Inbetween Colours

by Jane Withers

‘Olympic Blue, Antwerp Blue, Calamine Blue, Nile Blue.’ We are sitting in the Milan showroom of Kvadrat – a glassy green underwater world designed by Japanese architect Toyo Ito – as Giulio Ridolfo leafs through swatches of the new colours for Canvas and rolls the names of different blues around in his mouth. ‘It’s so beautiful: the colour of the powder on butterfly wings.’

Canvas – a textile designed by Ridolfo – was first produced by Kvadrat in 2012. The My Canvas project for London Design Festival 2017, for which 19 emerging designers were invited to play freely with the textile, celebrates a new colour palette for Canvas that was introduced at Milan’s Salone del Mobile earlier in the year. In creating this new palette, ‘the idea was to invent a kind of alphabet where I could show the capabilities of intertones: the tones that are more subtle, more hidden than the dominant colours,’ explains Ridolfo.

The relationship between Kvadrat and Ridolfo goes back to 2004, when he became the first Italian to collaborate with the Kvadrat design team, bringing what he describes as an ‘Italian eye’ to Nordic design culture. On the surface that might seem like a diplomatic nod to forging a connection between the two ‘superpowers’ of European design. But for Ridolfo, who sees colour as a deeply rooted expression of culture and attitude, the re-colouring of Canvas is an exercise in opening colour to subtler cultural exchange and suggesting how we can relate to it in more intimate and nuanced ways.

The name Canvas references the tabula rasa of the artist, as well as the utilitarian spirit of a textile commonly used for sails, tents and workers’ clothing. This is reflected in the textile’s construction: a relatively voluminous and soft weave that gives Canvas a relaxed feel. Ridolfo likens it to ‘a pair of khaki trousers: it’s a regular textile that’s easy to use. It goes well with other fabrics.’ The designer describes Canvas as ‘cool wool’: a technical term used for lightweight woollen cloths for men’s suiting produced by Northern Italian manufacturers. In furnishing terms, it is ‘less woolly’ than the thicker Nordic textiles designed to generate emotional as well as physical warmth in a cold climate. From a distance, Canvas has the calm surface of a mono-coloured textile but as you look more closely, the shimmering contrasts of multiple tones become visible.

The rich colouring of Canvas lies beneath the weave, in the yarn itself. The making of a new yarn for industrial textile production is a complex, highly crafted process. The ‘mélange’ yarn used for Canvas is a Kvadrat patent that the company describes as a family secret, but it is the introduction of colour at the earliest possible stage, combining colour with the wool fibre before it is spun into a yarn, that gives Canvas its vibrancy. According to Kvadrat’s design director, Stine Find Osther, ‘this allows the colour and the wool to merge in the cleanest way. Wool dyed at this stage is intense and very precise, from the super- strong colours to the soft and almost invisible tones. After this stage, we start to mix the different tones together in a small bouquet: we are creating a rhyme with the colours inside the yarn.’ For Canvas – and its siblings Remix and Recheck – each yarn comprises up to three colours blended together to create one strand. With two differently coloured yarns used to create each colourway in the collection, the final colour of Canvas is actually the combination of up to six hues. This generates a silky taffeta-like two-tone effect, making sense of Ridolfo’s reference to butterfly wings. Ridolfo describes the new colourisation of Canvas as being about ‘creating intertones, and change-ability rather than definite colours. We take 12 colours but then these are subdivided into scales that go from light to dark in the same colour. Jade green. Sulphur yellow. Porcupine grey. A grey does not sit alone but in a scale of five or six greys. Yellow goes from light yellow to dark yellow. It’s also about the perception of daylight and night light.’

Ridolfo’s background in fashion is evident in the subtlety and complexity – the dash and dandiness – that he brings to the comparatively staid world of furnishing textiles. Born in Udine in 1962, he studied at Domus Academy in Milan, graduating with a Masters in Fashion Design in 1985. He first worked for Gianfranco Ferré, before establishing his career as a textile and colour advisor to the interior and clothing industries, collaborating with Moroso, Vitra, Camper, Fritz Hansen, Cassina, Haworth, Alias, Hogan and Tod’s among others. Since 2004, Ridolfo has worked with Kvadrat, where he has been responsible for a shape-shifting change from the strong graphic colours of 20th century Scandinavian design towards the more nuanced approach of what he describes as ‘in-between colours’.

This dialogue between north and south informs Canvas. Ridolfo was inspired by the landscape of Denmark’s east coast: the Djursland peninsula of Jutland where Kvadrat is based, and the town of Skagen. A remote northern fishing port, Skagen was a magnet for painters during the Danish Golden Age, attracted by the dark coastline and the quality of the northern light which is soft but allows strong contrasts of colour. The seascape at Skagen is also where the Baltic and North Seas meet, and oceanic blues and greys interweave like yarns on a loom. In the later years of the Skagen artists’ colony, the painter P.S. Krøyer is credited with having encouraged a shift in focus from naturalism to more poetic subjects and renderings. He himself was particularly compelled by the ‘blue hour’: the moment in the evening when the sky begins to darken, causing it to appear to merge with the sea. Teasing each colour into a darkening scale, Canvas is Ridolfo’s attempt to capture something of this atmospheric changeability.

If stability and uniformity are the goals of mass production, Ridolfo’s pursuit of changeability, variation and even imperfection is a challenge that raises topical questions around industrial production and craftsmanship. ‘I wanted to push the boundaries of industrial production – create a sophisticated technique to make more beautiful colours, more complex colours, an imperfection and complexity that you find more in fashion than interiors. If you see a collection by J.W. Anderson then you understand how imperfection can be used.’ Renny Ramakers, co-founder of Droog Design, views this cult of imperfection in a wider social context: ‘The current interest in imperfection is a response to the all-dominating perfectionist technology of our time that has been pushing human deficiencies still further into the background.’ While advances in colour technologies and digital systems mean that an almost infinite palette is readily available to designers, arguably the ease with which a virtual palette can be flawlessly assembled in the alter world of the computer screen is responsible for the banal colouring of so much of the designed environment. By contrast, Ridolfo advocates a more thoughtful approach, taking material as the starting point and re-rooting colour within its cultural context.