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Black Out | Showroom


In showrooms Black Out refers to the black color of walls, floors, ceilings and display mechanisms, such as Plinths, but not to the color of the product for sale. In some showrooms, the floor or display elements may not be pure black, but a very dark gray.



Black Out creates a consistent backdrop against which the product can be highlighted. Characterized by black walls, floor and ceiling planes, a Black Out space, like its opposite hue counterpart White Box,1 loses spatial definition as the different planes blend into one homogeneous enclosure. 

Black Out can be found across a broad range of showroom types, from those displaying large, three-dimensional objects, to those displaying smaller two-dimensional samples. The technique is often used to create a consistent background from which the product can stand out. Though similar in concept to the use of White Box in showrooms, the darkness of the black makes for a more dramatic space, due to the symbolic associations and effects of the color.

In recent years, Black Out has become an increasingly popular Intype for museums. Although it had been used rarely in exhibition design in the past, the 2000 decade has seen the number of Black Out museum exhibitions increase. Unlike most other showroom Intypes, which were taken from museum strategies, this one seems to have jumped from showrooms to museums. In 2002, Jean Nouvel designed an exhibit for the Brazil: Body and Soul exhibit at the Guggenheim, painting the entire interior of the structure black.2 In 2011, The Metropolitan Museum of Art designed a Black Out space and Specimen3 display as a part of the Costume Collection's exhibition Savage Beauty: Alexander McQueen. In both of these examples, the black is used primarily for dramatic effect, acting as a background for the visually elaborate items on display. Its usage in the exhibitions gives the items displayed in the space an air of luxury, decadence and sin.  

Symbolic Association  & Effect

In scientific terms, black is not a color. This argument is based on the deduction that light waves cause color but do not cause black.4 However, this argument fails to take into consideration the multitude of other colors that are not caused by light, such as pink, brown, or silver. It is more accurate to say that black (like white) is not a hue, or spectral color, but an achromatic value, for it exists without chroma or hue.

True black is caused by the absence of light, which has led to its associations with darkness, nothingness and void. These correlations have led to black's many negative connotations in Western culture. It symbolizes darkness and nothingness, as well as fear of the unknown, grief and death. To see evidence of these negative associations, one needs only to look at the English language: blackguard, black humor, blackmail, black market and black sheep are all words in which black connotes negative meaning.5 Moreover, this phenomenon is not limited to English; the German word for black (schwartz) is utilized in the phrases schwarz gebrannt (bootleg), schwarz fahren (to fare-dodge), and schwarz sehen (to be pessimistic), while the French word (noir) is used in être noir (to be in mourning), bête noir (something that is particularly disliked or avoided), and roman noir (a crime novel).

While the associations of darkness stem from black's scientific definition, the idea of black as a portent of bad things stems from its allegorical pairing with white. In Western culture, the pairing of the two colors often becomes an allegory for the struggle between good and evil, light and darkness, God and Satan. If white represents light and goodness, then black stands for evil and sin. These associations have led to suggestions about sensuality and sexual provocativeness. Prostitutes are often referred to as "ladies of the night; Baudelaire himself compared the prostitutes of Paris to black cats. Black lingerie, too, carries the connotation of sensuality and provocativeness that its white counterpart does not. Perhaps because of its connotations of sin and sensuality, black can also imply luxury and decadence when paired with gold, although it is possible that this is a "learned response" to the use of black in more recent decades.6

Black has not always been associated with darkness, and evil. Beginning in 14th century Italy, for example, Christian religious orders, such as Roman Catholics, Anglicans, Lutherans and some Protestants, adopted black as the color of vestments (liturgical garments) as well as clerical garb following the implementation of laws banning the use for more expensive colorants. From this, black also became a color of asceticism and austerity as clergy wore it "as a sign of self-denial." As the Protestant Reformation took hold of Europe in the 16th century, the idea of black as a color of self-denial became more ingrained in Western culture as protestant sects declared bright, warm colors immoral. Today, it is not uncommon to find houses painted black in Protestant countries, but it is uncommon to find such houses in Catholic ones.7

Black often makes a space feel smaller and more enclosed than it really is, because black is so dark. A black ceiling feels "hollow" and "oppressive", black walls feel "ominous and dungeon-like", while black floors seem "odd and abstract". When used on all the planes of a space, black absorbs the other colors present, effectively framing the different hues and constraining its physical presence. The space feels compressed, smaller, as if the value is holding the contents of the space in. Similarly, black objects are perceived as heavier than lighter colored ones, even if the objects are identical in weight and size. Because black is also an absolute shade, when it is used in a space, it heightens bright colors, making them appear more "luminous."

