How Pastels Became A Cultural Obsession

We live in an era of Trump and ISIS. Meanwhile, one of today’s most popular colors is called “Serenity.”

When the designer and photographer Sallie Harrison moved from South Carolina to Los Angeles, the colors in her work started to shift.


“I used to hate pastels,” says Harrison, who as a tomboy growing up always associated pink and light tones with a certain girly-ness. But moving to L.A. changed her mind. Intrigued by the juxtaposition of soft colors with the harsh angles of the buildings, Harrison started a series called Geometric LA “Primarily I noticed it in the building colors out here,” says Harrison. “All these crazy pastel colors and everything is sun-bleached. Even the sunsets are pastel.”

But soon, the colors were showing up more frequently in her client work, too, mostly for fashion and beauty brands, which sought her out for her pastel-hued aesthetic.

Geometric LA | White Light

She wasn’t alone. Think of the dusty pinks and faded blues in ads for popular products like the underwear brand Thinx, or the makeup company Glossier. Soft gradients have seeped into trendy web design, and fashion brands like Mansur Gavriel and COS have made pastels a staple of their aesthetic. Harrison is joined by other photographers like Ward Roberts, Nguan, and Gina Nero, all of whom capture the faded pastels of urban landscapes.


Then, earlier this year, Pantone broke with tradition to name not one but two shades for its color of the year. Rose Quartz and Serenity, apparently selected to speak to a more gender-fluid world, also served to solidify the trending pastel palette. If pastels weren’t dominating consumer products before, they definitely are now.

Yet Pantone’s annual choice is only made after a long process of evaluating colors that are already emerging naturally, across many different disciplines. So why are all these pale tones coming on so strong?

It Begins In The Art World

As the executive director of the Pantone Color Institute, a major part of Leatrice Eiseman’s job is to pick up on color trends before they manifest themselves as trends. “The macro element is really important,” she says. “It comes from what’s happening in the world around us: socio-economics, the world of art, entertainment, fashion–there are so many things that fit into what makes up a trend. My job is to wade through all this information and make some sense out of it.”


That means finding emerging colors and palettes years before they start saturating the market in the form of ads, home decor, and consumer products.

[Photo: Pantone]

She first noticed the reemergence of pastels a couple of years ago in the art world–particularly with the renewed popularity of Agnes Martin, the midcentury artist best known for her paintings of pencil-drawn grids laid over bleached-out, pastel backgrounds. Eiseman was asked to give a talk on Martin’s color palette for an exhibition on her work at the Tate gallery in London, where she described the colors in Martin’s later works as “rosy pinks, peach, salmon, and the palest yellows.”

Pastels have been used in art for ages, such as in 18th century pastel portraits. Benedetto Luti (Italian, Florence 1666–1724 Rome), Study of a Boy in a Blue Jacket, Pastel and chalk on blue laid paper, laid down on paste paper, 1717. [Image: Gwynne Andrews Fund, 2007/via The Metropolitan Museum of Art]

She noticed another show was planned in Düsseldorf, Germany. Afterwards, she started to see Martin’s work being acquired more frequently by collectors, as well as more press on her work; in 2015 alone, two biographies were published about the artist. She was reading a magazine story about Wendi Murdoch–the actress who recently divorced billionaire media mogul Rupert Murdoch–that described a blue Agnes Martin painting hanging above Murdoch’s mantel when she knew her inkling was justified.


It wasn’t just Martin: Mark Ryden, a painter known for depicting dystopian scenes in innocuous pinks and ethereal blues, was becoming highly collectable as well. “What it says to a forecaster when you see a coming trend, and see artists and filmmakers and others use it,” she says. “It starts to plant the seed. I find myself being more aware of certain colors, who else is using them, who else is talking about them, what part of the world is it in. You start storing all these details away.”

Mark Ryden, whose ethereal scenes are often rendered in pastels, has become highly collectable in recent years. Mark Ryden, Rosie’s Tea Party, oil on canvas, 2005. [Image: via]

After a trend emerges in the art world, fashion and consumer brands typically follow. Eiseman says that Pantone selects the color(s) of the year based on what it sees as a trend that’s already formed. But once they announce, it opens the floodgates for businesses and marketing people to hop on board. Brands, advertisements, online stores, says Eiseman, “are often tapping into what the trends are because that fits the zietgeist of a certain population: the type of people who are shoppers and looking for stuff to buy.”

