Brown in Your Hospital

Posted on February 1, 2012


We know the confirmation of germ theory in the late 1800s led to a design revolution of the interior healthcare environment.  For instance, Victorian Era hold-overs like wood floors and drapes were out, in favor of hard, less porous surfaces like porcelains, ceramics, and stainless steel.  Easy-to-clean and disinfect was favored, which led to more curves in rooms like at cove bases and fixtures.

Architecturally, it is debatable when white became the de facto aesthetic of hospitals.  I have long wondered whether we will ever evolve past gleaming white as a signifier of cleanliness. 

White has always been perceived as clean, sterile and safe. Given a recent WSJ article on brown, particularly in paper, as a new aesthetic choice (mostly to signal environmental sensitivity), I am curious whether sustainability is a strong enough ‘movement’ to rival or displace white as an acceptable color of health in our hospitals of the future.  Or should it even?

Regionally, and even in some hospital lobbies, brown rock and earthy tones are acceptable because they are comforting; they remind us of the hearth and home. Originally, brown surfaced in recycled products because the pulp was unbleached (not treated with additional chemicals), which made it more natural; things were brown by default. Now it appears companies are actually adding brown dye to emphasize recycled content. This inevitably leads to questions about legitimacy and “greenwashing”; people are now making things brown because they appear more recycled and “green”. Maybe white is so accepted because it is understood as transparent and hard to fake.

Color has an important role in our visual world, and signaling is one of those jobs. Although brown is the color of many foods, generally brown is a dirty color in hospitals. My question about the future aesthetic of what we understand and accept as clean is less about brown and more about anything other than white.  Will we ever have an alternative to white in hospitals?  And what would it take to take us there?

Posted in: Interior Design