Chronological Sequence

The Decade of 1970

The appearance of Black Out in showrooms begins in the 1970 decade. In luxury apartments, there is little evidence of Black Out prior to 1980.9 Due to the dominance of black and white photography in pre-1970 trade magazines, such as Interior Design and Architectural Record, it is not improbable that Black Out spaces existed, but were simply not documented because they photographed poorly.

In his Philadelphia showroom for Knoll in 1975, interior designer Robin Jacobsen "opted for a more ‘severe' museum/gallery type of display" that was meant to "adopt a completely different approach" than was used wile designing any of Knoll's previous showrooms. The result was Black Out space with black walls, floors, plinths and a polished aluminum ceiling to reflect it all. The furniture on display, too, was black where it could be, and the neutral color of wood, glass or metal, where it could not be. The only color intrusion was the fabric center, where the bright colors of textiles arranged in chromatic order, popped out against black lacquered walls. Jacobsen stated, "By concentrating the color in the fabric center, we created a much stronger impact in the furniture displays where we used all natural finishes and materials."10 While black created a dramatic feeling of enclosure, the use of gallery-type plinths to display the product added to the Knoll showroom's level of severity.

In 1976 designer Marcel Bretos created a Black Out showroom for Brinton's Carpet, partially because "we wanted to feature the carpets, not the space". The other reason black was chosen was to entice visitors into the showroom. To achieve this, the floor and all the walls were covered with black carpet. From the entryway, a colorful, carefully ordered display of yarns was the only visual cue to what lay around the corner in the main showroom. The bright colors popped against the dark walls, ensuring the patrons would see it. In the showroom itself, the carpets were carefully laid out in several groupings arranged around the perimeter of the room. The Black Out space created contrast with the intensely colored carpets, each display illuminated by its own recessed spotlight- the only lighting in that display area- creating a dramatic view of the products. The effect was that the shell of the space was almost unnoticeable. Instead, all focus was on the carpets, exactly as Bretos had intended. Interestingly, all-black space appears to be an Intype that Bretos would return to several years after the Brintons showroom was designed; he would later design of a luxury apartment in Manhattan, which also utilized the Black Out Intype.11

The Decade of 1980

The 1980s saw the highest number of Black Out spaces. While in earlier and later decades it was common to see several examples of Black Out showrooms in a ten-year span, the 1980 decade saw the number of published Black Out showrooms jump to several per year. It is unclear why this Intype enjoyed such popularity during this decade, but it is clear that the use of Black Out in showrooms adopted a more nuanced expression during this time period. In the 1970s the textures and tones of materials were often the same as the space, but in the 1980s era, Black Out spaces became more varied. 

The 1980 Brueton showroom in New York's D&D Building used light to play off the black surfaces. The dark color was chosen to make the showroom stand out "as a beacon of visual distinction." Specifically, this was achieved by contrasting the Black Out space with artificial lighting to create a "limelight" effect. The black walls, floor and ceiling erased the "institutional bareness" of the space, while drama was created through the use of mirrors and blue lighting. Designer Stanley Jay Friedman employed the strips of blue neon lights to visually unite the long entry way and the showroom proper. A halo of incandescent and fluorescent lights made the central plinth seem to float in the center of the room, while the blue glow created a "magic mood."12 In this installation, the use of the Black Out Intype and theatrical lighting created a dramatic atmosphere, which was intended to pair with the luxurious feel of Brueton's furniture pieces, displaying them as if they were setting on a stage. Additionally, the neutral background of the black allows the various furniture pieces (all comprised of rich materials in an array of different colors) to coexist without becoming visually overwhelming in the space.

