Empowering orange

Orange comes to Austria

Orange is an unusual color. It is created by combining red and yellow, and possesses the symbolic connotations of both. Orange is cheerful and carefree like yellow, but also dynamic and eye-catching like red. It signals pleasure, warmth and conviviality. But due caution is needed: depending on the relative proportions of its base colors, orange can cause disquiet (if it contains more yellow than red) or convey danger (if red is predominant). This might explain why orange is among the least popular shades of the color spectrum, at least according to various psychological surveys.

(Image: Gebrüder Weiss)

A further explanation is that orange – alongside brown – was the ultimate trend color during the democratic 1970s. Attributes like modern and cheap, which are often ascribed to it, may well derive from this period, when it was not only a top choice for wallpaper and bellbottoms, but also for home utensils and other plastic accessories. The fashion may have faded but the symbolism has survived. Because, as with other cognitive processes, the associations evoked by colors stem above all from our personal habits and experiences. Colors effectively become attached to these, and subsequently produce a specific response in the brain that derives from them. For this reason, our perceptions of colors are always subjective and vary around the globe.

In Asia, orange sparks very positive associations. In Buddhism it represents the supreme state of awakening or enlightenment. Buddhist monks wear orange gowns, and by convention Chinese civil servants wore the color too. In yoga and traditional Chinese medicine, orange represents one of the human body's energy centers.

By contrast, in the Western world there was no color orange until the fruit of the same name was popularized. For centuries Europeans only found pure and natural colors aesthetic. For this reason, orange does not feature in the clothing or symbolism of medieval paintings, while its use in insignia and coats of arms was expressly prohibited.

It wasn't until the fifteenth century that the juicy citrus fruit we know today found its way from India to Portugal, and people appropriated its name for the color: iaranja in Portuguese or naranja in Spain, both of them derived from the Arabic word narang. As it spread northwards, the fruit was embellished with the prefix or – the French word for gold. And in every language around the world, the color orange is still named for the fruit.

As oranges grew in popularity, their coloring slowly acquired a fanbase. In his 1810 treatise on the theory of color, the German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe still refers to yellowish-red or reddish-yellow, but he does attribute an "elevating effect on the mind" to it.

Gebrüder Weiss began operating transportation services as long ago as 1474, shortly after the first oranges had reached the shores of Europe. But its corporate color has not always been orange. Until the 1930s, when the family-owned company was still based in Bregenz, its vehicles were finished in subdued shades. This was standard practice at the time. Then, as a fleet manager Josef Schwerzler recounted decades later, an urgent customer order came in. But there were no trucks available. One was just being repainted and, while the rust-proofing had been applied, it was still waiting for its gray topcoat. The half-painted truck was driven straight out onto the forecourt for loading. And, as chance would have it, the managing partner Ferdinand Weiss caught sight of the orange finish and immediately recognized its potential for branding and advertising. Since that day, half a century before the color became fashionable on the road, Gebrüder Weiss vehicles have been painted orange. Back in the 1930s, Ferdinand Weiss could scarcely have envisaged the positive impact the color would have for his company in the Far East.

The history of Gebrüder Weiss underscores yet again that the symbolism of colors is deeply rooted in our subconscious and cannot be properly explained with rational arguments. Chromotherapy – personal therapy using colors – is presumably based on this same hypothesis: practitioners of this alternative medicine believe that orange boosts our immune systems. Who knows? Perhaps the positive effects of eating oranges are not confined to the vitamin C they contain, but to the invigorating color of their peels as well.

Imke Borchers is a literary scholar and editor for the Atlas.

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