I Hear Design: The Rise of Millennial Pink

Aug. 13, 2018

Royce Epstein, a+d design director of Mohawk, discusses millennial pink with EiC Kadie Yale. Over the last several years, pink has made its way into the design industry—but why? Epstein and Yale discuss its origin story as a gender descriptor, why it’s so prevalent, and how long designers can expect it to stick around. 

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Kadie:   Welcome to the third episode of the interiors + sources podcast. I’m Kadie Yale, editor-in-chief of interiors + sources magazine and today we are with Royce Epstein, the A & D design director at Mohawk Industries.

And thank you so much for coming on and chatting with us today about the color pink.

Royce (pictured): Hi. How are you?

K: Good. How are you?

R: Good. Surviving the summer.

K: Yeah. So, we had – I thought this was so interesting because I personally love the color pink, but it seems like it’s been coming up more and more. And we had actually ended up chatting in the comments on somebody’s Instagram post regarding the color pink. And then the next day, my team started asking about the history of pink and why is pink, you know, one thing or another. And so, I thought it would be really cool just to talk about the hue and the theory.

And I know that you’ve been working on a presentation and some thoughts on this resurgence of the color pink. So, do you wanna just…

R: Yeah. First of all, I have an art history background and I studied art most of my life. So, I’ve always been surrounded by thoughts about color, and color theory and the psychology of color. And then when I became more interested in art history, then of course, the context of color, why is it important, you know, trends of color change all the time, not just based on cultural trends, but fashion trends, quick trends that have to do more with what’s happening in society today for example.

So, the discussion of pink, I find fascinating, has been really a touch-point that a lot of people have a lot of opinions on lately. Of course, it’s been tied to discussions of gender because pink, at least in this century has been associated with women and certainly girls and the lighter the shade, the younger the girl, right? So, pastels, especially light pink has always been associated with baby girls, for example, or toddlers.

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And things have been changing. I think that when different generations come together, especially in the workplace and everybody has a different context about things or ideas about color, this is when things get interesting. So, the term “millennial pink” has been brought up.

And I think a lot of people assume that the term “Millennial” has to do with Millennials. But I personally think that the use of the word “Millennial” has to do, not with Millennials, but the fact that this is the color that has reemerged in the time of the Millennium, meaning not during the 1900s, but in the 2000s let’s say.

K: And I love that idea because, yeah. I always – as soon as I saw the word “millennial pink,” I am one of those older Millennials who gets insulted every time Millennial’s brought up. So I was like, oh God. Again? Now we have to have a color? So, I love that idea that it’s not of a generation as much as an era.

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R: Correct. Correct. And so, that’s why I think context is always important, you know? I think we’re all quick to jump to conclusions about everything. And I think that’s because we live in this 24/7 media cycle and we’re being fed not just by the news, but now we have all this other stuff on the internet. Like Refinery29 and BuzzFeed and all this stuff that has all these articles that give people all kinds of ideas about what’s happening in culture.

And all of us make our own assumptions. But I do think that it’s important to think about history and where things fit in. And so, the color pink definitely has a history. I know we have talked about the colors – the pastel colors and pink and blue. And how they’re assigned to gender. Having been displayed in the Smithsonian, and how the Smithsonian has some commentary on that.

K: Yeah. So, for our listeners, we were kind of talking about this before we started recording. I read an article recently from the Smithsonian that talked about the history of pink. Why is it gendered? And really, they were talking about how in the turn of the 20th Century was when clothing started to become dyed more regularly. And it was cheap enough that you could dye a baby’s clothes. You know, anyone who has kids or has ever seen a child knows that it’s constantly covered in fluids. And so, the fact that…

R: We’ll call it mess.

K: Yeah. Just mess. So, the fact that it was cheap enough that you could dye these things that were obviously going to be ruined a million times. But at that time, blue was actually associated with little girls and pink was associated with boys.

And my background is in design background and theory. And during our – I had a course in popular culture and my professor brought up that fact that was because light blue was associated with the Virgin Mary and pink was just a watered-down red, which was like blood and victory and all of these masculine-type of ideals at that time.

But in the 1930s, according to the Smithsonian, it looks like it was probably just advertiser error that they kind of got switched. And as anyone knows, media follows media, so it just started taking off in the 1930s, 1940s that pink was for girls and blue was for boys. And there’s apparently no reason beyond just advertiser error at that time.