In its 1988 Chicago showroom for Bernhardt, Vanderbyl Design added new materials to offset the Black Out space they created. In creating an all lack showroom, Vanderbyl aimed to achieve two things: first, they wanted to create a more theatrical image for this particular showroom. Second, they wanted to create a neutral background, against which the company's "rather eclectic" line of seating and casegoods could be displayed.  To further enhance the drama of the showroom, tall obelisks finished with a veneer of the exotic hardwood anigre punctuated the space. The obelisks, arranged in an allée that drew the eye to the company's logo on the rear wall, emphasized the woodworking and finishing capabilities of the manufacturer.13 Both the pieces of furniture and the wooden obelisks stood out in stark relief against the black background. The effect was exaggerated by the use of Hotspot14 (Intype) to spotlight the furniture in the darkened showroom. In this instance, Black Out set the dramatic mood, while the visually dominating obelisks provided a fantastical element.

Decade of 1990

The decade of 1990 saw a sharp decline in the number of Black Out showrooms. Whether designers simply got bored of the Intype, or if the trade magazines decided they'd published more than enough black spaces, is unknown. However, the decline of Black Out showrooms is almost certainly a reaction to the popularity the Intype enjoyed during the 1970 and 1980 decades. When Black Out did surface in showrooms, it did so in a manner that hadn't been seen before. The sole use of Black Out all but disappeared in favor of pairing Black Out with White Box or White Out. The 1990 Manhattan showroom for bathroom fixture manufacturer American Standard was one of the first to introduce the pairing of Black Out and White Box. In designing the large 5000-square foot space, Tigerman McCurry Architects were asked to display the "entire 145-strong product array from six major diverse buying groups" and  "to do so in a manner appealing to diverse buying groups".15 Their solution divided the space into a series of twenty-four smaller ten-foot by ten-foot "exhibit cubes", each one alternating between Black Out and White Box. In the White Box spaces, the product was displayed in traditional bathroom vignettes, while in the Black Out cubes the product was mounted to the wall. In this installation, the use of black signaled the untraditional and unusual.

After a dearth of Black Out showrooms in the 1990s, designers slowly began to utilize the Intype once more. For the 2000 Paris World Car show, German architects Kauffman Theilig & Partner created a Black Out showroom for the famous automobile manufacturer Mercedes Benz. The display of cars was centered on a large Plinth in the middle of the showroom, with spotlights highlighting the automobiles against the dark background. The main focus of the showroom, however, was the large spiraling ramp surrounded by the sculpted metal shell near the middle of the Plinth. On it, silver colored versions of the newest models were placed.16 The drama of the display ensured that all visitors noticed these newest models before the other, less prominently displayed cars, which were shown in colors other than silver. In this installation, the use of black neutralized the other architectural elements in the space, making the spiral ramp stand out as much as possible. The creation of such a neutral background also ensured that the more chaotic cage element of the ramp display did not visually overwhelm the space. Instead, just enough focus was created, so that visitors would be drawn to the exhibit of new automobiles.

The Decade of 2000

The Soho showroom of Italian kitchen and bath manufacturer Boffi revisited the idea explored in the 1990 American Standard showroom- namely the strategy of pairing a Black Out space with another color-based Intype. In this case, the Black White17 Intype was used. The showroom, originally designed in 2000 by Piero Lissoni, was divided into two levels. As of a site visit in March 2011, the ground-floor level was a Black Out space, with all the walls, ceiling, floor and some millwork painted the same shade of matte black. A few products such a refrigerator units, shelves and chairs were displayed in white so that they stood out against the darkness. On the lower level of the showroom, however, the use of black was not so complete. Though the ceiling and structural columns had been painted the same shade of black as the floor above, the walls were a pale concrete and the floor was painted bright white, lightening the space. Here too, were a wider array of white colored products- bathroom fixtures mostly, contrasting with the kitchen-themed upper floor.18 Upstairs, the dark shade was used to emphasize the minimalist and streamlined design of the wares, as they blended seamlessly into the space. Downstairs however, that same strategy wouldn't have worked. Most of the items on display were only available in white or a lighter color, and were composed of more fluid, organic shapes. In this particular area, the white played the same role the black did on the upper floor: it emphasized the simplicity of the objects on display.

