True Blue: DuPont and the Color Revolution

Detail, “Save the Surface” campaign advertisement, The Literary Digest, 11 February 1928. Courtesy of Regina

Detail, “Save the Surface” campaign advertisement, The Literary Digest, 11 February 1928. Courtesy of Regina

Duco Color Advisory Service advertisements in such trade journals as Autobody claimed that the service’s professionalism helped DuPont identify color combinations “known to please the average,” which Towle and his staff of color experts knew how to “choose with certainty.” This meant tying DuPont finishes to European fashion trends, keeping Duco abreast of changing tastes, and designing paint schemes that enhanced automotive shapes.

To advance the first mission, Towle sailed to Europe every fall, where he visited the British Motor Show at the Olympia in London and the Salon de l’Auto in Paris. There he studied the new cars and the smartly dressed people and cabled reports to the Duco Color Advisory Service, which repackaged them as press releases. Towle’s reports on color circulated in American popular culture as newspapers throughout the country published his lively, engaging descriptions. “All Paris is color mad!” Towle declared in the Providence Tribune in late 1926. The Grand Palais, which hosted the Salon, seemed aflame in warm maroons and burnt oranges. On snappy boulevards, autos of the “haute monde and the demi-monde” whirled by in “squadrons of satisfying color . . . like a flashing mountain torrent at the end of a rainbow.” Sometimes Towle shopped couture, taking notes at runway shows for trade articles on high-fashion fabrics. In the fall of 1926 he solicited automotive paint schemes from the major Paris couturiers. These style setters turned to glamorizing American cars: Lucien Lelong combined green and peach tones on a roadster, while Madeleine Vionnet’s flare for sports cars led her to decorate one in “tones of Dekkan Brown and London Smoke.” The list grew as Towle saw color nuance everywhere; he understood its place in the fashion system, and he sought to explain its significance.

Around the winter holidays Towle returned to New York for the National Automobile Show, where American car makers exhibited the latest engineering features, accessories, upholstery, and color schemes. Among the showstoppers at the January 1926 national show were 12 Lincolns decorated in spectacular hues adapted from the plumage of rare American and tropical birds: Ecuador’s green tanager, Haiti’s lizard-cuckoo, Venezuela’s yellow woodpecker, and more. One year later, colors at the show were even more stupendous. The “mass production man,” Towle reported in the Brooklyn Standard Union and the Pittsburgh Gazette-Times, had caught on to the fact that “the whole country is becoming more fond of the use of color.” Auto plants expertly wielded paintbrushes, showing cars with two-tone schemes in “warm, appealing beautiful harmonies.” They made fenders, window brackets, rear-tire covers, and upholstery to match the rest of the car. With satisfaction Towle described the 1927 National as “the high water mark in color harmony.”

This riot of color did lead to some design errors, and Towle was in his element with these problems. Some automakers went wild with the new nitrocellulose colors, ruining good models with injudicious paint jobs. Embracing a form-follows-function approach, Towle believed that a color scheme should bear some relationship to the car’s shape. The best paint jobs, Towle explained in a Brooklyn Standard Union article in 1927, accentuated the machine’s form and hid its figure flaws. “Long vigorous stripes along the lower band molding” made a model “look longer.” Why not, Towle posited, wrap the stripe around the car’s front? When people marveled at new, multicolored wheels at the 1927 National, Towle suggested they might like the polychrome effects that accentuated the car’s form. Towle was an aesthetic doctor with a stethoscope and a prescription pad. His patient was the visually naive auto industry; his medicine, judiciously applied color.

Towle Takes Charge of Color at GM

Between 1925 and 1928 Towle worked hard to put the Duco Color Advisory Service on a solid footing. He stuck with DuPont in 1926, despite GM’s overtures. In July 1928, however, he accepted the leading automaker’s offer and moved to Michigan. There he worked as GM’s first color engineer and most likely cofounded its Art and Colour Section with the flamboyant Hollywood custom builder Harley J. Earl.