A Playdate With Color: Artist Gretchen Wagner Turns Bentley Mills’ Dye Lab Into Her Playground

The following post is brought to you by Bentley Mills. Our partners are hand-picked by the Design Milk team because they represent the best in design.

Color, and the exploration of color, can be a tricky concept whether you’re a seasoned designer or an aspiring artist. It’s because colors are not stagnant objects but dynamic forces that interact with one another, drawing out emotional and biological responses from the people who perceive them. At Bentley Mills (Bentley), a leading name in flooring and carpet manufacturing, color plays the utmost important role in the company’s portfolio of innovative flooring products, which can be found in high-profile places like UCLA’s Anderson School of Management and Uber Technologies Inc.’s headquarters. For more than 40 years, the Los Angeles-based company has been a color innovator, investing in the technology and talent that helps bring carpet products – and projects – to life. Indeed, understanding color intimately is the key to exploring the possible ways color can be created and experienced in real life as a tangible object, which is why Bentley invited multi-disciplinary artist Gretchen Wagner to its Dye Lab. Together on this collaborative playdate, Gretchen and Bentley explored the limitless world of color, as well as the role and intersection of designer and artist in carpet manufacturing.

As a colorist and university-trained artist, Gretchen’s approach to color is rooted in theory. “I like to explore the connection and interaction between colors. These relationships vary based on the colors selected in a given pairing, for example whether they are complementary or analogous,” she shares. This is why you typically feel calmer in a room with soothing blue tones but can sense a shift in energy when you add contrasting red elements to it. It’s also why it can be so hard to describe – let alone create – the perfect color you need. However, at Bentley’s Dye Lab, the limit does not exist when it comes to color, thanks to Colorcast, the company’s proprietary tool for matching color from any source including paint chips and fabric swatches. This tool proved helpful in Gretchen’s understanding of Bentley’s manufacturing process.

Before the playdate, Gretchen deconstructed swatch materials in order to analyze yarn placement and learn how color was conveyed throughout the product. She came to understand the relationship and relativity of color in carpeting. “Within a particular construction, there is the color of the individual yarns and then there is the perceived color of the product produced by the effects of optical mixing. It was from this context that I started to consider the relativity of color. The subtle differences between value and saturation in relationship to their adjacent neighbors became the basis for the color experiments that we conducted in Bentley’s Dye Lab.”

Gretchen preselected 18 colors (12 bases, 6 potential accents) prior to arriving at the lab. Once there, the team got to work dyeing the 72 possible options, which is no small feat given the nature of the process.

The Dye Lab became a playground for Gretchen and Bentley’s talent team of in-house product designers/developers and color experts, including Tiffany Nyrkkanen, who leads the Dye Lab and has worked in the business of dyeing commercial carpet for nearly 40 years. On an average day in the Dye Lab, a color target is provided and the team references existing products and previous custom samples to create a first attempt. From there, the first recipe is measured, dyed, dried and reviewed for color accuracy. These recipes are tweaked by the standard red, yellow, blue primaries in micro amounts until a perfect match is found.”

Tiffany explains, “Historically, dyeing is how carpet was colored for centuries. Solution dyeing was introduced relatively recently as a way to simplify the process, with the obvious benefit of making colorwork more consistent. However, the ability to achieve any desired color was lost in the shift to solution dyed yarns. Bentley’s approach to custom coloring and our Colorcast technology makes it possible. We’re one of the last remaining commercial carpet manufacturers to offer piece dyed carpet.”

The 3-day long lab exploration was full of play and experimentation in color and, in the end, both parties walked away with new ideas and key learnings, not only about color but also about the pivotal partnership between maker and designer. “There are limited opportunities for designers to access products that are so precisely colored to their specification. Creating color that exactly aligns to their vision is truly unique in our industry,” says Tiffany. For Bentley, Gretchen’s background as a designer, and her knowledge of and processes in color theory helped provide new understandings about the intersection of colors and their effects on each other to create unique and modern carpeting.

For Gretchen, the behind-the-scenes look into the Dye Lab and Bentley’s Colorcast technology was an invaluable experience that gave her insight into carpet-making. “Apart from my complete fascination with every aspect of the dyeing process, I was most struck by the way the dyes were mixed for each bath. For example, in painting you mix one color, apply and then mix a second. Because each yarn has a unique chemistry, both mixtures are added to the bath at the same time, resulting in different dyes attracting to different yarns based on compatible chemistry. It was fascinating!”

Gretchen is already at work applying her new learnings to her studio practice. She’s integrating printmaking into her creative process as a method for “visualizing the impact and relativity of certain color combinations,” she says. And at Bentley, new Colorcast products are underway, as is the continuation of the company’s collaboration with Gretchen, as they delve deeper into the endless possibilities for imagining and creating color.

For more information about Bentley’s approach to color and its portfolio of Colorcast carpet, visit BentleyMills.com.