But it does have this connotation of gender. And especially pink has become so gendered. And what I think is interesting about this history also is – Royce, when did you start to notice this, it’s like a blush or – when did you start to notice that coming back? Especially in the design industry?

R: Yeah. I think probably about five or six years ago. I’m very lucky in that part of my job I get to go to places like the Milan Furniture Fair to do research, especially see what color trends are, material trends, texture trends, pattern trends, things like that. And so, we first started seeing it really in textiles, like Kvadrat, companies like that who sell textiles and Harem distributes in here in the US.

And I think that was the first time a lot of commercial A & D designers started to see this blush color tone. Or I’m gonna call it millennial pink just because I’m comfortable calling it that. And again, this is not having anything to do with Millennials. Again, referencing this is a color that is popular in the 2000s.

Millennial pink – people are more comfortable seeing it in interiors now I think because we see it in soft goods, like textiles, like drapery. It’s certainly moved to wallcovering. I think it’s harder to put on the floor. And I do work in the flooring industry. You know, flooring materials tend to be in place in a building longer than soft goods, like textiles and things that get changed out more frequently.

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Certainly paint, you know, we do paint is easily changeable, so we certainly see the pinks having a revival in wall treatments and paint colors. But really, I started seeing it on the trade show scene I would say. And I do a lot of the research at Mohawk for where the trends are headed, especially as culture is shaping them. And for me, it really seemed like this was happening for a very specific reason. And that’s because over the last five years, you know, we’ve been living in the digital age now for about 20 years.

But it really hasn’t been until the last five years or so that we started to really live in this crazy cycle of being dominated by our smartphones. And part of it has to do with technology. And it’s gonna even get worse because now 5G is coming. So, with 5G coming, that means all of our cell phones are going to have faster service. And the internet can load faster. And then commerce will become more pervasive on all of our phones.

So, we’re moving in this direction of like literally living in the palm of our hand and on-demand society. And that’s something that has slowly happened over the last 20 years. But over the last five years, has accelerated greatly because of the evolution of smartphones and how fast the internet can be now and wireless is everywhere and all of that.

So, because culture is being driven by a lot of these fast-paced changes in technology, humans are kind of lagging behind in a way. Because we’re losing our humanity. And I really believe this, but we touch glass screens every day. I talk about this a lot. We have five senses.

And when you are literally submitting your senses to technology, whether it’s sight or touch and those are the two things that mostly we need to operate our cell phones or our computers, we’re not doing things of the natural world. We’re not outside. We’re not maybe interacting with other humans as much as we are with screens.

And so, that’s left us feeling nostalgic, number one. And it’s also left us feeling like, I don’t know. I don’t know what the word is, but my co-worker (Janette) said it really well, that today when we walk into – especially a commercial space, and this is definitely true of residential spaces, but you know, the resimmercial turn and we all hate that word, but there’s a reason why it’s so popular right now.

It’s because we want to feel embraced, like we’re getting a hug when we walk into a space. And this is true whether at the doctor or whether you’re at an office, where you work or where you’re visiting someone. You always want to feel comfortable and welcome.

And so, to me, color is very much a part of the psychology of that feeling of being human and feeling warm, and safe and welcome in a space. So, I see this all connected, in that the palette of technology for the last 20 years has been cool tones, like silvers and white and gray and these very sort of blueish tone. And then of course, we see a backlash to that, which is all of the warm. And the warm tones have really taken on a big push.

And this is why even Apple has come out with their gold – or rose gold iPhone and their gold-gold iPhone. I mean I even bought a rose gold iPhone, which shocked myself because that’s not my palette. Like people who know me, know I’m a modernist and I’m a (bow-house) enthusiast and it’s really weird that I would get a pink iPhone.

But I think it goes to show you the power of color and how color can drive emotions so that we don’t feel dehumanized and disconnected from our natural world. And so, that’s where I really think the root of why this new millennial pink blush-tone color has come on completely strong. Because it’s a color about nostalgia. Number one, it reminds us all of infancy and childhood. Whether you’re a boy or a girl. We all had, you know, most people have siblings. And I think most people, whether you’re a boy or a girl, there was pink and blue in your house.

