Ten years ago, all the important things in our lives were clearly colour-coded. Televisions were black, kettles were white, computers were beige. Cars were red. And lasting love — the one that we confirmed with a band — was gold.
Now take a quick mental journey around your home. Start in the living room. What colour is your television? If you have bought it in the past decade, the chances are that it will be eyeing you sleekly with a silvery sheen. Your hi-fi and DVD player probably match, and perhaps the same metallic gleam is peeping from the feet of the sofa, the base of the lamp.
Move into the kitchen and few households will not find three objects among the oven, fridge, juicer, microwave, electronic scales, taps and waste basket that are silver, whether stainless steel, chrome or sparkling plastic. Even so-called ‘white goods’ have succumbed: department stores are selling silver-coloured washing machines. A stealthy silver revolution has taken hold, sneaking into every corner of the home, re-colouring our daily lives glittering grey.
Earlier this month, Coca-Cola reissued Diet Coke in a limited-edition iridescent grey bottle in order to remind drinkers, a spokesperson explains, “that it’s coming up to the party season”. Christmas used to be red and gold (white if you were classy). Now it too appears to have bristled into silver.
“I’ve been saying it on a constant basis for the past I don’t know how many years,” says the design expert Peter York, who has had a kitchen full of stainless steel since a “fearfully modern” refit in 1999. “But the silver we’re talking about isn’t the colour of silver
silver. It’s the colour of a sort of magic cyber-metal — silverised plastic. Just looking around my room I’m surrounded by bits of mock-silver silveriness. In fact, the house is full of it. The world is silver because it is the colour of an acceptable digi-world.”
That may be true, but what is most surprising about the silverisation of our lives is that the grey glow has spread beyond the home, beyond electronic goods. Three years ago, the first silver police cars appeared in London, a decision not of style but of economics, a spokesperson insists (the resale value of silver cars exceeds that of white cars by approximately 10 per cent).
Old-fashioned standbys from the trouser press to the sandwich toaster have had a silver makeover. And at the Sheffield Assay Office, one of the four centres in England where jewellery is sent to be hallmarked, “everything going through here is white”, says assay master Ashley Carson — if not silver itself then white gold or platinum.
Sitting behind his desk at the Krystle boutique in Hatton Garden, London’s jewellery quarter, Simon Davies is flicking through a Cartier brochure. Of the 50 or so pieces photographed on its pages, there are only two yellow gold rings. Davies, who was a setter of jewellery for 25 years before deciding to run his own shop, estimates that 95 per cent of the wedding and engagement rings he now sells are white gold (a gold alloy that appears silver).
“I’ve been married for 15 years,” he says. “In 1991, I made my wife yellow gold rings. Earlier this year, for a present, I changed them to platinum. It was what she asked for for her anniversary.”
So why have so many of our belongings become swathed in this steely sheen? Gleaming grey has long been the colour of eminence, a shade to be taken seriously, from silver foxes to boxes of Nurofen. There is something smoothing and soothing about all those dully reflective surfaces, delivering durability with lustre.
Silver denotes wealth: while a black plastic television can never hint at transcending its plasticity, a silver television represents in plastic something of greater value. “Silver suggests quality and solidity by an obvious synaptic jump to hard and precious metals,” says Stephen Bayley, cofounder of the Design Museum.
Vanessa Allen, a sales assistant at Currys on London’s Oxford Street, stands behind the counter, a wall of silver cameras behind her, a cabinet full of silver mobile phones before her. She is wearing three pairs of silver earrings, a silver necklace and silver bracelet. “Silver’s cool,” she says. “It’s effortless but still looks good. When it’s damaged, it’s not scruffy. My kitchen is silver and black — silver oven, silver and black kettle, silver and black TV. Silver goes with everything.”
Noushka Belobi, who is browsing silver laptops, thinks the colour “looks new, feels technical”.
But if, on the one hand, silver implies preciousness and luxury, it also bespeaks industry. The thrall of the stainless-steel kitchen had its origin in the decline of industry and the subsequent rise in popularity of lofts and warehouses as living spaces. “People wanted them to look utilitarian,” says Jeremy Langmead, editor of Wallpaper magazine. “It started with kitchens and electronic goods. And then it spread. Now straight boys are wandering around with foil-covered sneakers on. I think it says ‘efficient’ and ‘modern’ and ‘technical’, and that’s how we want to be seen.”
If gold means for ever, silver means for now. It is the colour of the future — or, at least, the colour of the present when the present is preoccupied by concerns about the future.
“I like silver, with its suggestions of mercury, outer space, satellites, modernity,” said the designer Liza Bruce, maker of a pair of silver pyjama pants. “I like the way it looks forward, not back.”
Silver is the colour we turn to when we are at our most self-conscious about our place in the future. Televisions turned silver en masse when widescreens reached the shops, as if a silver surround was the best way of describing the shape of things to come. Silver appliances began to proliferate as the last millennium dwindled.
Back at the close of 1999 the editor of British Vogue was facing a conundrum: who or what to put on the cover of a magazine that claims to mirror the times. What would properly capture the leap to the future, the glance at the past? In December, on the threshold of 2000, it went on sale, a solid wash of silver. In fact, the cover was so shiny that the only face to be seen on it belonged to the person looking at it, selfconsciously wondering what might come next. Faint and misshapen it may be, but in addition to technological advancement and luxury, perhaps what we see in all our silvery appliances is a wobbly reflection of ourselves.