edited by Tim Travis. Thames & Hudson, December 2020. 304 p. ill. ISBN 9780500480274 (h/c), $39.95.

Reviewed May 2021
Mar González Palacios, Associate Director, Special Collections, Robert B. Haas Family Art Library, Yale University Library, mar.gonzalezpalacios@yale.edu

travisThe V&A Book of Color in Design is a survey of the vast fine and decorative arts collections in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. More than a book about color, this is a book that uses color as an organizing principle to bring together disparate objects from across a wide range of cultures, time periods, and materials.

The introduction is a fascinating trip through the complicated relationship that humans have had with color and the difficulties in understanding and defining color and its influence. It covers color symbolism in religious and cultural contexts as well as issues of perception and language. Curator at the Victoria & Albert and editor of this book, Tim Travis weaves in and out of history of art, design, religion, politics, and science offering a window into the complex and rich world of color. In his introduction, Travis points out how arbitrary conventional ways of organizing museum objects can be. There is a level of subjectivity when using place, period, materials or other common methods of arranging collections. He ventures to explain the decision to use color, a “more ‘lyrical’ quality,” to find surprising connections between seemingly unrelated museum objects (14).

The book is divided into twelve heavily illustrated chapters, each devoted to a specific color, progressing from white to black. Every chapter starts with a visually striking grid of fifty-five color samples that, unfortunately, are not cross-referenced with the selected objects. Each chapter introduces the color’s history, symbolism, and use. The text incorporates references to some of the objects illustrated in the pages that follow. Within the chapters, the reader will find brief and interesting stories. For instance, the chapter on grey mentions that “plumbagos” are miniature graphite portraits popular in the seventeenth and eighteenth century, which got their name because of the resemblance between graphite and lead (41).

Although the book offers a good introduction to the history of color it is not quite an academic or scholarly work meant for research. This is an elevated and charming coffee table book, which does not mean that it is not a well-researched work. On the contrary, it clearly showcases the depth of knowledge of its editor and authors, most of them V&A curators, archivists and librarians. The many insights included in this book, together with a beautiful design and high-quality illustrations, make this an engaging work that, as the editor argues, will serve as “a visual source book for practitioners” (14). It is well suited for the offices of designers and homes of design and museum enthusiasts. For libraries, The V&A Book of Color in Design will be a good addition to general collections in public and academic libraries rather than specialized art libraries.

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