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Spectrum | Showroom


In showrooms, Spectrum organizes displays of products, visually uniting them and creating a focal point within the space. In showrooms spectra became an archetypical practice, because customers could view a complete array of colors, as well as make comparisons and draw distinctions between one color and another. 


In showroom design, Spectrum is most frequently used to display textile or carpet samples. There are two main reasons for this. The most common reason is that textiles and carpets usually come in the widest and brightest variety of hues among showroom products. The second reason is that textile or carpet samples are smaller scale items and are easier to use in displays that require a larger number of objects. Although the same textiles may be eventually used to upholster furniture, displaying only the textile sample takes up much less space than trying to show the same array of color applied to furniture or other large items.

The effects of a Spectrum display in a showroom are many. Primarily, it creates a visually pleasing display that acts as a focal point within the space. The gradation of color unites the display surface, giving visual continuity to the items displayed. A sense of progression and movement through the space is also implied as the colors morph from one to another. Functionally, the chromatic arrangement of items not only allows customers to more easily find the hue they want, but also to more easily see the difference between tints and shades of the same hue. This makes the process of pinpointing an exact color from a choice of hundreds much more convenient and efficient.

Although the Intype is called Spectrum, the colors of the displayed objects do not necessarily have to be in the strict order of the visible light spectrum of red, orange, yellow, green, blue, violet. Although the relationship of adjacent colors must be maintained, a chromatic arrangement may start with yellow or purple and still be considered a Spectrum display. Additionally, non-spectral colors like brown or pink and achromatic values such as black and white may also be integrated into the display. It is also not necessary that the colors be solid (although that is more common), as long as a predominant color is discernable from the pattern.

Spectrum is similar to the Specimen display practice, especially if the displayed objects have been arranged with an obvious grid in mind. The effect, however, is slightly different. Although the strategy of both displays is often to allow the viewer to contemplate one object in the context of many similar but different objects, Specimen displays rarely create the same sense of movement or progression typical of Spectrum displays, because the field of objects is uniform. Additionally, the objects in Specimen displays may be more generously spaced than the items in a Spectrum display, as the effect of one continuous object field is not necessarily desired. Generally speaking, Spectrum is about color, while Specimen is about form. It is also possible, though less common, to see Spectrum displays in a Line-Up1 configuration. In short, while Spectrum displays are often seen in a Specimen configuration, it is by no means a defining feature of the Intype.


Spectrum is derived from the spectral ordering of the colors produced by visible light. When white light is passed through a prism (or any other medium in which light travels slower than air), it changes speed, causing it to bend, or refract. The degree to which the light is bent is dependent on two things: the medium through which it is travelling, and the wavelength of the light. Because white light is made up of many different wavelengths of light, it separates out into its constituent spectrum of colors. The correlation between perceived color and wavelength is roughly this: red (627-780 nm), orange (589-627 nm), yellow (566-589 nm), green (495-566 nm), blue (436-495 nm), and violet (380-436 nm).2 Of course, this range only covers the wavelengths visible to humans; the entire electromagnetic spectrum is in fact much larger. Wavelengths larger than 780 nanometers become infrared, microwaves, radio and television, and then long-waves. Wavelengths smaller than 380 nanometers become ultraviolet, x-rays, and then gamma-rays.

The perception of color is a very subjective thing. Although there are theoretically an infinite number of colors along the visible spectrum, the number of colors is in practice limited by human perception. Just as some people are able to hear more acutely than others, some people may be more finely tuned to color perception than others. The number of perceived hues is also inextricably tied to linguistics. After all, if there are only a fixed number of color terms, the ability to distinguish different hues is going to be similarly limited, phenomenon explored by anthropologist Brent Berlin and linguist Paul Kay in Basic Color Terms: Their Theory and Evolution. The authors explain: "if a language encodes fewer than eleven basic color categories, then there are strict limitations on which categories it may encode." At the most basic level, all languages have terms for black (dark, cool colors) and white (light, warm colors). After that, color terms may then be added to the vocabulary in the following order: red, green or yellow (but not both), green and yellow, blue, brown, and then finally purple, pink, orange, grey or some combination of them.3 It is not difficult to imagine that the spectral ordering of colors may be more difficult or non-existent in cultures with only three color terms, than in those with more.