My brother and I were only less than two years apart, so we had pink and blue in our house, you know? And I was lucky that after a certain time, my mom let me pick my own colors and I didn’t have to subscribe to society’s, you know, girls have to wear pink and boys have to wear blue. But we had all that growing up in our house. But we also had other colors, you know? I remember wearing lots of yellow and lots of red. And I didn’t start wearing black until I was a Goth teenager, you know?

But the point I’m trying to make is that, you know, these things are sort of embedded in society and there are these shifts that come around that make us think differently about color. And I think subconsciously we are welcoming this pink color with open arms, because it is this color of nostalgia, reminds you of being a baby or an infant. And feeling like Grandma is giving you a hug or that your mom’s wrapping you in a crocheted afghan. You know, it’s that kind of a feeling.

So, it’s very – it’s a color that’s evocative of the past.

K: Well, that made me think too, especially with the tactile element, which is so interesting because people keep talking about how flat screens are kind of creating a response in interiors. And I’m not sure, I’m wondering how you feel about pink does really lend itself well to fabrics like felts. Or like textual elements. Like pink really fits in there.

R: Yes.

K: Do you think that it has any kind of – do you think it came in on its own? Or that it kind of rode in with these more tactile felts and things like that?

R: Well, I think that’s a great point and I hadn’t really thought about that in that way, but I think it’s true and I think you can make a case for that. First of all, most felts are blended wools. Or at least that’s originally how felt was started. Of course, now we have polyester versions and synthetic versions. But the main characteristic of felt is that it is a blended fiber, so that it looks like wool.

And interestingly enough, we just came out with a new yarn system called “Heather Hues” that is based on this idea of biomimicry of looking at sheep hair and trying to mimic that wool look in a synthetic fiber. We chose not to do a millennial pink color. But we actually do have a hot pink color. Although it’s more purple lavender-based than it is like a super bright fuchsia color, so it’s more usable. And I think that’s the keyword is that the tones of the pink have to be usable in the interior for this to catch on and work in interiors.

I think for fashion, they don’t have those constraints. People can wear whatever color for whatever scenario and they rock it and they look good and there’s really not as many limitations in fashion with color that I know of. But in interiors, it’s totally different. Like if you’re enveloped in an all-pink room, the hue is gonna matter big time, right?

So, there are a lot of designers that do this really well. Like I think Patricia Urquiola is a good example of a designer who can create a space that maybe is mostly pink and just changes the different textures and the different shades of pink so that you don’t feel like you’re in a pink room. They take on more of a neutral tone.

So, the blush colors look more beige for example. And then when you have a neutral envelope, you can insert brighter colors. But it all works beautifully together. And again, you wouldn’t walk in and be like, “Oh my God, I’m in a pink room.” It would actually feel very comfortable. So, I think layering different textures, layering different color values together, I think is important in making pink comfortable, you know, as far as sort of people getting over pink as a usable color. I think that’s how we have to do it.

K: And I know that you had mentioned that you think that this resurgence of pink is not as much gendered. But I’d love to talk a little bit about the gendering of the color. I have this theory that one of the ways that pink started coming in, especially these light, blush-colored pinks started coming back really was that I remember when I was in college, like 15 – however many years ago, all the frat boys started wearing pink Polo shirts.

And it was almost a joke because it was like this such a masculine society as a frat-brotherhood. And then they felt like it was almost like a joke, but it was also that they really loved to wear pink. And they were wearing a lot of pink.

R: Yeah. And I think that happened earlier. I mean I was in high school in the early to mid-80s and it’s a preppy thing.

K: Yeah.

R: And that’s fine. Again, I don’t think the men wearing pink Polo shirts are thinking about it in a gendered way. Like, “Oh, I’m not gonna wear pink.” You know, it’s something they like and it fits into the prep-culture. And I’m sure there are reason if we were to study why that is that we could come up with that.

But I do think the association, like you said, has more to do with the assignment of color through more through what the larger culture, like things like toys, things like baby clothes, you know, it’s like people used to have those guess-what gender baby I’m having – based on whatever color they were like, you know, launching balloons or whatever.

I think that today people are much more realistic and understand that life is not so black and white, or so pink and blue, let’s say. And that because there have been so many cultural advances in accepting beyond the binary, and when I say binary, I mean literally the two genders, like male and female.

