The basic palette

The beginning of everything

Blue, red, yellow, white and black. The basic colour palette. The primary colours. The beginning of everything. The artistic simplicity that has its roots in Bauhaus and became a popular colour scheme in the 1950s that is still relevant in contemporary design. It's a colour mix that to me feels retro, smells like school pencils from the 80s and reminds of the iconic Rubik’s Cube, Benetton catalogues or Lego bricks. It's a synonym for taste and good design. It's an iconic aesthetic that gave rise to essential values that have stood the test of time and correspond to the Japanese principles of harmony, functionality, timelessness and expression.

The power of colours

I am always fascinated by the profound effect colours have on our lives. Colours possess an extraordinary power that goes beyond mere visual aesthetics. They have the remarkable ability to evoke emotions, influence moods and convey messages without the need for words. Each hue has its own unique energy, symbolism and associations that are embedded in our cultural and psychological fabric. Colours can change the perception of space: light tones give the illusion of openness and lightness, while darker tones convey cosiness and intimacy, evoking the womb or a cave. I've already written a few articles about the appeal of electric blue (here) or the amazing gentility of pink (here). Today I decided to write about the (Bauhaus) basic palette.

Short history of the Bauhaus basic palette

Founded in 1919 by architect Walter Gropius, the Bauhaus School sought to unite fine art, craft and architecture into a single artistic vision. In this way, a unified design language emerged, characterised by functionality, minimalism and geometric forms. Central to this design philosophy was the Bauhaus basic palette, which consisted of the primary colours blue, red and yellow, as well as black and white.

This palette goes back to the theories of Johannes Itten, a well-known Bauhaus teacher and artist, who was the first to associate colours with moods. Itten's colour theory emphasised the psychological effect of colours and their potential to evoke emotions. He believed that the primary colours, which I call the “Big 5”, symbolise essential human emotions: blue represents spirituality and calm, red represents warmth and emotion, and yellow represents intellect and happiness. The strategic use of black and white in turn, serve as a grounding element to balance and enhance the effect of the primary colours. Itten also saw the importance of contrast in any artistic work. His teachings were continued by Wassili Kadinsky, who also contributed greatly to the Bauhaus colour theory, inter alia, associating colours with … musical tones (green as middle tone of violin, white as a great silence, yellow as a middle C played on a trumpet, black as a closure tone). And shapes. That’s where the famous Bauhaus combination of a triangle, square and circle comes from.

The basic palette and interiors

The basic palette offers exceptional contrast: it creates striking visual contrasts while exuding a sense of harmony. Each colour in the palette has its own character and meaning, but they gain superpower when used together. Like in Japanese anime from the 1970s, which is about superheroes who can only use their superpowers as one team. Blue creates a calm and contemplative atmosphere. Red brings energy and passion to interiors and creates a stimulating and lively environment. Yellow stands for optimism and intellect. Black symbolises elegance and strength and is often used as an accent colour to add sophistication to interiors. White represents purity and simplicity and is an essential part of Bauhaus design as it serves as a canvas for the other colours to express themselves. Mixing all the colours in different proportions gives you a unique, artistic touch to your rooms. And the retro feel we crave these days.

The Bauhaus basic palette and Japanese interiors

I am drawn to the artistic simplicity and deep meaning that Bauhaus colours bring to spaces, allowing their owners to show their flair for good design and art. Even more so, the Bauhaus colour palette finds a natural home in Japanese or Japanese-inspired interiors, as it is consistent with the common principles of minimalism, balance and harmony.

Japanese design is deeply rooted in the concept of balance and harmony, and the Bauhaus basic palette reflects this principle. Primary colours represent a delicate balance of emotions and intellect, and their strategic use brings a sense of balance to interiors. In a Japanese-inspired space, colours are used judiciously, creating a visual harmony that creates a calm atmosphere. Importantly, the restrained and unpretentious nature of the colours also ensures that the focus remains on the textures and organic elements, creating a space that feels grounded and connected to nature.

Whether in a modern city flat, a rural finca or a traditional Japanese home, the Bauhaus basic palette brings a touch of modernity while honouring the enduring essence of Japanese design. I’d say it's a match made in heaven.

The Bauhaus basic palette and fashion

I dare say it’s the basic palette behind the success of such romantic retro brands as The Animals Observatory, Bobo Choses, Tiny Cottons or Piupiuchick. And it inspires fashion designers just like the Japanese kimono, to name just the recent Louis Vouitton x Yayoi Kusama partnership, the collections of brands like COS, ARKET, Benetton, Marimekko, Mads Nørgaard, to name but a few, Céline’s Spring/Summer 2014 collection or Yves Saint Laurent's famous 1965 Mondrian collection. Primary colours have superpowers. I have no doubt that we will see them more than once in shops and on catwalks.

The basic palette via Tumblr.