Although humans have been studying "all manner of spectra, including those formed by prisms" since antiquity, the spectral arrangement of colors, with which most people today are familiar, has not always been intuitive or obvious. Before the 17th century, no one was sure where color came from. Aristotle believed that color was a mixture of light and dark, while Plato suggested that colors were caused by corpuscle emitted by the body. During the European Renaissance Leonardo da Vinci advised the "seeker of spectra" to examine radish roots that had been kept for a long time in stagnant water.4 No connection was made between the color ordering of rainbows and a unified theory of color, until the 17th century when the significance of optical spectra was discovered.

It was not until Isaac Newton completed his own experiments with prisms that spectra, "whether seen around radish roots or through prisms," were seen as the key to any theory of color. Not only did he realize that white light dispersed into the colors of the visible spectrum, he also realized that "among natural light phenomena, the rainbow and related forms of the solar spectrum are unique in presenting colors in an invariant order." Nowadays, children are taught to remember the sequence of color names as red, orange, yellow, green, blue, sometimes indigo, and violet or purple. These names identify the main hues of the visible spectrum and the "major varieties of color other than black and white." As Patricia Slone theorizes in The Visual Nature of Color, this is not because there is some value to knowing the order of the colors in the spectrum, but because this act "reflects the belief that the hues are found in their purest or most typical form in the spectrum."5

Displaying items in chromatic order is a common "mass display" strategy in retail and showroom design, because a number of products are required to achieve the desired effect of the arrangement. Spectrum displays are used for three reasons: first, they "create a strong mass of single colors," which is generally aesthetically pleasing to customers and creates a focal point within the showroom. Second, Spectrum helps customers find a specific color, as color distinction is easier when similar colors are placed next to one another. Another third advantage is that such a display "offers more visual impact"6 than if the products were displayed in isolation.

Because of the amount of product needed to make a coherent arrangement, mass displays are most often used with smaller items, which often "require the visual impact of the massing." In showrooms, this often means textile samples, as the vast color array and the size make them perfect for a Spectrum organization. In retail design, it could be used on anything, from handbags to clothing, as long as the item came in enough different colors. Japanese clothing retailer UNIQLO used a virtual version of this strategy on a website anticipating the opening of a flagship store in Taipei, Taiwan.7 In retail specifically, massing displays are also commonly used with inexpensive or moderately priced items. In showroom design, this is less applicable, because the items comprising a Spectrum display are not usually for individual sale. In some cases, Spectrum may be used to organize larger, more expensive items like furniture if the colors are varied enough to accommodate it.

Strategically, Spectrum, like Specimen and Line-Up, is another example of a visual display of information in small multiples. In Spectrum, the item displayed is held constant, while the change in color is the change of information. This allows for an "economy of perception" as the relevant information (in this case, an item's color and nothing else) changes. Statistician and information designer Edward R. Tufte explains, "As our eyes move from one image to the next, this constancy of design allows viewer to focus on changes in information rather that changes in graphical composition." The repetition of elements next to each other "enforces local comparison within our eye-span" by allowing customers to select the differences and understand the contrasts. Having all variations of something right next to another means that viewers no longer have to rely on memory to compare objects. All comparisons can be made with a single glance for "uninterrupted visual reasoning." Small multiples allow customers to "see, distinguish, choose."8 The Spectral arrangement into loose hue groupings also gives an indication of whether a specific color may lean a bit toward one hue or another.

Chronological Sequence

It is likely that Spectrum existed as a display strategy before the 1960 decade, but the lack of color photography in trade magazines, such as Interior Design and Architectural Record, before 1970, makes it challenging to establish a longer timeline.