But if you want to stay one step ahead of the trend rather than follow it, Eiseman has one surefire trick: to predict the future of color, look back at the past. “There’s an aspect of what has been before will circle back again,” she says.


A Color Cycle That Spans Decades

Like all history, color trends tend to repeat themselves. “All color trends are cyclical,” says Jude Stewart, an author and design journalist whose book Roy G. Biv traces the different uses and perceptions of color throughout history (and who has contributed to Co.Design). “The thing that came to my mind is how anti-modernist pastels are. They are the opposite of stern reds, blues, and teal– the industrial colors of the Mad Men era.”

Pastels are calmer than the bright colors of the ’90s, when computers came in different colors and penny loafers could be ordered in chartreuse. Pastels had a “mini moment,” as Eiseman puts it, in the late ’80s with shows like Miami Vice and the turquoise, peach and mauve of the Southwestern interior design movement. But the ’80s also saw a surge in ultra-luxe colors that reflected the affluence of the time, when the rich were getting richer and people loved to flaunt their wealth.

The 2008 recession muted things, so to speak: as Stewart points out, in times of austerity we want the things we own–particularly “big-ticket items” like couches and coats–to be more neutral, since we might be stuck with them for a while. You can see this reflected in the earthy tones of the ’70s, another era of economic recession. In contrast, says Stewart, “if everyone is feeling affluent, the color palette will expand.”


In fact, this is not the first time that pastels have made it big. Eiseman points to the ’50s, a time when “WWII was over, women went back into the home, and colors were more romantic, softer, easier,” she says. This was in contrast to the ’30s and ’40s, when there was a shortage of color dye for anything that wasn’t part of the war effort. Like the ’70s, earthy tones like greens and browns were dominant in those years.

Unlike the ’00s, when digital culture was new and exciting–with loud colors and maximalist graphics used often in UI–today’s pastels retreat from the stresses of hyper connectivity. “There’s a certain softness, a certain ease, a lighter than air feeling,” says Eiseman. “When we’re living in a time of discord, often the public at large will retreat to a palette, particularly in the home, that makes them feel a little easier and lighter.”

Serenity, If Only In Name

Words like “lightness” and “ease” come up a lot in conversations about pastels. Sallie Harrison, the designer and photographer in L.A., says that pastels evoke a sense of “calmness and balance.” Stewart points to light blue and its connection with spirituality and heaven; Eiseman at one point related soft colors to infancy, when there was a sense of ease and safety because all of our needs were taken care of. These feelings can be connected to the social and political factors at work, as Eiseman pointed out while listing her considerations for color of the year.


One plausible theory for the rise of pastels? The sense of calm they evoke is in direct contrast to the current geopolitical climate, which is stressful and chaotic: We’re in the midst of one of the strangest and most polarizing American presidential elections in recent history. ISIS is a constant global threat. Police brutality is at the forefront of public consciousness. Yet one of the most popular colors right now is named “Serenity.”

Of course, pastels are not the only color palette making a cyclical comeback. Iridescent is a big one, as we noted in our coverage of New York City Design Week earlier this spring. Bright neons are still all over our athletic wear, often for safety but also for aesthetics.

Then there’s the poppy, gem-toned brightness of today’s UI and UX design–which, in a way, pastels are opposed to. Compared to the super-saturated hues of Apple’s iOS or Google’s Material Design, pastels seem real, grounded, and physical. For many, they may feel like antidote to Silicon Valley and digital culture in general.


Stewart sees tactile qualities in the pastel photographs of artists like Harrison, who shows L.A. as sun-bleached and worn. More than just portraits of relaxation and perpetual sunshine, these images have a texture to them that connotes nostalgia. “Those photographs . . . are super crisp and clear, and have this haptic quality, which seems appealing as the world is more and more virtual,” she says.

Perhaps this is why Eiseman predicts that pastels will continue to dominate in 2017. As for the next color of the year? She won’t let on, but based on historical precedent it will only be a matter of time before the pastels fade once again and a brighter, bolder palette, with its own set of emotional and cultural implications, will come in to take its place.

[All Images (unless otherwise noted): Sallie Harrison]

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About the author

Meg Miller is an associate editor at Co.Design covering art, technology, and design.