Natural light has long played a major role in Danish architecture and interior design, but colours play at least as big a role, if you are to believe the colour researcher Karl Ryberg, a professional architect and psychologist.

He studies photobiology, i.e. the effect of colours and light on animals and humans.

“Light and colours affect nearly everything in the biological world: animals, plants, insects and humans. We all react to light and colours.”

Karl Ryberg compares animals’ and humans’ decoding of colours with computer software. It is colours that tell our eyes and brain what we should pay attention to.

“Colours say something, in the same way as flowers attract insects. They signal the presence of something exciting and important. The brain ‘consumes’ this information and utilises it. This applies to nearly all animals that live in daylight,” Karl Ryberg explains.

Generally, nature’s colours are important, as it is in the natural world that we humans have learnt to interpret and understand individual colours.

Karl Ryberg explains that nature uses four signalling colours, which form the basis of our colour perception.

“The oldest two colours are yellow and blue. Yellow is often associated with the sun, and it tells the brain it’s daytime. When yellow predominates, we are awake, talk more and are more mentally active. We read more quickly on yellow paper and we communicate more,” says Karl Ryberg.

“In opposition to this is the colour of the night: blue, and in particular dark blue. The twilight induces you to fall asleep, as it tells the brain it’s time for rest. It exerts a calming, non-stimulating influence, making us associate it with stability and conservatism, which is why politicians and others use it to create a feeling of reliability.”

The development of colour spectra can be followed over the course of evolution. Simple animals such as snakes can only differentiate between night and day, whilst mammals often have a developed sense of vision, but lack colours such as green and red. Finally, there are the developed species such as apes and humans, who have developed a colour spectrum that includes green and red.

“In the biological world, red is the most important colour, as it signifies blood. Red stimulates physical activity and is thus often used for war and sport.

Red’s complementary colour is green – the colour of leaves. It is healthy, safe and calm. Green is never dangerous, and it is often used for rescue operations, hospitals and pharmacies. And we should not forget that humans used to be forest-dwelling animals, thus our eyes work best in a green context,” says Karl Ryberg.

The four signalling colours can be arranged in a colour compass, which can be used as a tool for the selection of colours for interior design, so that the colours better serve the function of the room in question.

Karl Ryberg is disappointed with architects who allow fashion and trends to govern choices of colour, as waves of fashion tend to overshadow the colours’ functions.

“The first step is to learn more about biology. Architects need to study this area so they can get away from ‘thinking something’s smart’ or from the idea of something ‘being modern’. This is not, after all, a functional approach.

“It’s equivalent to modern chefs deciding not to use vitamins in their food, even if this makes the guests ill. You have to use vitamins, even if you don’t think they’re modern, as they serve a function – just like furniture that has to be ergonomic in accordance with specific objectives. Not because it looks nice, but because it serves a function.”

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