This week, Pantone announced that it had chosen two colors of the year for 2021: Ultimate Gray and Illuminating, a combination of dull, familiar gray and the bright yellow of lemon skin. It’s a choice for the past year of quarantine, a time in which we had to insulate ourselves from the world and curl up in monochrome blankets at home: “It’s a dependable gray,” as Leatrice Eiseman, the executive director of the Pantone Color Institute, told the New York Times.
The gray of cloudy skies, sidewalk cement, comfortable bed linens, gravity blankets, or low-light screens—the color evokes our collective experiences over the past year. It’s a depressing summation: During nine months of quarantine, we’ve certainly arrived at the “ultimate gray,” a state of mind—mush—as much as the color of a product. Grayness means ambiguity and irresolution. Neither black nor white, it doesn’t point toward an ending, just the continuation of an indefinite period. With coronavirus cases still mounting in the United States, that’s certainly where we’re at.
Though the color of the year is meant as a trend forecast, an evidence-based finding on which hues are newly popular, the 2021 picks seem clearly metaphorical, more of a marketing message than a trend. “Illuminated,” the bright, highlighter-yellow color, is the light at the end of the tunnel, the sun rising over a dark landscape, the dawning of hope that comes with the possibility of a vaccine.
Together, the combination looks a lot like Maurizio Cattelan’s viral sculpture of a banana stuck on the wall with duct tape, Comedian, as one Twitter user pointed out, which debuted at Art Basel Miami Beach in 2019. December 2019! What a time of hope and enthusiasm, when the virus had only just appeared in China and events like Art Basel still seemed possible. In retrospect, Cattelan’s sculpture looks like Nero fiddling while Rome burns, the gesture of a decadent society that future historians will cite as being on the very precipice of disaster—if only they knew.
The pairing of yellow and gray is a little bit slapstick: a rubber ducky in a jail cell. The total contrast between the two is absurd, the commercial slickness of the yellow confronting implacable, average gray. But it also reminds me of Brutalism, the once-reviled architectural movement that social media has turned into a meme. “Eco-Brutalism,” or green Brutalism, has become a term for concrete architecture embedded with plants, like post-apocalyptic ruins returning to nature. It suits the mood of our moment, both returning to basics and looking for small moments of excitement or change, like weeds sprouting flowers in an abandoned lot. Gray is the color of contemplation; it makes us notice things we might not have paid attention to before, standing out amidst the tedium.
2021’s color could have been plywood brown, for the material that covered up storefronts during 2020’s Black Lives Matter protests. Left up, it now hides empty storefronts and serves as a symbol of how many businesses have been shut down because of the pandemic. But that’s not particularly marketable. (The architectural trend of all-plywood interiors now seems both prescient and depressing.)
In fact, many people have been buying paint during quarantine, swapping out their wall colors to alleviate boredom. But paint brands I spoke to noticed a marked decline in the popularity of dark gray in favor of more organic colors like light blues and greens, perhaps a wish to bring some nature indoors. But gray can provide its own kind of relaxation, offering a space that’s neutral both emotionally and physically. The yellow is like an accent wall.
Over the past decade, Pantone’s color picks have been remarkably saturated, with bright, striking hues like Living Coral (2019), Ultraviolet (2018), and Radiant Orchid (2014). These are energetic colors, the kind that can spark inspiration or surprise. Gray isn’t nearly as exciting, but how could the company announce anything else after the past year except that omnipresent, boring shade? More than anything else, we’re looking for a return to normalcy.