Gretchen Wagner is a freelance colorist and artist who systematically explores the unique qualities of color and their significance throughout her work. Her work is fueled by the dynamic interactions of color and the subtle differences in our unique interpretations. She continues to evolve her creative practice with studio GRETCHEN WAGNER, her independent studio in Atlanta, Georgia while pursuing her MFA in Painting at the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD). Bentley partnered with studio GRETCHEN WAGNER to develop a 2021-2022 trend forecast, capturing four unique shifts in commercial design for designers and architects alike.
We recently talked to Gretchen about her love for forecasting and color, what inspires her work and what’s next for her collaboration with Bentley. Here’s what she had to say.
1. Tell us about yourself and your background in the design industry?
I got my official start in the design industry just over 10 years ago when I graduated from SCAD with my BFA in Fibers. I began my commercial design career in the flooring industry which ultimately kickstarted my attraction to color. A mentor at the time introduced me to an incredible library of color resources which I still use when trend forecasting and creating my own work.
Throughout my studies, I had ambitions of becoming an artist and I initially thought commercial design would be an avenue to fund my studio practice, but I quickly realized a unique perspective which intertwined design and fine art. My interest in color, design and influenced my art, and vice versa. I brought these passions into my “day job” (turned design career) where I was able to dive into trend research and develop a unique perspective. I’ve spent years establishing context, working directly with designers to better understand their needs, their process and sharing industry trends. Throughout that time, I was inspired by the precision and intentionality of design and cultivated a studio life where I could create my own work and point of view.
2. Why do you believe forecasting trends is important for designers?
Designers thirst for inspirational, aspirational and radically creative content and they don’t always have the time to do it themselves. Outside of my primary objective, inspiration, trend forecasting information is extremely relevant as designers, especially because most of us are working on long-term projects. With briefs spanning multiple years, there exists a need to complement core concepts, with timeless elements so the overall design isn’t compromised years later when the color or finish palette changes direction. Being familiar with the trend turnover and churn is key as they impact the way we design with certain materials, patterns and finishes.
3. You partnered with Bentley to create a trend forecast. Talk about your process, inspiration and the four trends you landed on.
In the process of curation, I started with my usual suspects, i-D, Vogue and a tried-and-true favorite, Sight Unseen for sourcing inspiration. I’m not sure if it was the color palettes, pattern direction or maybe the 75 tabs of design projects and stories I was wading through, but a pattern began to emerge which had me immediately analyzing my life over the past year. I identified four phases of ”being” during the COVID-19 pandemic, which served as the basis for the trends: Rhythm, Salon, Mark and Frontier.
Rhythm emerged out of the first stage of lockdown in mid-March when access to the outside world became limited. I needed to create a space where I could be productive, creative, accountable and energized while maintaining some semblance of a work-life balance. This trend explores comfort in tactility through texture and palette which were critical to me during this early phase.
Salon references a creative renaissance, born out of the need to embrace the temporality of life. It references the secluded artist in their studio, their hand, their process and their materials. A freedom from time and obligation where creativity can abound, akin to the remote lifestyles we’ve become accustomed to over the last 18 months.
And then as we diverged into a social movement during our third phase of lockdown, I explored Mark, which captured the emotional tension and confusion amongst Gen Z. This trend is primarily rooted in material exploration and purposeful mark making.
The last and current phase is focused on the future of art: Frontier. It materialized out of the power technology has on us, and the intersection of digital transformation and creativity. Although this is outside my typical format for a trend forecast, it embodies an evolving state of mind and reflects the shimmering and boundless times to come.
4. Let’s talk more about color – in the trends forecast but also in your day-to-day work, what is it about color that draws you – and any designer – in?
I’m most intensely captivated by color and light’s combined elusiveness. Color is simultaneously here and not here, a reflection of light is not tactile, it barely exists at all except through our own biological response which process the wavelengths of light into an idea of color. Our experiences perceiving color are relative and abstract, unique and only known to the beholder.
I enjoy playing with the elements of color which can be modified (chroma, temperature, value and purity) to create complex palettes that work together. Color has the potential to activate space, impact relationships and shift our emotions.
With respect to the forecast, you won’t see many, if any, neutrals. That is purposeful. Neutrals evolve at a much slower rate than pastels, brights and tones. These palettes are designed as accents to an implied neutral foundation which have been shaped by a larger cultural narrative. Each trend defines its own color story and is intentionally flexible to bend to the unique needs of every designer.
5. What do you have planned for the year ahead?
The year ahead is colorful, to be sure!
This Summer, I’ve been collaborating with Bentley’s design team on the capabilities of COLORCAST, a category of products which are dyed post-fabrication. I was able to combine my approach to color with their technology and dye lab resources to explore the potential of the process and its effects on optical mixing
In my studio, I’ve been learning all about printmaking, which has been a natural alignment of my design-oriented yet art-driven brain. So far, I’ve been developing a series of monoprints which further explore color interactions through transparent layers of ink.
6. What’s your life like in Atlanta, and what do you love most about the fast-growing city?
My life in Atlanta consists mostly of humidity, ice-cold martinis and being covered in whatever I’m working on in the studio. I try to spend afternoons outside; walking my dog, rollerskating on the Beltline while listening to pop-punk hits from the early 2000s or eating pimento cheese on a patio somewhere.
Atlanta is the perfect place for a person who enjoys a little bit of everything. The weather is warm(ish) most of the year, there are more than a few fully stocked art supply stores, an abundance of emerging talent in music, food and art, a couple great museums and an airport that places you in Europe in eight hours or less. Sounds pretty dreamy to me.