The 2010s started with a bang. Or two bangs, to be accurate. The first occurred on 20 March 2010 at Eyjafjallajökull, a snow-capped volcano in southern Iceland. The resulting plume of ash covered much of the sky over northern Europe, disrupting a hundred thousand flights and ten million passenger journeys. Exactly a month later, at a little after 9.45pm, the second bang occurred at the Deepwater Horizon rig off the Louisiana coast. The explosion, and consequent spill, resulted in the deaths of 11 men and innumerable marine animals and birds, as more than 200 million gallons of oil, 225,000 tons of methane and sundry tons of ‘dispersants’ were emptied into the Gulf of Mexico.
Even without these events, which perfectly illustrated – respectively – the earth’s terrifying raw force and its fragility, there would be good reason to believe this decade’s opening act was a study in greys. The financial crisis, although no longer in its first flush, still lent a foggy tinge to the global mood. An entire generation – whether out of work, in work but anxiously awaiting the axe to fall or side hustling – donned cosy athleisure: soft sartorial hugs in tints of heather grey. For those still in the fiscal black, greys were also the modish hues in interior decor. From Skimming Stone to Down Pipe (both Farrow & Ball, as if you didn’t know) via Dorian Gray (Sherwin Williams) and Goose Down (Dulux), the mania for the gamut between white and black became a design cliché. The literary world, meanwhile, gave us another study in obsession with E.L. James’s Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy. Readers devoured more than 125 million steely jacketed copies of the first instalment, published in 2011, spawning a cultural juggernaut.
The next splodge on the decade’s palette was, perhaps, a response to the first. Taking the global pulse of the early-to-mid-2010s, in the way that only Apple could, the firm intuited the need for some sprightly frivolity. ‘Rose gold, and plenty of it,’ read the prescription. Launched in September 2015, the iPhone 6S came in several colourways, but only one that mattered: 40 percent of all pre-orders were for rose gold. Nor was it just phones: hair dyes, kitchen equipment, wedding cakes, wine and jewellery all began taking on warm coppery tones. And then, quite suddenly, rosy hues were everywhere, and no one could agree on why, or what shade, or when Millennial Pink had arrived, or what it all meant.
A thousand think pieces bloomed. Writers noted that pretty pinks saturated Wes Anderson’s 2014 kitsch masterpiece The Grand Budapest Hotel, but surely that couldn’t be the origin? What about the redecoration of the dining room at Sketch London in 2014? Perhaps it had to do with a shift in the discussions surrounding gender sensitivity and awareness? Pantone obliquely mentioned something of the sort – ‘a gender blur as it relates to fashion’ – when selecting Rose Quartz as a 2016 Colour of the Year along with a baby blue called Serenity. (They were dead wrong about the serenity: that year saw viciously divisive political campaigns in two ‘United’ countries – the UK and the US – that led to their becoming increasingly splintered along partisan lines.)
Whatever its origin, Millennial Pink proved itself to be highly marketable and a digital native, spreading with the potency of a trillion ‘likes’ through the algorithmic synapses of Instagram, which was launched in 2010. The colour became a kind of shorthand for brands trying to connect with young consumers: Acne Studios, Glossier, Kinfolk. Edited, a retail analytics firm, ran a blog containing the immortal phrase: ‘Look at all that millennial pink and smell the $$.’
Money and the attention economy, the latter tricky on often-cacophonous visual media, resulted in the rise of ultra-bright neons and clashes of unexpected hues. Creating visually arresting spectacle using colour became an artform. Makers of running shoes wanted them to stand out on ultra HD screens during FIFA World Cups and Olympic Games. Influencers mixed prints and layered difficult-to-wear tones. And, seemingly, everyone everywhere hoped they would crown the new Millennial Pink: reedy pretenders to the throne included Gen-Z Yellow, orange, whether soft and milky or Nickelodeon bright, lilac and Neomint.
Champions of the latter may well have been on to something. Greens have been enjoying an ineluctable rise through the decade. It’s there in fashion and interior design. No buzzy new restaurant, it has seemed for some time, is complete without banquettes in jade, grass or emerald. We have embraced it culturally, too. ‘Marrs Green’, a rich teal, was found in a survey of 30,000 submissions from 100 countries to be the World’s Favourite Colour. Why? It may be due to the growing sense that, perhaps, our flights should be grounded, that our Deepwater Horizons may have come home to roost. We should all, in short, be making the effort to be greener.
Main image: Wes Anderson, The Grand Budapest Hotel, 2014, film still. Courtesy: Fox Searchlight Pictures
Kassia St Clair is the author of The Secret Lives of Colour (2016) and The Golden Thread (2018). She writes about design, culture and colour for publications including The Economist, the Times Literary Supplement and Elle Decoration.