However, one of the earliest uses is the 1967 Edward Fields carpet showroom. The designer, William Raiser, dedicated a "color room" at one end of the main display area. Here, "more than 10,000" different colors of wool were displayed chromatically on a table holding small tufts of wools, as well as on a wall display holding much larger spools of yarn.9 Although the photo published in Interior Design was black and white, the accompanying article text confirms that this was in fact Spectrum.

The display strategy became more frequent in the 1970 decade-whether this was because designers were using Spectrum more frequently, or the magazines were photographing its use more frequently, because of color photography. In 1977 designer Sally Walsh designed the Knoll showroom as a White Box (Intype).10 The space was deliberately kept in neutral colors, because "a pronounced color would have been distracting to customers making product selections." Knoll's neutral envelope strategy allowed customers to "visualize whatever schemes they [were] planning for specific jobs." The emphasis was on "changes in textures: leathers against canvas against hand-woven textiles." A large Spectrum display along one of that space's main walls became a focal point. "Pigeon-hole storage units"11 held memo samples of fabric arranged in color order, starting with yellow on the right and transitioning to the achromatic neutrals on the far left. The height of the unit (eight-feet-6-inches) accommodated color gradation from the top to the bottom. The lack of competing colors in the Knoll showroom ensured that the Spectrum of fabric samples stood out and also unified the entire wall.

In the Atlanta Edward Fields showroom (1978), a Spectrum yarn-wall made a reappearance.12 This time, however, the photography of the space is in color. Along one small wall of the space, all the different colors of yarn available for carpet customization were mounted on individual spools. The different hues of the yarn changed gradually from left to right, while the tints and shades of those hues changed from top to bottom, with the lighter versions of the colors on the top, and the darker versions on the bottom. On the floor and adjacent wall, different carpets were placed- perhaps to give buyers an idea of how different colors could be utilized to create a more aesthetically pleasing carpet. As in the Los Angeles Edward Fields installation ten years earlier, the yarn wall may have been intended to serve a practical purpose, rather than a purely aesthetic one. During the 1970 to 1979 era, it was common to see the colorful Spectrum used against an otherwise neutral background, and often in a White Box.

In the 1980 to 1989 period, however, Spectrum was arranged against a black background-perhaps not entirely surprising, because the number of Black Out (Intype)13 spaces reached its peak during this decade. The 1981 GF Business Equipment showroom made dramatic use of walls covered with "glossy black plastic laminates" that allowed the many systems furniture displays to stand out against this "non-distinctive background color."14 A Spectrum of upholstery choices were arranged in several wide and narrow niches, similar to shadow boxes. The hues displayed varied by the columns in which they were arranged, but there was little tone variation within the columns of fabric. Because the display was limited to particularly bright hues, Spectrum visually pops against the black wall, drawing attention to what would otherwise be an ordinary surface.

The MDC showroom (1983) took it one step further by establishing Spectrum in a completely black space. Designer Eva Maddox conceived a "clean, architectural image" for the company's first showroom in the Chicago Merchandise Mart. She turned to traditional Japanese design's grid that permeated the resulting space completely, giving the space "discipline and crispness" in a "gentle, subtle, way." This was a deliberate strategy to play up the "sharpness and brilliance" of the colorful textiles and wall coverings on display in the showroom. The largest display was one of wall coverings arranged in a Spectrum in twelve-by-twelve-inch panels, creating a "dazzling mosaic of warm-to-cool colors." Because these displays were the only sources of color in the showroom, there was "an almost electric intensity"15 to the displays. The contrast of the dark space and exuberantly bright colors worked to draw customers into the showroom.

