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The 1950s Colours

Background to some Colours of the 1950s & early 1960s


Following moves made in the paint industry in the early years of the 20th century the first range of standardised paint colours was published in 1930. After an early revision this became known as BS 381C: 1931 Colours for Ready Mixed Paints. This British Standard formed the greater part of the limited palette of paint colours available from most paint manufacturers throughout the next twenty years.

Whilst especially useful for the selection of external colours, the range never fully addressed the needs of the house owner, nor the architect specifying colours for use on interiors. In time most paint companies were offering their own selection of 20-30 paler colours appropriate for this.

The Second World War however put an end to the production of all but a very small selection of colours for specific purposes including camouflage and the decoration of War Department buildings.

Post-War Developments

The techniques of mass production developed during the hostilities and, perhaps, a desire for a Brave New World to emerge at the end of the War led to attempts to rationalise many aspects of design and construction. This also applied to colour, and by the early 1950s a considerable amount of research and experiment had been carried out into the methodical use of colour in buildings. Lessons had also been learnt from scientific research into lighting and vision. The result was to show that colour, if properly understood and successfully applied, could be made to do much more than merely cover and provide a finish to surfaces. It could make a direct and positive contribution to the design of a building.

In 1952 the paint industry approached the Royal Institute of British Architects pointing out the problems that were being created by the increasing tendency for users to order special colours or to specify from the continually widening number of available paint ranges. With advice from the British Colour Council a set of approximately one hundred colours was proposed from which it was intended that a range of 50-60 colours should be selected. During the next few years the various bodies continued discussing the composition of such a range.

While the consultations took place, work carried out by the Schools Group of the Architect's Department of the Hertfordshire County Council had led to a particular range of paint colours being developed. This had been used by a number of local authorities, especially in schools. The details of this range of forty-nine colours, including black and white, were published in 1953. It came to be known as the Archrome (Munsell) range, and paints based on the range became commercially available shortly afterwards.

This range employed a system of colour notation developed by Albert H. Munsell in the early twentieth century - one that was generally felt to be the most useful in describing colours. In this system a colour is described in terms of its hue, value and chroma, where hue distinguishes red from blue, green from yellow etc., value being related to the lightness or darkness of a colour, and chroma the strength of the colour.

The colours of the Archrome range were arranged in a grid with the hues placed horizontally so that colours of equal value appeared in the same vertical column. Munsell notations were included in order for the reflectance values to be calculated, and for a precise comparison of the relative qualities of different colours to be made.

The administrative advantages of a standard colour range were commonly acknowledged. Duplication of work within an organisation, such as a local authority or a firm of architects, could be reduced to a minimum. The supply departments of the former could order in advance and maintain a balanced stock. Economies in cost could be arranged by bulk buying, and in labour, particularly in time and manpower spent on ordering and checking supplies and on supervising decoration on site. Problems with the matching of colours could also be minimised. No more would the specifier be driven to order "special" colours from the paint manufacturer.

Previously, existing ranges had not been designed for a particular use, and often presented an arbitrary collection of colours that had been added to for various reasons. By 1948, for example, the lately revised BS381C range had become a miscellaneous selection of colours showing, amongst others, a number of colours used for traffic signs; London buses; vitreous enamels, the GPO; the Ministry of Works; the South African Railways Administration, the War Department and the Admiralty.

The 1955 British Standard Range

Other bodies expressed an interest in the advantages to be gained by specifying from a limited range of carefully chosen paint colours. In March 1955 an interim range, based heavily on the Archrome colours, was released for use by all Government Departments. Later in the same year, the paint industry in conjunction with the RIBA and various Government departments finally agreed on a standard range of 101 colours which incorporated the Archrome range. This was adopted by the British Standards Institute as B.S. 2660: 1955 Colours for Building and Decorative Paints.

The new British Standard was, as described by one of those who worked on it, " architect designed range." It found immediate favour with a great many architects and designers, and gradually, in an unpremeditated manner, as a colour co-ordinator of manufactured goods. The potential for the rational use of colour was examined in many articles in professional and trade publications at the time, several of which were illustrated with images that evoked the ordered compositions of the Dutch artist, Piet Mondrian.

To modern eyes the seemingly random application of colour, perhaps a single wall being painted in a bold colour, or a red wall juxtaposed with a green one, might seem unsettling. However, such use was frequently based on sophisticated aesthetic theories designed to cope with problems raised by modern building techniques.

One of these theories was the notion of "solidity", which increasingly became an issue with the use of the lightweight partition and the glass curtain wall. The employment of colour to create the illusion of solidity had been recommended by Amedée Ozenfant in a series of influential articles published in the Architectural Review during the 1930s. This idea of "colour solidity" in architecture was an extension of the divisionist technique developed by the Neo-Impressionist artist Paul Signac and introduced into this country by the English painter Robert Bevan. Seen close to, a Divisionist canvas is a mass of contrasting dashes; at a distance however, the colours set each other off to produce an effect of shimmering luminosity. In the same way, the careful use of the limited number of colours and colour contrasts at the architect's and interior decorator's command could produce very striking effects in the 1950's building.

Derek Patmore, a contemporary writer on design, wrote:
It has been said "the art of contrast is one of the secrets of good decorating." Modern decoration is all in favour of sharp contrasts in colour...

Our Colour Range

Perhaps nowadays we are less inclined to decorate to a formula, or to worry unduly about factors such as light reflectance values or achieving "solidity" in design. Certainly, the use of a strong "accent" colour on one wall is now almost unknown. There are many different sources that influence our choice of colour, and perhaps we are now in a better position to experiment.

We have selected 48 of the colours that we feel reflect the character of the original range whilst still being of use today. The selection has been guided by a number of factors:

  1. Those colours that Papers and Paints sold most of during the 1960s. We opened in September 1960 and still have a very full record of our early business.
  2. A number of colours of the period uncovered during recent work that we have carried out as consultants on two significant buildings from the 1950s and 1960s.
  3. Paint analysis of the first decorative scheme applied to the auditorium and the foyer of the Royal Festival Hall in 1951 has revealed that six of these colours were used. Five colours, including two of those used at the Royal Festival Hall, were also found to have been used on a number of the external surfaces of the Golden Lane Housing Estate in the second phase of construction which finished in 1962.

  4. Ten of the colours were selected for the frequency with which they occur in published works on decoration of the period. A further nine colours were selected for their closeness to those in the collection of colour scales produced by Le Corbusier in 1959. If required, however, the majority of the original 1955 range can be reproduced.

Patrick Baty

Extracts from BS 2660: 1955 are reproduced with the permission of BSI under licence number 2002SK/0072

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Last modified: Wednesday, 13 January, 2010