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Historic Trends for a Modern World


By Jill Pilaroscia

We have been researching historic color palettes and thinking about what exactly makes a  palette "historic."

When we are asked to consider historic palettes, we are essentially looking at color trends from a past era.

Monticello Dome Room
Photos: Courtesy of Jill Pilaroscia

The Dome Room at Monticello shunned the somber Georgian hues popular in Thomas Jefferson's day in favor of new colors from France.

While some colors may be more popular than others at a given period of time, the fact is, trends are fleeting. What is trending this year will inevitably be replaced by something new the next year.

So what is it about these historic colors that continues to inspire us today?

In historic preservation, re-creating historic palettes means maintaining pieces of history, allowing us to experience monuments of our past as they were originally intended.

Monticello exterior

Paint analysis research at Monticello has allowed experts to re-create the original colors used there.

Paint analysis research being conducted at Thomas Jefferson's famous home, Monticello, in Virginia has allowed color experts to re-create historic colors by providing scientific information about the chemicals and pigments used to make them.

Until the mid-1880s, paint colors were custom mixed by hand. So your colors were only as good as the ingredients available to mix them.

New Color Frontiers

Thomas Jefferson himself rejected the idea of trends, turning away from the somber Georgian blues, grays, and greens popular in America at the time in favor of more vibrant hues being developed in France.

Monticello Dining Room

The dining room, painted in 1815, featured a brilliant chrome yellow from pigments just developed.

The dining room at Monticello, for instance, was painted a brilliant chrome yellow in 1815. The color was new at the time, mixed with lead chromate yellow pigments that had only just been discovered in France in 1810.

The original palette was designed while the plantation was under construction in the early part of the 19th century.

It was an exciting time for color. Advancements in color pigments in Berlin were making possible new hues like Prussian Blue and Verdigris Green. Both colors have been identified in samples of the original palette used at Monticello.

Monticello Tea Room

Historic palettes, like this in the Tea Room, attest to the cultural and scientific advances of their time.

This historic palette is more than just a collection of colors. It is a collection of new ideas stemming from cross-continental travels, scientific discoveries of pigments, and the cultivation of knowledge.

Many of Jefferson's rooms have now been restored to their original colors, thanks to a generous donation from Ralph Lauren.

Monticello entry hall

The entry hall and other rooms in Thomas Jefferson's Monticello have been restored to their original colors, thanks in part to a grant from Ralph Lauren.

Historic color palettes are more than just specific pairings of colors used on old buildings. Each palette represents a moment in time, allowing us to channel the feel of generations past.

This is why they continue to color our built environments today, so many generations later.


Jill Pilaroscia

“Life in Color” is co-authored by architectural color consultant Jill Pilaroscia (pictured), BFA, and creative writer Allison Serrell. Pilaroscia’s firm, Colour Studio Inc., is based in San Francisco. A fully accredited member of the International Association of Color Consultants, Pilaroscia writes and lectures widely on the art and science of color.



Tagged categories: Color; Color + Design; Colour Studio Inc.; Consultants; Designers; Architecture; Europe; Historic Preservation; North America

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