The 1986 Maharam showroom took a similar approach to the display of its textiles, although this particular design did not rely so heavily on the expression of the grid. Instead, the space was defined by "a series of freestanding geometric volumes" that defined circulation within the space and acted as display elements for all the textiles. These split forms, two cubes and a cylinder, allowed the numerous swatches and samples of textiles to be exhibited on their internal and external faces. On the surfaces of these forms, small samples of textiles were arranged in color order, creating a tight grid of swatches. Because the swatches were so small in size, the effect of the Spectrum was exaggerated; the colors seemingly blended together to create one large swatch whose color transitioned seamlessly from one to another. Once again, a Black Out space provided the greatest contrast to the product, and to emphasize it further "only the fabric displays [were] spotlighted,"16 leaving the rest of the showroom in darkness.

By the late 1980s, and the early 1990s, designers began to realize that Spectrum did not necessary need to be arranged in a rigid scheme. The 1993 Edelman Leathers showroom is a good example of an organization that was more informal than the arrangements of previous decades. This was a deliberate move by the design firm HTI/Space Design International, who created the showroom. They wanted to "cast full focus" on displayed leathers, almost "to the exclusion of the carefully crafted surround." The leathers were draped softly over rolling steel racks, creating a contrast between materials that emphasized the "softness and warmth"17 of the product. Unlike other examples of Spectrum, this one was placed on a movable framework, allowing and encouraging customers to interact with the product. The draping of the leather over a frame, rather than mounting it on a wall, or placing it among a densely packed shelf, encouraged the customer to touch the material and to take it off the rack and examine it.

The Robert Allen showroom (1993) also kept the focus on the product rather than on the architecture of the space. A renovation of a previous showroom, the design left most of the original architectural features intact-"sleek lines, dramatically curved shapes and deep rich tones". Interior architect Teresa Galiani created new product displays to capture customer interest and subtly influence the traffic flow of the space. One wall was "filled with chairs seeming to burst through at different angles." A spiraling, black, sample card wall was located in the center of the space; it was comprised of numerous tiny material samples arranged chromatically.18 Instead of being mounted in a grid configuration, each of the cards (attached at its corner) created a field of colored diamond-like shapes. Like the 1988 Maharam showroom, the size of the sample cards influenced how Spectrum was perceived. The field of cards as a whole resembled colorful scales that slowly changed color from one end of the display wall to the other. The display encouraged visitors to circulate along the full length of the display.

The 2005 Tai Ping carpet showroom returned to the rigid expression of earlier Spectrum reiterations. The showroom, designed by Matthew Baird Design, was meant to show the company's "ancient Chinese roots and its fresh ideas." The design was said to evoke the feeling of "traditional Beijing courtyard houses," especially the slow, ceremonial entryways. The colors of the space and the displays of carpets and materials brought contemporary elements into the space. On the walls, behind clear glass cases, various brightly colored carpets were displayed. One wall featured a Spectrum of "350 spools of colorful wool yarn" encased in a Vitrine.19 Unlike the Edward Fields carpet showrooms of the 1960s, the Tai Ping showroom was not really meant for the customers. For them, smaller Spectrum boxes held all the available yarn colors. These allowed the representatives to show the samples to customers at designated tables, or even on visits to client firms. The function of the yarn display was to create an aesthetically pleasing focal point within the space.

The Kartell showroom (1999) in New York City is a rare example of Spectrum using furniture. The open floor space of the Soho showroom was not large enough to display the wide array of candy-colored plastic furniture that it manufactures. However, the space possessed rather high ceilings, resulting in a large amount of wall-space. In order to fully utilize the verticality of the space, glass shelves supported by steel cables were suspended from the ceiling. Various examples of the company's plastic furniture were then placed on these shelves in a Spectrum arrangement. Although the showroom was initially designed in 1999, as of July 2011, the initial Spectrum had expanded from one wall to two and on parallel walls, morphing from green to white on one side and from red to blue on the other.20 Kartell's Spectrum system proved to be particularly flexible, as there is photographic documentation that Spectrum has been displayed on only one wall of the showroom in the past.21 Kartell's Spectrum using large objects demonstrated a wider variety of product than would be able to fit on the floor of the showroom, and it also created a spectacle.