I mean we’ve made great progress and great strides in culture and society, accepting people for who they are and sadly, you know, we might be making some backsliding in that with this current administration. But I do think the pendulum will swing back. And I think that ultimately, you know, gender and the way we look at gender is going to be seen as much more fluid and less about the binary.

And so, the binary male/female is also in our discussion the pink and the blue. And I think that again, people are much more sophisticated today and really can understand nuances of understanding that.

So, lots of companies are taking this on. Like I love that Target was studying for a while like do we need to do away with the girl toy aisle and the boy toy aisle? And there’s this awesome – I might have tagged you on it – there’s this awesome video…

K: Yeah.

R: …of this toddler and like the Barbie aisle. And she’s like, “I don’t understand why everything is pink. And I don’t understand why I have to buy these pink toys. And I don’t want a princess. I wanna have, you know, the tank.” You know, that kind of thing. So, even children understand this. We’re ushering in a new world and I think that the more fluid we are in our thinking and not having definitions on everything in society and let people just be who they are, I think color will adapt. And I think that’s part of it too.

K: Yeah. And I think, you know, it’s so interesting to realize that color in baby clothes has only been around for like a century. And then it being pink has been less than a century. And whenever people say, like, “Oh, I wanna go – things used to be so much easier.” It’s like no, things changed. In World War II – like during World War II, everything changed. And then after World War II, you had the Great Depression, where all of a sudden, everything changed.

And then even if you looked at fashion at the time, the most dramatic fashion changes really happened between the 20s and 30s. And then you have the War Era where everything changed again. And then you had the Post-War Era of abundance and all of these new materials and all of these new things. And then all of a sudden, we had another new norm. You know? And these colors being gendered is so new.

R: Yeah.

K: That it’s kind of like just realizing like, “Oh maybe that doesn’t work out.” And it’s not like it’s embedded into our cultural history. It’s really just so new.

R: Well, I think most people don’t think about that though. Most people only know what they’re taught and exposed to. So, I do think that as arbiters of culture that we are, we have to talk about these things and educate people about – and that’s why history is so important. I’m so happy that I actually graduated with an art history degree. Of course, if you asked me 30 years ago what I would do with this, I don’t know if I could have given you a good answer.

But it’s important for the way I think about things, because you have to look at context. And you have to understand what was happening 100 years ago. And what is happening 50 years ago. And what’s happening today. And you’re right. Things evolve, and things change. And I think as humans, we are capable of great change. And this is why it’s so important to have these discussions about gender and have these discussions about technology and what it’s doing to the human body and our human brain.

So, I applaud you and the magazine for doing that and leading that charge, because the more we expose people to these kinds of discussions, this is all part of design. And not everybody understands that.

K: Yeah. And it – I was thinking about as you were saying technology and the internet and all of this, like helping to bring in pink, I think it also is so quickly changing how we think about pink. Because I remember being, you know, that little girl video, I was definitely that little girl.

But instead of saying, like, “Well, I don’t want pink right now,” I was like, “Screw pink. I hate pink because I’m getting…” you know, people are making assumptions about me as a little girl. I remember it just like blew my – I was like, “There was a mistake in 101 Dalmatians.” Like I was absolutely certain because the mom dog has the blue collar and the dad dog has a red color. And I was just like, “There was a huge mistake here.” You know?

And I really didn’t start to realize my own internal – my own gendering within myself until I started seeing pink come back. And all of a sudden, I’m like, “I really like pink.” You know, and I haven’t said that since I was a little kid, because I was so worried about what it meant about me. And I think children now are on the internet where they can see people going, like, “Well, no. You’re allowed to like pink.”

You don’t have to hate pink and think that it means this or this about you. So, then just kind of wrapping up here, is there anything that we haven’t discussed that you find really fascinating or that you think people should know about pink and in particular, where do you think pink is going?

R: ​Well, I don’t think pink’s going away any time soon. I saw it everywhere in Milan in April. It was definitely present during New York Design Week in May. We saw it at NeoCon again in June. Like it’s not going anywhere. I do think it’s very tied, like I said, to this sense of nostalgia and wanting to feel like you’re in an interior that is giving you a hug. And I think your comment on how, especially the lighter shades of pink, tie very nicely to these warm textural materials I think is also very timely and important. So, that’s why I don’t think it’s going away any time soon.

