The popularity of black and to a lesser extent white seems to have started in the fashion sector and then moved to automobiles and interior decoration. But consumers now tend to abandon colors as quickly as they adopt them so exactly how long this latest new preference will last is uncertain.
Like elsewhere in the world, Europe's coatings sector is having to keep in closer touch with the current color trends. Coatings companies can no longer assume that an attachment for particular colors will last for long.
Nor do the traditional sources of influence on selection of colors play the same role as they have done in the past. Fashion in clothes has usually been a key factor in determining choice of colors. Now other segments of every day life can exercise power over tastes for colors as well.
"It is no longer the case, for example, that colors in interior decoration will follow those which are popular in the fashion world," said Eija Kargalainen, color designer at CPS Color of Finland, a leading supplier of advanced tinting systems. "It can be the other way round, with interior design being the main influence. The world has become so hectic and fast moving that changes in color preferences are now taking place much more quickly."
Although the pace of change has accelerated, consumers' liking for different colors, as well as their strength, depth and shades, is still moving in cycles. Below the rapid switch to and from specific colors, there are underlying tendencies, often reflecting social, economic, political and technological developments.
"Color preferences in interior decoration are obviously continuing to be more long lasting than those in fashion and as a result are an indicator of more durable influences," said Kargalainen.
The popularity of black and white has been conspicuous in the automobile market in Europe, which still has a major impact on colors in other sectors. In its latest Global Automotive Color Popularity Report, issued at the end of last year, DuPont stated that black is "resoundingly the most popular color" in Europe.
Black gained a 25% share last year to become the number one color in the region's auto market in place of silver, according to DuPont. It had a clear lead in every automobile segment, except that for multi-purpose vehicles (MPVs).
As in other parts of the world, like North America and Japan, white has also been gaining in popularity in the European car and other markets. SEAT of Spain, part of the Volkswagen group, has found that white is the "must-have" color for the more discerning drivers who want to be seen as stylish. To meet the desire for black as well, the car company is also providing black alloy wheels with the white version of its Leon model.
"Black and white patterns have become evident across a range of sectors," said one color forecaster. "The contrast between the two is dramatic but it is also a classical style which shows both sophistication and an underlying need for security and safety."
At the same time Europeans are showing a growing predilection for basic colors. Red has increased its share in the auto market.
However across many sectors, the biggest surge has been that for green and blue, which is regarded as evidence of an increasing concern for the environment.
"One of the main trends is currently the environment and sustainability, hence the popularity of natural materials, such as wood and the demand for environmentally acceptable processes," explained Le Vin Chin, a color trends specialist at Ciba Specialty Chemicals and editor-in-chief of its color design website www.xymara.com.
The debate on climate change and anxieties about environmental issues, many of them stemming from global warming, is beginning to have a big effect on color trends in automobiles and other key markets. "Ecology has become the trendsetter of the future and in a number of areas has brought about a complete shift in thinking," said Michaela Finkenzeller and Mark Gutjahr, BASF Coatings' color designers for Europe.
Green is almost being transformed into a staple color used in almost every type of product, as well as in broad areas such as architectural coatings. "Because the environment is now at the forefront of the consciousness of so many people, green is becoming the new black in the sense that it is being used as the base for a wide range of shades," said Kargalainen.
The scope of colors is being expanded through the application of effect pigments based on metallic, pearlescent and silica materials, often coated with titanium dioxide and other oxides.
"There is a strong desire today for things that are novel and different," said Le Vin. "Effects play a very important role as they can be used to add a wide variety of different touches, including transparency, glitter, shine and shimmers, texturing, color travel and flop. They can be applied as required, for example, in combinations or without color."
With the development of technologies for modifying the optical properties of effect pigment materials, they are now much more responsive to the current preferences of specific groups of consumers.
"Glitter is, for example, regarded by some people as being a sign of cheapness," said one color analyst. "But nanotechnology can help to reduce the size of the pigment particles so that they have a softer shine and more of a mirror-like appearance."
Effect pigments are also been used in greater quantities in decorative paints and on the surfaces of household products. Consequently luminescent, fluorescent and other effect coatings are now more common inside the home.
In its latest report on color trends for the spring and summer of this year Rohm and Haas predicts a revival of glossy household surfaces with strong colors. "Yellow is making a big fashion comeback in a bold and fluorescent shade," the report stated. "The new yellow is bright and vibrant."
The company believes that European consumers are becoming much more knowledgeable about color. "This makes them more confident about their choice of colors," said Edward Appleton, Rohm and Haas' market research and communications manager in Europe. "One of the reasons for this is that women have a greater influence on the selection of colors not only for coatings and products inside the home but also outside it, such as when purchasing a car."
Another key factor is that color helps people demonstrate their individuality. "In our forecasts for the summer of 2009 we're predicting that people will be wanting even more color," said Kargalainen. "That's partly because of a reaction against the current liking for blacks and whites but also because colors enable people to express themselves."