Danish colour and textile designer Margrethe Odgaard, a self-proclaimed ‘colour hunter’, talks about cultural identity; the intricacies of hues, tints and shades; and the colour of her ultimate white whale.

When Copenhagen-based colour and textile designer Margrethe Odgaard heads to her studio for a day of work, she makes sure to wear a white frock and neutral colours. She’s learned the hard way that donning anything brighter is too risky – her relationship to colour is so sensitive that if she were to wear a blue sweater or red blouse, she’d all of a sudden find those colours in the palette she creates throughout the day.

But make no mistake: Odgaard’s heightened awareness of colours is precisely what’s helped her cement a position as one of the world’s leaders in her field. The Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts and RISD graduate counts renowned design companies such as Kvadrat, Montana and Muuto among her clients. She’s exhibited at the Design Museum in Helsinki, Munkeruphus in Denmark and the Röhsska Museum in Gothenburg, just to name a few, and in 2019 she was named Denmark’s Designer of the Year.

What does it mean to be a colour designer?

MARGRETHE ODGAARD: My work is about nourishing the senses. To me, it isn’t really a question of colours themselves, but of light. I’m concerned with how light meets a surface and is absorbed and reflected, and then reaches the eye as colour and energy. I use textiles and materials to work with colour as the physical manifestation of light on a surface.

I feel that the idea of textiles and environments physically nourishing people is a particularly Danish sentiment. It reflects the sensitivity we have here for how design and objects make us feel – the hygge element. To what extent is your care for colours and textiles shaped by your Scandinavian background?

My background has played an important role in cementing my design approach. I’ve lived in New York, Philadelphia, India and Paris, absorbing the way these different cultures perceive colour. Through those experiences, I came to acknowledge that we have a rather unique approach to colour in Denmark. We don’t just talk colour; we talk nuance. After all, we have so much indirect light here that part of our DNA is to consider light and shadow and the shift between them. We talk about gradients, and are much more trained in tints and shades than we are in hues. On the other hand, Mexican architect Luis Barragán uses bold brights – pink, turquoise, colours with high intensity. As much as we in our region admire those colours in his architecture, we aren’t able to look at them with the same sense of quality as we can at our tints and shades.

Top to bottom: To achieve her innovative melange method for the 2019 Atlas collection of upholstery textiles for Kvadrat, Odgaard used two different yarns – each of which combines two colours – in the warp and weft. Photo: Brian Buchard | Shades of Light, a book created in collaboration with A. Petersen, features 276 curated colours that represent the subtle nuances of Nordic light.

I read that you kept a colour diary while you were studying colour theory at RISD. What was the idea behind it?

I jotted down colour notes every day to train my colour muscle, so to speak. The first rule was that I couldn’t paint nature. I focused on colours in architecture and design because they result from human choices. The second rule was to collect colour combinations of three colours, which had to be in the same frame of vision; I couldn’t collect one colour from here and another from there. The third rule: I could only paint colours on site. So, I’d have the whole kit with me and make colour notations, which I would often later remake more neatly in my studio.

I learned that colour and cultural identity can’t easily be transferred. It’s like it’s in your DNA

I was trying to understand the relationship between colour and cultural identity, and learned that it can’t easily be transferred. It’s like it’s in your DNA. We have different approaches to what’s beautiful and which colour combinations have energy or not. When I get colour briefs from companies, they come from different cultures and represent different target audiences. The whole concept of trying to understand a cultural colour identity has been part of my wish to be able to create the best colours for any given culture and context.

What else did you discover about the relationship between colour and cultural identity?

Once again, it’s about light – and even about the weather. Let’s take Iceland as an example. There, many days are grey, rainy and windy, thus the colour scheme is mostly very muted. And then, suddenly, you’ll turn a corner in Reykjavik and see a house painted magenta or cyan or lime or mint. It’s colour craziness in the middle of a subdued environment. Eventually, I realized that the colour scheme reflects the mentality of volcanoes. Icelandic people know that at any given moment, the weather could turn crazy. Their nature is unreliable, so the colour scheme is unreliable, too.

Top to bottom: Rooted in the mind-body connection, Odgaard’s palette of 30 lacquer colours for Montana relates to sensory perception and tactility. Photo: Yellows studio | In 2019 Odgaard showcased her Panorama textile design for Kvadrat with a series of curtain compositions, choosing varied colour combinations to add ‘different sensory energies to the room’. Photo : David Stjernholm

What’s key to the colour design process?

Intention. The crazy thing about working with colours is that there are so many options. I usually say there are as many shades of colours as there are waves in the ocean. There isn’t really such a thing as a fixed colour: each colour changes with the light, just like waves transform. It’s in constant movement. Because of that, I feel like I’m a colour hunter. One second the magic of a colour is there, and the next it’s gone. But I’ve started to learn that the more precise I am in what I’m looking for, the higher the chances that I will actually find it. For example, I recently had to design a yellow colour for a client. I knew I didn’t want a chrome yellow, but that was basically it – I didn’t have a vision. I was struggling until one day, I discussed it with my assistant. She helped express that I was looking for the kind of yellow you’d get if the sun had poured through a window and embraced a shelving system – so much so that by the time it went away, the shelving had managed to capture the sun’s rays. I came up with the phrase ‘sun-kissed yellow’, and suddenly my mind was filled with an image and I was able to find the colour.

One second the magic of a colour is there, and the next it’s gone

You must have a vision and search with direction to be able to create a colour that has the energy you want. That’s the main lesson I learned over my 20 years of designing colour. And what’s really interesting is that I can’t deceive people. If I showed you the sun-kissed yellow and another one, beautiful but without a vision, you would choose the sun-kissed.

Would you say your fascination with colour comes more from a place of emotion or of curiosity?

Equal parts, I think, because the first answer would be that my fascination comes from the fact that I am sensitive to colours. I feel such deep satisfaction when I look at a beautiful colour. In a place like Morocco, I feel nourished: it’s the best word I can find for how my system perceives colour. This reaction makes me curious, and curiosity is a big part of my practice. So many of my projects derive from me trying to understand my reactions to colour and light in order to become a better designer and stimulate the right emotions.

You say you’re a colour hunter. Is there a colour you’ve been hunting that you can’t trap?

Blood red. Red is like the mother of colour. It’s the colour we are born from. It’s the queen of colour, partially because blood is such a big part of our body. We have a deep feeling of connection to this colour. I can’t create it, no matter how many times I’ve tried over the years. Tangibly, it comes down to one strange reason: it’s usually very beautiful when it’s wet, but when it dries, the beauty is gone. I’m still hunting.


This Influencer interview was originally featured in Frame 134. Get your copy here.