The Decade of 2010

In 2010, the Minotti showroom interpreted its Black Out space similarly to the American Standard showroom in 1990. In this case, the black Minotti showroom was paired with the white DDC Domus Design Collection to which it was connected. Although the two showrooms shared physical space and had the same owner, they were designed by different people. Rodolfo Dordoni, a Minotti furnishings designer, made the decision to make the Minotti showroom black. In this case, Black Out was chosen to create a "distinct identity" from the DDC showroom next door. "We've been calling them yin and yang," explained DDC partner Babak Hakakian.19 Because of this the moods of the two showrooms differed greatly. While the DDC showroom was open, airy and almost museum-like in aesthetic, the black Minotti showroom was more mysteriously striking and kinetic. The use of high-gloss black paint in the space caught slivers of movement from patrons, reflecting them like a dark mirror. The effect was a showroom that felt bolder and more theatrical than its more traditional next-door neighbor. 

Although Black Out showrooms seem to be making a comeback, it is unlikely that they will ever regain the popularity they had in during the decade of 1980. It will also be interesting to note whether the trend of pairing all-black spaces with White Out or White Box spaces continues, or if they return to the purer incarnations of the Intype as in the decades of 1970 and 1980. It is likely, however that Black Out will remain a staple Intype among those who design showrooms.20

