Exploring Mid-Century Color: Cherokee Red

6 min read Long before the millennial Mid Mod craze for grey painted houses with color pop doors, the color people chose to say “I’m in with Mid-Century architecture In-Crowd” was a particular shade of dark brick red.  

Searching for a bold Mid-century Color? Cherokee Red (with a few variations) was the signature color of the early mid century period.

Cherokee Red defied the soft-spoken powder blue and baby pink color schemes of milder and more traditional post-war homes.  It made its mark before the 60’s Mod drive toward bright orange flowers and avocado appliances.  Cherokee Red was the color of choice especially among the mid-century architects who trained with Frank Lloyd Wright at his Taliesin schools.

I’d always known this in the back of my mind but it came up recently in an conversation on Atomic Ranch’s instagram.  They’d thrown out a question:

“Black houses stir up strong feelings for many modernists. Are you on team 🖤? “

Aletha VanderMaas responded:

“I’m personally on team Cherokee Red, but realize I’m a minority. Black or very dark gray house exteriors seem to be the updated version of that traditional midcentury dark red color. Whatever the homeowner loves makes the most sense to me!”

Aletha runs True Home Restorations, a wonderful Mid-Century focused design firm in Grand Haven Michigan, and her blog, Mid Mod Michigan, is a great resource for beginning and expert mid-century enthusiasts alike.   She hits the bullseye on the parallels between the mid-century color Cherokee Red then and grey as its corollary signal color now.  

Hunting Midcentury color: Cherokee Red Around Madison, WI

I started making a collection of my favorite Cherokee (and just plain) Red houses shining out like beacons around the Madison area.  When you spot a house painted Cherokee Red, you are likely also looking at one with a greater-than-average amount of mid-century design panache.  Once you start looking for them you may see them everywhere**.

Red houses always grab the eye.  My ancient pattern-seeking back-brain shouts: “Red? Berries!  Get over there and eat those calories so you can survive till tomorrow.” And my modern designer’s brain thinks: “COOL!  I shall walk over there and take a picture with my iPhone!”

For more on finding Mid-Century houses to admire, check out my recent post: How to find a Mid-Century Neighborhood!

Here are some highlights from my recent collecting walks:

**A note on Region specific color:

Aletha’s comment rang so true with me because we share a Midwestern slant on Mid-Century buildings.  Our Mid Mod design thinking has been heavily influenced by Frank Lloyd Wright and his favorite red.  His style is a natural favorite in the mid-century buildings in Michigan, throughout the Midwest and especially in his home state of Wisconsin.  I suspect that Frank’s influence extends to the East Coast as well.

Chatting with my new friend TJ Pierce, (who heads up the wonderful Mid-century Homes by Moniker Real Estate in Boise, Idaho, (instagram: @boisemidcenturyhomes), I learned that for Mid-Century Color, Cherokee Red isn’t very common in his neck of the woods.  Boise-local FLW mentee, Art Troutner homes tend toward even more minimalist and nature based color palates, wood, stone, creme plaster and glass.

So … Did Mid-Century red come directly from grumpy Mid-Mod Godfather Frank Lloyd Wright?

Looks like it to me.  I think much of the power of this slightly-dull red as a signifier of the Mid-century Modern period stems from the influence of FLW, who chose it as his favorite (signature) color and loved it so much that he asked that his coffin be draped in Cherokee red velvet.

From Frank Lloyd Wright’s Approach to Color by Dee Schlotter:

“Cherokee Red: Often referred to as Frank Lloyd Wright’s personal favorite, Cherokee Red is perhaps the most famous color at Fallingwater, and was used to coat most of the home’s metal and ironwork. Wright is said to have limited his use of Cherokee Red at Fallingwater to metal accents because steel and iron are products of iron ore created through fire.”

Wright’s signature tile at Kentuck Knob (image). The floors and furniture of the Johnson Wax Administration Building in Racine, WI (image).  The Cabaret theater at Taliesin West in Scottsdale, AZ (image).  Wright’s home at Taliesin, Spring Green, WI.  (Note the Japanese screen on display) (image).

But what drew Frank to Cherokee Red?

Like so many of Frank’s great ideas, he didn’t come up for his love of red in a vacuum.  It has been a color of deep significance to humans since pretty much the beginning of people using color to communicate.