The display of color samples is an enduring archetype in showrooms, a practice that is unlikely to be discarded. Although Spectrum has been almost exclusively implemented for the display of textiles and carpets, Kartell's Spectrum in its SoHo showroom offers a distinct departure in terms of the type and size of objects to be displayed. Whether or this this is indicative of a larger trend in Spectrum arrangements remains to be seen.22


end notes

  1. 1) The Intype Line-Up describes the practice of arranging a line of evenly spaced objects or pieces of furniture in a single row. Courtney Cheng, "Theory Studies: Archetypical Showroom Practices in Contemporary Interior Design" (M.A. Thesis, Cornell University, 2012), 137-59; The Intypes Research and Teaching Project, (accessed Oct. 14, 2011).
  2. 2) Frank H. Mahnke, Color, Environment and Human Response (New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1996), 6-7.
  3. 3) Brent Berlin and Paul Kay, Basic Color Terms: Their Theory and Evolution (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1969), 2-3.
  4. 4) Patricia Slone, The Visual Nature of Color (New York: Design Press, 1989), 62-63.
  5. 5) Slone, The Visual Nature of Color, 62-63, 187.
  6. 6) William R. Green, The Retail Store: Design and Construction (New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold Company Inc., 1986), 38.
  7. 7) Green, The Retail Store, 39; Poe, "UNIQLO Taipei - Dedicated Website Opens," Freshness (August 24, 2010): (accessed Jul. 1, 2011).
  8. 8) Edward R. Tufte, Envisioning Information (Cheshire: Graphics Press, 1990), 28-33, 67-68.
  9. 9) Edward Fields Shworoom [1967] William Raiser, architect; Los Angeles, CA, in Anonymous, "Edward Fields: Carpet Entrepreneur," Interior Design 38, no. 9 (Sep. 1967): 102; PhotoCrd: Louis Reens.
  10. 10) The Intype White Box describes an undecorated space with white walls, white ceiling and a continuous neutral floor, originated in 1927 as clean envelope, a bare white architecture. An influential 1930 MoMA exhibition secured it as a museum aesthetic. In addition to Showroom design, White Box is an archetypical practice in house, museum and workplace practice types. Courtney Cheng, "Theory Studies: Archetypical Showroom Practices in Contemporary Interior Design" (M.A. Thesis, Cornell University, 2012), 52-69; The Interior Archetypes Research and Teaching Project, (accessed Oct. 14, 2011).
  11. 11) Knoll Showroom [1977] Sally Walsh, architect; Houston, TX in Anonymous, "The Knoll Showroom in Houston," Interior Design 48, no. 3 (Mar. 1977): 180-181; PhotoCrd: Stan Ries.
  12. 12) Edward Fields Showroom [1978] Anonymous, architect; Atlanta, GA in Anonymous, "A Photographic Tour of ADAC Showrooms," Interior Design 49, no. 2 (Feb. 1978): 164-65; PhotoCrd: Jaime Ardiles-Arce.
  13. 13) The Intype Black Out is an interior space or room entirely consisting of black shades for walls, floors, ceilings and furnishings. Courtney Cheng, "Theory Studies: Archetypical Showroom Practices in Contemporary Interior Design" (M.A. Thesis, Cornell University, 2011), xx-xx; The Interior Archetypes Research and Teaching Project, (accessed Oct. 10, 2011).
  14. 14) GF Business Equipment Showroom [1981] Carol Groh, architect; New York City in M.G., "GF by GN," Interior Design 52, no. 8 (Aug. 1981): 250-50; PhotoCrd: Norman McGrath.