end notes

  1. 1) 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. The Interior Archetypes Research and Teaching Project, Cornell University, (accessed Oct. 10, 2011.
  2. 2) Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (Brazil: Body and Soul)  [2002] Frank Lloyd Wright, architect; Jean Nouvel, exhibition designer; New York City in David Dernie, Exhibition Design (London: Laurence King Publishing Ltd, 2006): 142-145; PhotoCrd: David Heald (The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York).
  3. 3) The Intype Specimen describes a display strategy in which items are arranged in a taxonomic array. The Interior Archetypes Research and Teaching Project, Cornell University, (accessed Oct. 10, 2011).
  4. 4) Patricia Sloane, The Visual Nature of Color (New York: Design Press, 1989), 88-89.
  5. 5) Frank H. Mahnke, Color, Envrionment and Human Response (New York: Nostrand Reinhold, 1996), 56-70.
  6. 6) Sloane, The Visual Nature of Color, 120; Mahnke, Color, Envrionment, 16.
  7. 7) Mahnke, Color, Envrionment, 56-70; Jean-Philippe Lenclos and Dominique Lenclos, Colors of the World (New York: Norton, 2004), 33.
  8. 8) Steven Bleicher, Contemporary Color: Theory & Use (Clifton Park: Thomson/Delmar Learning, 2005), 70; Bleicher, Contemporary Color, 38.
  9. 9) Najung Kim, "Theory Studies: Archetypical Practices of Contemporary Luxury Apartment Design" (M.A. Thesis, Cornell University, 2009), 26-33; The Interior Archetypes Research and Teaching Project, Cornell University, (accessed Oct. 11, 2011).
  10. 10) Anonymous, "Knoll's Philadelphia Showroom," Interior Design 46, no. 1 (Jan. 1980): 102-105; "Knoll's Philadelphia Showroom," 102-105.
  11. 11) Brintons Carpet [1976] Marcel Bretos, interior design; Los Angeles, CA in Anonymous, "Brintons," Interior Design 47, no. 4 (Apr. 1976): 150-53; PhotoCrd: Leland Lee; Private Apartment [1980] Marcel Bretos; New York City in Edie Lee Cohen, "View from Fifth Avenues," Interior Design 51, no. 7 (July 1980): 202-05; PhotoCrd: Jaime Ardiles-Arce.
  12. 12) Brueton Showroom [1980] Stanley Jay Friedman, interior design; New York City in Anonymous, "Black Magic," Interior Design 51, no. 2 (Feb. 1980): 251; PhotoCrd: Peter Paige.
  13. 13) Bernhardt Showroom [1988] Vanderbyl Design; Chicago, IL in Judith Nasatir, "Bernhardt," Interior Design 59, no. 16 (Dec. 1988): 188-91; PhotoCrd: Elliott Kaufman.
  14. 14) The Intype Hotspot is an isolated pool of bright downlight that operates in contrast to its surroundings. Hotspot encourages a pause in movement and collection around or within it. It is achieved with a single spot light or a single fixture on a light track. The Intypes Research and Teaching Project, (accessed Oct. 11, 2011).
  15. 15) American Standard [1990] Tigerman McCurry Architects; New York City in Monica Geran, "American Standard," Interior Design 61, no. 12 (Sep. 1990): 240; PhotoCrd: Timothy Hursley.
  16. 16) Mondial De L'Automobile (Mercedes Benz)  [2000] Kauffmann Theilig & Partner, architect; Paris, France in Antonello Boschi, Showroom (Milan: Frederico Motta Editore SpA, 2001): 210-17; PhotoCrd: Andreas Keller.
  17. 17) The Black White Intype describes an interior space that is limited to a black white palette for the floor, wall, ceiling planes and for furnishings. Rachel Goldfarb, "Theory Studies: Archetypical Practices of Contemporary Resort and Spa Design" (M.A. Thesis, Cornell University, 2008), 45-51; Jasmin Cho, "Theory Studies: Archetypical Practices of Contemporary Restaurant Design," (MA Thesis, Cornell University, 2009), 18-26; The Intypes Research and Teaching Project, (accessed Oct. 11, 2011).
  18. 18) Boffi Showroom  [2000] Piero Lissoni, architect; New York City; Site Visit, Courtney Cheng, 25 Mar. 2011; PhotoCrd: Miho Aikawa.
  19. 19) Minotti Showroom [2010] Dordoni Architetti, architect, New York City in Craig Kellogg, "Double Vision," Interior Design 81, no. 11 (Sep. 2010): 88; PhotoCrd: Eric Laignel.
  20. 20) Evidence for the archetypical use and the chronological sequence of Black Out in the showroom practice type was developed from site visits and the following published sources: 1970 Knoll International [1975] Robin Jacobsen, interior design; Philadelphia, PA in Anonymous, "Knoll's Philadelphia Showroom," Interior Design 46, no. 1 (Jan. 1975): 104; PhotoCrd: Jaime Ardiles-Arce; / Brintons Carpet [1976] Marcel Bretos, interior design; Los Angeles, CA in Anonymous, "Brintons," Interior Design 47, no. 4 (Apr. 1976): 151; PhotoCrd: Leland Lee / 1980 Brueton Showroom [1980] Stanley Jay Friedman, interior design; New York City in Anonymous, "Black Magic," Interior Design 51, no. 2 (Feb. 1980): 251; PhotoCrd: Peter Paige; / Bernhardt Showroom [1988] Vanderbyl Design; Chicago, IL in Judith Nasatir, "Bernhardt," Interior Design 59, no. 16 (Dec. 1988): 190, 191; PhotoCrd: Elliott Kaufman / 1990 American Standard [1990] Tigerman McCurry Architects; New York City in Monica Geran, "American Standard," Interior Design 61, no. 12 (Sep. 1990): 240; PhotoCrd: Timothy Hursley / 2000 Mondial De L'Automobile (Mercedes Benz)  [2000] Kauffmann Theilig & Partner, architect; Paris, France in Antonello Boschi, Showroom (Milan: Frederico Motta Editore SpA, 2001): 212 & 213; PhotoCrd: Andreas Keller; Boffi Showroom  [2000] Piero Lissoni, architect; New York City; Site Visit, Courtney Cheng, 25 Mar. 2011; PhotoCrd: Gianluca Fellini / 2010 Minotti Showroom [2010] Dordoni Architetti, architect, New York City in Craig Kellogg, "Double Vision," Interior Design 81, no. 11 (Sep. 2010): 88; PhotoCrd: Eric Laignel.

bibliographic citations

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

2) Courtney Cheng, "Theory Studies: Archetypical Showroom Practices in Contemporary Interior Design" (M.A. Thesis, Cornell University, 2012), 70-90.