Red has been a Power Color for a LONG TIME

To paraphrase from the section on Red in the marvelous new book The Secret Lives of Colour by Kassia St. Claire:

  • Red was the predominant die color used by early humans from 6000 BC on.
  • The Chinese used to connect the color with death and now associate it with good fortune (and party politics).
  • Egyptians wrapped their mummies in cloth died red with Hematite and called their god of the afterlife, Osiris, the “lord of the red cloth.”
  • Incans believed that their goddess Mama Huaco wore a red dress when she came out of the Cave of Origin
  • Aztecs cultivated cocineal insects to use in dying  royal and religious garments
  • Roman generals showed their rank with a special red-died cloak fastened over one shoulder.  (The British later ripped off this idea for their red officers uniforms.)
  • It is the power color of the Catholic Church.
  • Apparently English football teams that wear red have finished higher in their league championships consistently since WWII.

By the way, if you don’t follow @SecretLivesofColour on Instagram … what is stopping you? Go do it RIGHT NOW.

Red in Art Through the Ages

Just as they have been important to all humans, it has been beloved of artists from pretty much every era and culture.  Just a few samples at random:

This carved red jasper inlay dates to 1500BC (image). Preraphaelite’s focused on red-heads or ladies in red (image).  Mark Rothko was obsessed (image). Roy Lichtenstein found it very poppy (image).  Georgia O’Keeffe painted poppies (image).  

Where did Frank Lloyd Wright learn to love Red?

Per this Curbed article, Your Own Pantone: How Frank Lloyd Wright, Le Corbusier, and Yves Klein Created Signature Colors:

‘Scholars suggest that the inspiration for the color came from the red soil found around the Richard Lloyd home he built in Tulsa, Oklahoma in the late ’20s, an area once officially known as Indian Territory.

“Wright also was once quoted in an issue of Architectural Record describing how the color of steel beams atop the Auditorium Theater in Chicago (near the offices of Adler & Sullivan where he once worked) had a reddish glow that “excited him.”‘

Frank wasn’t always the best at crediting his sources, and I suspect him of other influences he didn’t acknowledge.

Was it midwestern barns?

The midwest is known for picturesque barns and farm buildings which, in Frank’s childhood, would have been painted with ferrous oxide (commonly known as  iron rust)-stained milk paint.  The combination of milk and lime sealed the wood, and the iron acted as a mold- and moss-deterrent.  The signature Frank Lloyd Wright red can be found all over the midwestern country side (looking great in all seasons), and I don’t see how he could have avoided this powerful influence.

Or perhaps Japanese temples?

Red is also an incredibly important color in Japan.  Wright has bizarrely denied the influence of his travels in Japan on his design work.  Although he was an avid and proud collector of Japanese art – prints and painted screens – he never admitted the effect that Japanese ARCHITECTURE had on his own work.

Wright actually went out of his way to deny the influence of Japanese design on his building style, something I find ludicrous to the point of being obnoxious.  I’ll rant about this in another post.

Just glance at these photos (from my 2017 trip to Japan) and tell me that a guy who made Japan his first out-of-US destination and lived in Tokyo from 1917 to 1922 wasn’t influenced by the power of the color red.

Wright used red not as just one of a wide-ranging palette of go-to colors but often as the ONLY color in conjunction with an array of natural materials: stone, glass, wood.

Wright may well have committed to iron-stained red soil as his go-to color in the 1920’s in Tulsa, but I believe he had the idea seeded into his mind much earlier!   I’ll stand by this theory until someone gives me a good reason not to.

More Midcentury Red examples: Knoll Furniture

Midcentury red wasn’t limited to just FLW and his signature Cherokee Red, however.  It was the go-to color for a lot of classic Knoll advertising, for example.

Knoll add for Tulip Chair (image).  Knoll ad for Executive Chair (image). Knoll add for Womb Chair by Saarinen (image). 

As a Mid-century Color, Cherokee Red seems to have fallen from favor, and by the 70’s it was fully out of the fashion.

Now either it has returned or the houses that have been painted in red all along have rolled back into style!

What do you think?

Where do you fall on the Cherokee Red to Paint-It-Grey spectrum of Midcentury Color?  Please share your strong preferences, dogmatic beliefs or general thoughts in the comments below!

2 thoughts on “Exploring Mid-Century Color: Cherokee Red”

  1. Thanks so much for this article. I’m currently really struggling with what color to paint our (1961) exterior trim and everyone is poo pooing my suggestion of Cherokee red. I think I’m going to have to turn to some photoshop mock ups to make the decision because the roofers are asking what color and I am (stupidly or not) basing that off the trim.

    1. YES! Stay strong and ABSOLUTELY do a bunch of photoshop testing. Cherokee Red is a great color for a 1961 house. What are the other parts of the house – siding color, roof color, any brick or stone?

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