Brown is Back in Town: Changing cultural meanings in interior design

From eco paper bags to trendy luggage (made from recycled carpets) and bio wool sweaters, brown is back in town. In a swarm of shades — from beige to chestnut — The Brown saturates nowadays the liberal intellectual’s life conscious of her (or his) ecological footprints, eating habits, and zenification.

the semiotics of brown
all brown: healthy eating, calm and nature

As a child I remember really detesting anything brown. Dark brown were the old men’s clothes: checked suits, winter coats, fur hats; their canes and umbrellas; their rooms crammed with furniture. For me brown smelled like mothballs. Light brown was more feminine: women’s suites (all my 50+ elementary school teachers wore some varieties of beige); genuine leather shoes that necessarily had to match genuine leather bags (where were the animal rights’ protectors?); and synthetic silk scarves. Brown gave weight to the conservative intellectual’s life conscious of his (or her) social status.

The old semiotics of brown: social status.
For me brown smelled like mothballs.

The opposite of brown used to be any primary color. To own a yellow chair or to wear red shoes and blue trousers was conspicuously tasteless. Once I dressed up for a visit in my lemon yellow dress, to which I matched a pair of ultramarine knee socks (I was 11). I was sent to change myself with the words: “you look like a cabbage.” I still wonder: Why cabbage? Cabbage is pale and monochrome. Anyway, blatant colors were somewhat forgivable just for the rebelling teens and young artists.

Today the rebelling teens and young artists dress in hues of khaki and dessert sand. They eat in stylish wooden (or some artificial substitute, but who cares as long as the color code is observed?) cafes, where woodish colors aim to appease their daily stress.

The time of plastic and its blatant color palette seems over for most of us — less rebels, less artists, and fully ripe teens — since affordable furniture and home accessories stores offer an ample supply of “natural” colors, that is nuances of brown. I’ve recently bought a wooden liquid soap dispenser, which is in fact a plastic bottle wrapped up in a wooden case. It’s an accurate portrayal of the semiotics of brown today:

Brown stands for our planet in general, earth (and its products untouched by  chemicals), and health (tanned skin as a sign of outdoor life). It even implies kindness and tolerance, for nature is perceived as diverse and relational rather than conflicting (This can be the right perception if you hike in the splendid Austrian natural parks, devoid of the wild beasts that terrified the countryside in the time of Little Red Riding Hood. It’s not the same if you hike eastwards).

Yet, the mere covering of anything with a thin layer of wood or its substitute doesn’t make an object more ecological, biological, organic, or originating from fair-trade. It doesn’t soothe our anxieties, stress, and frustrations.

Ironically, brown — the poor’s color assumed by Saint Francis of Assisi as a sign of poverty and humbleness – turned into the trendy color implicit to welfare. Nonetheless, reversing cultural meanings is healthy for a society. It’s a sign of vivacity, of social mobility, of freedom. Just a final remark:

As with all exaggerations, too much use becomes abuse. Sometimes I’d like to be served on Wedgewood china plates instead of rustic wooden trays in a fine-dining restaurant.