he favoured for interior factory walls and mill machinery.* In his influential post-war volume, Colour and Light at Work (1953), he describes an example of using a Yorkshire wakes week (a holiday, generally in late June or early July) as an opportunity for re-colouring the interior of a factory weaving shed. Noting just how hot such spaces grew when the looms were all a-whirring, there was clearly only one choice for the walls: a cooling soft, pale green. When the workers returned from their summer holiday, they reported that the weaving sheds felt much colder and found themselves adjusting to what seemed to be a perceptible drop in temperature. Wilson’s pale green was vindicated! With the use of this soft colour and other “restful shades” “otherwise ordinary factory interiors,” were transformed to project what he referred to as “an almost open air atmosphere of spring time.”
Between 1946 and 1956, Robert Francis Wilson prepared more than 500 different colour and lighting schemes for British factories and offices. He tirelessly toured the country, not only presenting the British Colour Council’s standards and services, but lecturing manufacturers of everything from wallpaper to kitchen cabinets about the importance of good lighting and fresh colour schemes in the spaces in which their employees worked. By the early 1950s, he noticed with some satisfaction, there had been a perceptible change in “colour appreciation” in Britain that, he felt, had been brought about by the “industrial use of colour.”
Wilson loved using his knowledge and love of colour to “improve working conditions and make work safer and more enjoyable” and described his collaborations with British mills, factories and offices as “interesting, absorbing, and really worthwhile.” He knew that the wellbeing of the nation’s workers was just as important as their productivity, and at the heart of his transformative colour and lighting schemes were what he described as “the human being and human relationships.” In his book, Colour and Light at Work (1953) (which set the standard on both sides of the Atlantic for discussions about colour in industrial design) he urged mill owners to “become the Robert Owens of their day”, pay attention to their employees welfare and working environments, and carefully prioritise “the dignity of labour.” Robert Wilson was, in short, a mensch: employed by an organisation whose focus was forecasting colour trends for the benefit of manufacturers and consumers, he then turned his hand and mind to the laudable task of improving conditions for Britain’s wartime workers. As enthusiastic as he was uncompromising, his attitude towards his work was as hopeful and optimistic as the fresh, green shades he loved and favoured. He died in 1957, but his colourful legacy lives on in many aspects of British culture – and perhaps most especially in those mill machines and factory walls that have been painted their distinctive hues of “Wilson green.”
* Wilson explicitly associated this shade with surgical scrubs, whose benefit in providing a contrast with blood and body parts that was easier on the human eye than white was, by then, well known. Wilson often applied the “operating theatre principle” to the factory floor, painting the frames of machines pale green and highlighting dangerous or moving parts with red and orange.
Robert F Wilson, Colour and Light at Work (1953)
Regina Lee Blaszczyk, The Color Revolution (2013)
– and Uwe Spiekermann, eds, Bright Modernity: Color, Commerce and Consumer Culture (2017)