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

As GM’s head colorist Towle issued a monthly forecast composed of a lively circular on general style trends and a statistical appendix listing car sales by color. Towle’s circulars went beyond a basic list of top-selling car colors; his detailed tabulations showed that consumer choices varied from region to region and from model to model. In a GM circular for June 1929, for example, he revealed that 87% of Pontiac buyers in the Pacific Northwest preferred shades of blue. In the Northeast only 17% of Buick buyers liked blue. The comparisons went on. Always a skeptic, Towle explained in the Society of Automotive Engineers’ trade journal that he checked dealers’ input against public taste as “revealed in the periodicals, in newspapers and over the radio as regards clothing, house furnishings and other articles.” His fashion antennae were always tuned to the consumer channel. Much about Towle’s method drew on hard facts, but much also depended on experience, intuition, and common sense.

Towle spent two years showing GM how to get a handle on the slippery matters of style, fashion, and taste. In 1930, however, he left GM to return to the Campbell-Ewald agency, this time to the Detroit office, where he specialized in outdoor advertising, including billboards and posters. He was happiest bridging color, design, and advertising. In 1934 he became founding director of the Division of Creative Design and Color at Pittsburgh Plate Glass, which created color schemes for appliances, layouts for showrooms and storefronts, new hues for paints and varnishes, and company advertising. He remained an important figure in the color revolution and extended its influence with his designs for industry, commerce, and architecture.

Duco Simplified with Munsell Colors

Towle’s successor at the Duco Color Advisory Service was another ad-man-turned-colorist, Howard Ketcham. A member of New York high society, Ketcham grew up in Manhattan and on Long Island and attended prestigious St. Paul’s School and Amherst College. From 1925 to 1927 he followed in Towle’s footsteps, working as art director for H. K. McCann while studying at the New York School of Design. In 1927 he joined the Duco office, where he worked until 1935. Then he established Howard Ketcham, Inc., a color consultancy in Rockefeller Center.

Ketcham inherited from Towle a color advisory service that stressed the market value of beauty as practiced in the industrial arts. Initially Ketcham continued these efforts through a joint project with Cheney Brothers, a silk mill that understood the fashion system. Cheney’s strategy pivoted on a three-tiered color portfolio: “novelties,” or new seasonal items, “second-season” lines, and “staples.” The high-fashion novelties, spun off the company’s color forecasts, yielded most of the profits. Over the years, Cheney’s sales director, Paul Thomas, had been very friendly to DuPont interests, supplying the firm with color forecasts for silk. Now he hoped that a tie-in with DuPont would clinch Cheney’s status as an industry leader. The Duco Color Advisory Service, in turn, expected to learn something about top-flight design and marketing.

In late 1928 DuPont announced a set of Duco car colors based on Cheney’s forecast for the following fall. It included Red Shadow Red, “a yellow red suitable for use with brown or beige, as a wire-wheel color or for striping,” and Sea Bubble, “a natural beige first developed by the silk industry which has received wide acceptance in the textile trade as well as in the automotive industry.” There were also Pewter Pot, Blu-Gray, Gray Gull, Bay Tree, Verdancia, Water Glo, and Lei Orange. The Cheney-DuPont palette continued Towle’s mission to augment DuPont’s cultural capital with high-class lines.

But although Ketcham recognized the importance of the industrial arts, this DuPont colorist also embraced the practices of the engineering profession (he was later called the father of color engineering). Alarmed at DuPont’s portfolio of 7,500 colors, Ketcham made simplification the raison d’être of the Duco Color Advisory Service. The trick lay in determining which colors resonated with the middle class, so as to both improve efficiency and increase sales. In his eight years as DuPont’s head colorist, Ketcham focused on rationalizing color forecasts and radically reducing the Duco palette.