Can you use colour as a material in an immersive installation? Here's how

Sendai, Japan – A visit to Tokyo in the 1990s changed Emmanuelle Moureaux’s life forever. Falling in love with the city and its colourscapes, she decided to move there after completing her architecture studies in France. Her dream was to open her own design office in Tokyo, even though the need to learn the language and obtain Japanese qualifications meant starting from scratch. In 2003 she finally opened her studio, from which she has worked on a wide range of projects – including a bank, an entire train line in Taiwan and numerous art installations – ever since. United by their use of colour as a main spatial principle, an approach she calls shikiri, her creations use as many as 1,000 different hues, each of which is custom made. Moureaux teaches at the Tohoku University of Art and Design.

When did your obsession with colour begin?
EMMANUELLE MOUREAUX: When I saw Tokyo for the first time. As a student back home in France, I’d never really been aware of colour, and as soon as I got off the train, I saw it with fresh eyes. There’s just so much colour here. It’s also the way it manifests itself as layers floating it space. That effect is created by the combination of neon signage, overhead cables and different building heights – and it’s unique to Tokyo. When I realized how little colour actually features in Japanese design and architecture, which is mostly monochrome, I decided I wanted to establish my own studio to explore it.

What’s the appeal of colour for you?
The emotions it generates. It makes the heart sing; it fills you with energy. Through my work I want people to feel what I felt on my first visit to Tokyo.

What was your first project?
A small interior for a cosmetics company. I got the commission through one of my students – I’d been teaching French while learning Japanese. I didn’t want to work in anyone else’s design studio. I just wanted to work for myself. That interior was a tiny space, but I used lots of colour. When it was completed, the client said she felt purified by colour. That’s when I knew I was on the right track and wanted to continue.

I use colour in a three-dimensional way, not as a finishing touch

How did you develop your concept of shikiri?
I was inspired by Tokyo and by the way that colour defines depth in the cityscape. The term shikiri basically refers to the traditional Japanese screen. I adapted the characters so that it means ‘divide with colours’ – that’s what I base all my projects on. I use colour in a three-dimensional way, not as a finishing touch.

Art, architecture, design – you work in all three. Is there a difference in the way you approach them?
No, it’s all the same to me. I don’t see architecture, design and art as different disciplines. Instead, I see my work as travelling between different scales. The process is always identical: I start with the concept. At the beginning, I decide how many colours I’m going to use – not precisely but roughly, say 20 or 100. Then I work on the name and the concept, in words – both of these are very important to me. When thinking about the concept, I design small spaces based on the idea, so I’m working with words and visuals at the same time. The second step is to develop the design by making models – which can be small or 1:1 – and lots of drawings. Then I develop the colours, which is the hard part.

Where do your colours come from?
I mostly mix them myself. Sometimes I use Pantone colours, but that’s an exception. I’m using them for the train line I’m doing in Taiwan, for example, because of the distance involved. Pantone has lots of colours, but not enough for me. Luckily, I find my colours everywhere. It might be a page in a magazine that’s a beautiful blue, so I’ll give that to the paint or dye factory – which one depends on the material we plan to use. I check colour samples at the factory until they’re right. It’s a difficult process.

Do you have a favourite colour?
How can I possibly choose? But if I have to, then it would be white. That’s because whenever I use whites, they make the other colours appear even more beautiful.

This is an excerpt from an interview that originally appeared in Frame 121

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