7 lessons Sonia Delaunay taught us about colour and design

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  • Tate Modern is running a major retrospective of the work of multi-talented artist, fashion designer, interior designer and colour theorist Sonia Delaunay. We look at how her ideas are still just as relevant to designers today as they were at the turn of the last century

    Sonia Delaunay was the very definition of a polymath. Born in Russia in 1885, she moved to Paris in 1906 and went on to become one of the most pioneering and versatile creative forces of the 20th century.

    Although she began her career as an artist, she went on to work as a fashion designer – making everything from umbrellas to clothes for Hollywood stars – a boutique owner, a furniture and textile designer, and a set and costume designer for theatre, film and ballet.


    Although Delaunay died almost 36 years ago, her work still feels surprisingly contemporary and there are plenty of valuable lessons interior design enthusiasts can glean from her ideas.

    1) Play with shape, pattern and tone

    Breaking down everyday objects into their most basic forms and hues allows you see more clearly how the colours and shapes interact.

    Together with her husband, Robert Delaunay, Sonia developed the concept of Simultanism, creating abstract compositions made up of dynamic contrasting colours and shapes.

    Applying their principles can be a handy tool in interior design. If you’re struggling to work out whether a scheme holds together or not, take a step back and imagine everything in the room as simple block shapes and colours. Doing this should quickly help you see what’s working and what isn’t.

    2) Be bold with colour

    When it comes to colour saturation, more is most definitely more in Delaunay’s work.

    Follow her lead and work vivid hues into your design scheme by colour blocking walls or off-setting brightly-coloured furniture and ornaments against a clean, white backdrop.

    3) Combine colours to maximise their effect

    Inspired by the 19th-century chemist Michel-Eugene Chevreul, the Delaunays studied how the perception of colours seems to change when they are placed alongside one another.

    Sonia Delaunay applied this theory across her work, from her paintings to her textile designs.

    Take a look at how the orangey red of this fabric pops out extra brightly thanks to the colours it’s been teamed with.

    4) Black is an expressive colour in its own right

    Black is often thought of as the absence of colour, but Delaunay was an advocate of the power of black to evoke emotions just as strongly as any other colour. She also used it to make bright colours appear even brighter in contrast.

    In interior design terms, black can create a sense of solidity and security at one end of the spectrum, and oppressiveness at the other, so deploy it carefully.

    Adding a few black accents to a scheme can really ground the look, as well as guiding the eye around the room and helping to showcase other colours in the scheme.

    5) Draw inspiration from your surroundings

    Sonia Delaunay began her career during an era of rapid change, witnessing the dawn of electricity and exciting new forms of music and dance, which she captured in her paintings.

    If you’re struggling for inspiration, taking a look at the world around you is often a good place to start, whether it’s stealing a specific shade of green from a tree in your garden or mirroring the shapes of the urban landscape in the artworks you choose.

    6) Interior design should be pretty and practical in equal measures

    After the Second World War, Delaunay joined Groupe Espace, a collective of artists and architects who aimed to integrate art with every element of daily life.

    One of the most important projects she worked on during this time was to design furniture for the students at the Cité Internationale Universite in Paris.

    Her designs were the perfect combination of function and aesthetics, the highlight being a sleek, colour-blocked bookcase which would not look out of place in a contemporary home office or living room.

    7) Don’t be afraid to try the unexpected

    Delaunay was nothing if not brave. From early on in her career, her works surprised and even shocked viewers with their unexpected colour choices – the yellow and green-tinged skin of her 1908 Yellow Nude is a case in point.

    The design lesson we can learn from this? If you think something works, go with your gut, even if other people think you’re a bit strange!

    If you’d like to be inspired by Sonia Delaunay’s creations in person, Tate Modern is running a superb retrospective of her work until 9 August, featuring many of her finest paintings, fabrics, clothes, furniture, films and more.

    Liked this? Check out these timeless decorating tips from the late, great William Morris

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