I personally am not a huge fan of millennial pink because I’m – I wear black head to toe. And I’m always trying to figure out how to get color in my wardrobe. And somehow, I gravitate towards these super brights. Like my boss Jackie has been trying to get me to wear color for three years. And to her credit, it’s working. I’m starting to buy brights. But I just cannot do pastels and I don’t know why. And you know, I have to confront my own demons about why am I afraid of pastels and what does that mean. Does that make me a softer person? More twee? Does it make me more child-like?

These are the things you have to ask yourself because this is what the association with, especially the more pastel version of the color pink really has to offer. Like I somehow feel like I won’t be taken seriously if I’m wearing, you know, a baby pink color.

K: You know, one thing that I thought about when pastels came back was that I just remember hating pastels particularly in the 90s. And just – maybe I’m not remembering it right, but I feel like the pastels now are a little bit warmer or more vibrant. But I have always just been very certain of how I feel about design. And was very outspoken about it. But I just remember it just being so weirded out by pastels and now that people are like, “Oh yeah. That pastel millennial pink,” and it kind of threw me off a little bit because I was like, yeah. Those are pastels. You know? And do you think that they’re a little bit more vibrant now? Or am I just totally remembering them being colder?

R: No. I definitely – yeah. No, I definitely think they’re more vibrant. That has to do too with technology. I mean in the 80s, this was before digital technology and we didn’t have screens. We didn’t, you know, and for whoever had a computer in the 80s, you know, it was like, you know, green – green on black. Like that’s what you saw on your screen, right? So, I think just the print technology, color technology, screen techn- all of these things have helped shape and change how we view the literal colors that are popping off of whatever we’re looking at.

But also, the various hues and shades of a color also come and go in popularity. I remember in the 90s having – and I started my career in interior design in 1992. So, really coming off of the 80s and in the 80s, pastels were huge. Like we had Miami Vice was a huge cultural touchstone for bringing pastels back into the lexicon of design. You know, and that was also on a very neutral palette, which happened to be the Armani/Calvin Klein palette that kind of took over in the 80s. And those kind of warmer neutrals could really receive those pastels really nicely.

But they were more chalky and they were not – and dusty. Like they weren’t as vivid. But strangely enough, we’re going back to dusty pastels right now. That’s a trend I’ve seen in the last year or two. And I think that has to do with again, craving this old-school humanity of our cave-men selves. That’s where the chalky part comes in. This is why stone and terrazzo prints are big right now in materials, because it’s the anti-streaming, it’s the anti-Snapchat. These are things that have longevity, like of the earth.

K: Yeah. I’m always interested every time I see – because I work a lot with junior highers and high schoolers and do a lot of volunteer work. And they are loving neon right now. And…

R: Yes. Neon is huge now.

K: And it’s Judith Gura had a book that came out about why she believes that post-Modernism is definitely on its way back. And yeah. You look around and it’s like, yeah, we’re getting these lighter pastels and then the neon, like…

R: Yeah. I think there’s a word for it and it’s called “vaporwave.” Have you heard this term?

K: No.

Did vaporwave make a splash at NeoCon?

R: That’s what some people are calling this trend. It’s sort of a throwback to the 80s and the 90s with the neon and kind of like a Max Hedroom vibe. Kind of – and this is where like glitch art and all of that falls into this. It’s super interesting.

Like if you saw the movie Drive with Ryan Gosling, the soundtrack is very much this aesthetic of vaporwave. It’s like this sort of electro-clash music. So, it’s kind of got this 80s throwback, but it’s definitely made today. But it’s got a little glitch to it.

K: Kind of like if the technology we had now existed in the 80s, this is what it would have looked like.

R: Oh. That’s a good theory. Just go on Pinterest and type in “vaporwave” and you’ll see what I mean.

K: Okay. Sounds great. All right. Well, thank you so much for joining us. This has been such a fun conversation. And I definitely would love to just continue with. You know, if anyone listening would like to put in their two cents, let us know. But otherwise, thank you so much. And yeah. Thanks for joining us.

About the Author

Kadie Yale | Former Editor-in-Chief

Kadie Yale holds a BA in Industrial Design from San Francisco State University and a MA in Decorative Art History and Theory from Parsons the New School. In her role as editor-in-chief from 2015-2018, she led the interiors+sources team in creating relevant content that touches on sustainability, universal design, science, and the role of design in society.

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