Culture

Fifty shades of beige

Unassuming, unthreatening, underwhelming – however you feel about beige it’s no longer derided. But how, and more importantly why, has beige gone from being the dullest colour on the planet to a way of life?

Words by
Timothy Barber
Photography by
Wilson Hennessy

We’re living in a universe of beige. Don’t take my word for it, take that of the astronomers Karl Glazebrook and Ivan Baldry who, back in 2002, analysed over 200,000 galaxies and determined that their combined light amounted pretty much to the colour of your dad’s chinos. Or as they called it, Cosmic Latte.

And well they might, for if there’s one thing we know about beige it’s that no one wants to call it by its name. Beige, as a word and as a descriptor, out-greys even grey for sheer drab, formless, nothingy neutrality. But ‘fawn’? Oh, bang on the money for your new suit this spring, and you can pair it with a taupe trench coat once it’s too warm for your camel overcoat. Or consider ‘toast’ (brown presumably, wholemeal or otherwise) – selected by New York’s mighty-sounding Pantone Color Institute as a key fashionable shade this past Fall. Just add Marmite.

However many recherché beige variants we identify and label – and there are over 30 in the Farrow & Ball catalogue alone – there can never be enough, because right now it’s everywhere. The apologetic colour of the cosmos has crept through our most stylish earthly surrounds like knotweed, spreading its mollifying tastefulness across modern life. It’s invading our restaurants and workspaces; it’s in the clothes we wear and the things we buy. It’s modern branding dynamite.

‘Colour trends go in cycles – 20 years ago you’d run a million miles from beige, because it was a ’70s colour, but it’s being reinvented,’ says Stephen Westland, Professor of Colour Science at the University of Leeds. ‘Beige is nostalgic – it’s calming, traditional and slightly old-fashioned,’ he explains. ‘It’s a very uncolourful colour.’

Well, yes. What, then, does it say of us that the era’s most fashionable tone is barely a colour at all? Let us examine a few of its primary habitats.

Fifty shades of beige

Coffee culture

There is perhaps no greater symbol of the Age of Beige than the milk foam ripple of the perfectly poured, not-so-cosmic latte; it puts the mug into smug as the inescapable mainstay of Instagram’s most beige format, the overhead still-life, or #flatlay.

But coffee is beige in an almost profound way. It’s not simply the colour, it’s what it has come to represent – our quest to be soothed and reassured. No wonder exposed natural wood, old furniture and other ‘as found’ materials form the blueprint for the coffee shop. It’s a retreat from the scariness, noise and amped-up pressures of a world in tumult; a world that we inhale, in full colour saturation, through our digital lives.

‘Our screens are incredibly colourful and intimidating, and stressful,’ says Westland. ‘In the 1980s and ’90s, it was very different, we craved colour and you saw it everywhere, but now we have too much of it in a different way. Beige is nostalgic, and we’re looking backwards much more, to when things seemed simpler, less stressful, and less ashy, too.’

Coffee culture, in all its mindful beigeness, represents our safe space. And no surprise, perhaps, that it’s also coming to represent our work culture, too – the shared workspaces of the modern, flexi-hours gig-economy are essentially coffee shops with added furniture budgets. Which leads us to our next point…

Design

If beige is the antidote to digital overload, then small wonder Apple is deeply in on it – Regent Street’s Apple store is an all-enveloping cloud of ecru marble that almost distracts you from the fact that visiting the Genius Bar is roughly as relaxing as Victoria Station during a Southern Rail meltdown.

Beige has become strong currency in luxury interiors, too – the recently opened Nobu Hotel in Shoreditch, for instance, is a glossy, monotone haze of cream and grey, between acres of polished, light brown wood. It’s gorgeous, of course – calming and deeply tasteful, but ever so slightly tepid, too, like weak tea. A description, I’d suggest, one could extend to our mid-century furniture fixation, from the Nordic classics of Skandium to West Elm’s tranquilising loveliness: even when there’s colour, the overall effect is beige. Just look at Aquavit, the most beautiful restaurant to have opened in London in years and a rich, sunlit domain of caramel beige.

‘It’s not offensive, far from it – it’s inoffensive and that’s the point,’ says Tony Chambers, Brand and Content Director of design bible Wallpaper*, who also identifies digital stress as the engendering force behind our modern beige-out. ‘People are scared to say or do anything controversial or tasteless, things are judged so quickly and brutally. This manifests itself very clearly in design.’

And not just at the macro level: next time you pour yourself a bowl of Dorset Cereals, or pick from any number of products offering similarly Waitrose-endorsed beigeness, consider what that packaging tells you this product really is. Rustic, sentimental, mindful – a haven from vulgarity, and reassuringly premium. Because let’s make no bones about it, beige culture is a superlatively middle-class phenomenon.

Fifty shades of beige

Style

The retro workwear movement, with its coal shoveller-meets-WWII squaddie aesthetic, has been rumbling along for long enough now to have got beige – rough-hewn, crumpled, textural, khaki – successfully reclaimed from country-club Alan Partridge types. The style is the de facto uniform of a certain class of Kinfolk-clutching, WeWorking beigestronaut, of a type equally found managing FinTech start-ups as running spoon-whittling workshops (and probably both).

But beige, along with more full-bodied browns, has been taking over in high fashion, too. From the baggy beige suits of E Tautz to the coastal cool of Brunello Cucinelli, via Fendi – who clad every single model for its Fall ’18 show in it – the fash set is properly getting its beige on.

‘There’s an easy blandness to it that’s quite comforting, and we’re certainly seeing a lot of it right now,’ says Stephen Doig, men’s style editor for the Daily Telegraph. ‘Designers are experimenting with how to make the suit relevant once you’ve exhausted navy, black and grey. Beige is a natural evolution and quite a safe entry point, but there are some showing how to do it in a more interesting way.’

There does appear to be light – or rather, primary colours – at the end of the taupe tunnel. ‘There’s a reason that Gucci sells through the roof with its technicolour, maximalist aesthetic. There’s a rising tide of resistance,’ says Doig.

On the corner of Carnaby Street is a pub. A big, easy-on-the-eye kind of a place, painted in uniform shades of gastro-grey and cream, including the sign for its name: O’Neill’s. Yes, the JD Wetherspoon of Irish theme pubs, a place of Guinness hats, St Paddy’s Day vomit and – formerly – crap faux-Celtic lettering. It’s been politely beiged-over. When the zeitgeist has been taken to your local Irish pub, you may think it’s time the zeitgeist girded its loins and moved on.

‘People want to hunker down, and opt for a kind of safeness and niceness, and it’s being rolled out to saturation point, no question,’ says Wallpaper*’s Chambers. ‘We need things to slap us around the face and wake us up. We need to get our swagger back.’

Couldn’t agree more.