The New York International Gift Fair happens twice a year. And while Sight Unseen is hardly your typical product blog — and the fair notoriously focused on sales, not press — we often find ourselves roaming the aisles anyway, if only because it’s easy to catch up with so many people we know in one place. This year, we bumped into an old friend — but even if we hadn’t known her, we would have stalked her until she agreed to meet us for coffee on the basis of the incredibly gorgeous product she was hawking. The designer was Reineke Otten (who we first met in Rotterdam three years ago and who’s responsible for turning us on to amazing talents like Raw Color and Danielle Van Ark) and the product was Otten’s World Skin Color scarves, which translate an Excel spreadsheet worth of data about global complexion tones into beautiful square silk scarves, one for each country around the world. (That’s Bosnia, above.)
“Our planet is a composition of complexions, through migration, intermarriage, cosmetics, war, trains, planes, and automobiles,” writes Otten in her project description. “With the help of The World Fact Book, the Pantone color system, data from the Internet, interviews with dermatologists, research by cosmetic companies, thousands of images of people, and intuition,” Otten created the World Skin Color Project. And though tons of people have built careers from information gathering, Otten has found a niche presenting hers in the most artful but accessible ways. She first began charting skin color as a student at the Design Academy Eindhoven, where her graduation project took the form of a collection of palettes and maps. But the scarves are more personal. “My ambition was to make the data softer and intuitive — more classy and female, less geeky and dry — to show what data can look like,” says Otten. “I really wanted to make a product that people would love to see and touch and eventually want to possess. That isn’t always the case with prints as framed pieces of art on the wall. That’s a little too highbrow.”
Wrapped, the scarves are abstract and lovely. But laid out flat, the data becomes easy to read, and each scarf comes boxed with a legend. The colored dots each represent one percent of a country’s population; the scarves are also decorated with things like small dots for airports, bar graphs for population growth, and diagonal stripes for UV radiation as determined by hours of sun. It’s also here that the differences and similarities among the countries become clear. The United States and Canada (above) have similarly blue-hued palettes due to climate conditions while steamy India (below) has a palette composed of entirely opposite colors.
But the most interesting part of the project may be how cultural patterns reveal themselves in the graphical code. “Light dots are visible through dark South Africa, thousands of guest workers tint Dubai, and pale tourists sunbathe in the Bahamas,” says Otten. “Or in Monaco the population density is super high, even though Monaco is not as dense as Hong Kong, for example, if you’re just walking around. Apparently a lot of people are registered to live there, but only have post boxes in Monaco! They flee for the tax. This is a data project, so even that shows in the graphics.”
It’s a lot of information to take in, but because the scarves are so successful as a purely visual object, the synthesizing of data and the significance of each country becomes somewhat optional for potential wearers. In other words, you can choose the Philippines (below) just because you like its pinkish hue, not because you’re particularly interested in that island’s GDP. That said, Otten has already begun striking up deals with institutions like the Jewish Museum in New York, which will carry her Israel scarf, and the New Museum, for whom she’s developing a customized series on the boroughs of New York. As for Sight Unseen, we’re in talks to carry Otten’s scarf for the good old US of A, so watch this space!