  15. 15) MDC Showroom [1983] Eva Maddox, architect; Chicago, IL, in J.G.T., "Grid Works," Interior Design 54, no. 12 (Dec. 1983): 194-195; PhotoCrd: Orlando Cabanban.
  16. 16) Maharam Showroom [1986] Kaneko Ford Design, architect; Los Angeles, CA in Edie Lee Cohen, "Maharam, LA," Interior Design 57, no. 7 (Dec. 1986): 222-25; PhotoCrd: Roland Bishop.
  17. 17) Edelman Leathers Showroom [1993] HTI/Space Design International, architect; New York City in Monica Geran, "HTI/SDI," Interior Design 64, no. 9 (Sep. 1993): 218-19; PhotoCrd: Peter Paige.
  18. 18) Robert Allen Showroom [1993] Teresa Galiani, architect; Chicago, IL in Andrea Loukin, "Robert Allen," Interior Design 64, no. 10 (Oct. 1993): 150-51; PhotoCrd: Bruce Van Inwegen.
  19. 19) Tai Ping Showroom [2005] Matthew Baird Design, architect; New York City in Craig Kellogg, "Double Happiness," Interior Design 76, no. 9 (Jul. 2005): 156-61; PhotoCrd: Eric Laignel.
  20. 20) Kartell Showroom [1999] Ferruccio Laviani, architect; New York City; Site Visit, Courtney Cheng, 2 Jul. 2011.
  21. 21) Beth Dickstein, "Your Mom Likes Design," A Modern Eye (April 23, 2010): (accessed Jul. 1, 2011).
  22. 22) Evidence for the archetypical use and the chronological sequence of Spectrum in the showroom practice type was developed from the following sources: 1960 Edward Fields Shworoom [1967] William Raiser, architect; Los Angeles, CA, in Anonymous, "Edward Fields: Carpet Entrepreneur," Interior Design 38, no. 9 (Sep. 1967): 102; PhotoCrd: Louis Reens / 1970 Knoll Showroom [1977] Sally Walsh, architect; Houston, TX, in Anonymous, "The Knoll Showroom in Houston," Interior Design 48, no. 3 (Mar. 1977): 180; PhotoCrd: Stan Ries; Edward Fields Showroom [1978] Anonymous, architect; Atlanta, GA, in Anonymous, "A Photographic Tour of ADAC Showrooms," Interior Design 49, no. 2 (Feb. 1978): 165; PhotoCrd: Jaime Ardiles-Arce / 1980 GF Business Equipment Showroom [1981] Carol Groh, architect; New York City, in M.G., "GF by GN," Interior Design 52, no. 8 (Aug. 1981): 250; PhotoCrd: Norman McGrath; MDC Showroom [1983] Eva Maddox, architect; Chicago, IL, in J.G.T., "Grid Works," Interior Design 54, no. 12 (Dec. 1983): 194; PhotoCrd: Orlando Cabanban; Maharam Showroom [1986] Kaneko Ford design, architect; Los Angeles, CA, in Edie Lee Cohen, "Maharam, LA," Interior Design 57, no. 7 (Dec. 1986): 224; PhotoCrd: Roland Bishop; / 1990 Edelman Leathers Showroom [1993] HTI/Space Design International, architect; New York City, in Monica Geran, "HTI/SDI," Interior Design 64, no. 9 (Sep. 1993): 218; PhotoCrd: Peter Paige; Robert Allen Showroom [1993] Teresa Galiani, architect; Chicago, IL, in Andrea Loukin, "Robert Allen," Interior Design 64, no. 10 (Oct. 1993): 150; PhotoCrd: Bruce Van Inwegen / 2000 Tai Ping Showroom [2005] Matthew Baird Design, architect; New York City, in Craig Kellogg, "Double Happiness," Interior Design 76, no. 9 (Jul. 2005): 158; PhotoCrd: Eric Laignel / 2010 Kartell Showroom [1999] Ferruccio Laviani architect; New York City; Site Visit, Courtney Cheng, 2 Jul. 2011; PhotoCrd.: Courtney Cheng, Intypes Project, 2 Jul. 2011.

bibliographic citations

1) The Interior Archetypes Research and Teaching Project, Cornell University, (accessed month & date, year).

2) Cheng, Courtney. "Theory Studies: Archetypical Showroom Practices in Contemporary Interior Design." M.A. Thesis, Cornell University, 2012, 186-207.