Book Review: The Secret Lives of Color by Kassia St. Clair

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The Secret Lives of Color by Kassia St. Clair reads like an ancient travelogue. It’s part history lesson, part exploration of the natural world, part language and etymology lesson, and part pure pleasure.

Secret Lives of Color by Kassia St. Clair book review

“I fell in love with colors the way most people fall in love: while concentrating on something else,” says St Clair. What follows is a grown-up survey of colors you thought you knew, but don’t.

In the modern world color is something that comes along with something else. A red dress. A blue jean. A yellow toy.

In the ancient world, color was a product that was discovered, farmed and coaxed out of the natural world. It was processed, often with hardship and unpleasantness, and shipped to artisans in other countries.

Color was exotic, in the way that until very recently, food was exotic.

Colors, such as red and purple, were sometimes outlawed for all but the very elite or royal.

Color was even deadly, as in the lead white that was fashionable at one time for both products and cosmetics.

The format of St Clair’s book makes it really enjoyable, with sections a page or two long, describing the origins of a color we thought we knew well (beige) or colors we’ve long forgotten (amaranth).

I often stopped reading to look up landmarks or historical artifacts online. I consider myself well-read, but was delighted to travel to so many interesting places through this book, like the Uffington White horse and the Russian Amber Room which was plundered during World War 2 and recreated now in Catherine Palace in St. Petersburg. The squeamish may not want to delve too deeply into cochineal, a color derived from insects found in South America.

Today, it’s not uncommon for a client to fall in love with a design choice, such as a chair or sofa, only to be put off because the colors available aren’t quite right. We’ve gotten used to having many things in many shades, without any sacrifice or hardship attached. But just a few hundred years ago, prior to chemical processes for color dye invented by William Perkin and others who followed in the mid-1800’s, color choices were much fewer and more arduous to come by.

This lovely, colorful book will give you another way to look at the amazing world around us, and will probably make you wonder about where all the color around you comes from.

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Secret Lives of Color by Kassia St. Clair book review