You Design the Top of the Space Needle (Really)
Plus, the Epic Search for the 1962 Orange
This is fairly amazing: The Space Needle is holding an open competition, and the winning design will be painted on the top of the Needle for six months. Really. It's an extension of the myth of how the Needle itself was designed—one little hand-drawing on a napkin transformed into a civic masthead—and the myth behind the magic of all great architecture, in one form or another. When that shift in scale from individual to civic goes well, it links two realms: the experience of one body with the experience of many bodies agreeing to live in one limited space together.
Designs are due at the Space Needle website by September 20 (only US residents are eligible). A panel of local judges will pick five top choices, which will be voted on online. The top vote-getter will be unveiled on October 21—the 50th anniversary of the closing day of the 1962 World's Fair. After which, the press release notes endearingly, "Painting will begin as quickly as the weather permits."
Now, let's nerd out for a minute about color. How exactly did they get the current orange, a retro throwback, to match the original 1962 orange? Was the original paint still being manufactured? Was a sample just hanging around in a stray antique can of paint in a closet somewhere?
No, it turns out. They had to make it from scratch.
Scratch started with multiple, varying, faded photographs. A few were selected to try and re-create a 2012 equivalent of the 1962 orange. Imitating a color from photographs is like re-creating dance from video, sort of a delicious infinite regress.
There was no name to help. The original paint was just some orange paint for which nobody seems to know the original manufacturer anyway.
Then-manager of the Needle gave whatever the paint was actually called a space-age name instead: Galaxy Gold. (He also called the tower Astronaut White—ahem—and the core Orbital Olive, and the halo Re-Entry Red.)
But then even the name Galaxy Gold got lost, when people mistakenly began referring to it as Orbital Orange. This was finally set straight in Knute Berger's recent Space Needle book. That didn't help identify a color match; it just corrected the record.
So after looking at the photographs, the search for the 2012/1962 orange was narrowed to three existing Pittsburgh Paint oranges reviewed by Needle staffers working with O'mega Graphics on Leary Way. Of those three already-manufactured oranges, the staff chose Field Poppy. (Nobody can remember the names of the other two.) They thought that's what they got, until last week. But it's not.
Bob Kehoe, O'mega's founder and a man who also happens to be an artist, had not been satisfied that the staffers' choice—Field Poppy—matched the photographs. He decided Field Poppy was not quite 1962 Galaxy Gold.
So on his own, he went back to Miller Paint in Ballard and asked them to mix a custom blend of four pigments: a white base with liquid tints in red oxide, durable red, titanium white, and medium yellow.
They now call that Galaxy Gold.
And this time, they know the recipe for it. Not that it's commercially available.
"They aren't selling it," said Needle spokeswoman Mary Bacarella, laughing at the end of her search for the story of the 2012/1962 orange. "But whenever we need Galaxy Gold now, they have it."
Some people are unsatisfied. "Gordon Bowker, the cofounder of Starbucks and a brand-making genius with a long memory and a good eye, swears it isn't the correct shade," says Berger. "Both of us think it is lighter than the original."
In certain quarters, the search continues.