Color study on The Grand Budapest Hotel

Color is one of the most powerful mediums used by designers to portray and communicate feelings and ideas, it is one of the tools used in design so understand how color works is important. David Kadavy says that in design, color is the most mysterious and subjective aspects. Color’s meaning varies across cultures and individuals because they attach different meanings to colors, causing color associations to differ across audiences.  But the very notion of color is rooted in subjectivity. No matter how subjective how color is viewed or used, one thing is for sure: color is lucid. Color relationships have been studied by artists and theorists overtime to implicitly creating a mood or feeling in design. Like most things in design, there are no right or wrong way to use color. But by using a framework, you can begin to use color with purpose. (Kadavy 208, 258)

Photo by Stir World

        The purpose of this essay is to identify and outline how The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) follows the rules of color in design. This essay will begin with a summarization of scenes in the movie followed by an analysis for its use of color.

        The Grand Budapest Hotel takes places in the present day with flashbacks to 1985, 1968, and 1932 respectively. The opening scene shows a young girl picking up a novel, while the author begins to narrate the story of how Zero (Tony Revolroi) became the owner of The Grand Budapest Hotel. It all starts when Zero was a new lobby boy at the hotel, and he meets the hotel concierge, Gustave (Ralph Fienne). Gustave is known for having affairs with older female guests of the hotel, Madame D. (Tilda Swinton) is one of them, and this affair has lasted for twenty years. One day, Madame D. passes away and her will is being read at the hotel, Her will states that Gustave will inherent a painting of hers named ‘Boy With Apple’. Since Madame D. was having an affair with Gustave, her son Dimitri (Willem Dafoe) accuses Gustave of murder, steals the painting and sends him to jail. But Gustave escapes and clears his name with the help of Crossed Keys, a fraternity for hotel concierges. Gustave, Zero and Agatha comes up with a plan to steal the painting back from Dimitri, sell it, leave the hotel, and go far away but their plan did not go accordingly. Later, Gustave becomes the owner of the hotel. When Gustave got shot and dies, he leaves the hotel for Zero.

        The first scene is The Grand Budapest Hotel during its off season. (0:03:23-0:06:03) It begins to show the facade of the hotel in the snow with shades of pink and accents of grey and white. It flashes back to 1968, a day in the hotel’s off season, and this is where Zero started off the story about his days at the hotel. The scene portrayed how hotel guests minding their business, and the owner in the lobby and different rooms of the hotel in shades of orange, brown and green. The Grand Budapest Hotel has a warm feel, showing the audience the hotel’s former glorious days.

        According to the basic color wheel there are twelve colors on the wheel, including the primary, secondary and tertiary colors. The primary colors are red, yellow and blue. The secondary colors include orange, green and violet, and the tertiary colors combine primary with secondary colors to create yellow-orange, red-orange, red-violet, blue-violet, blue-green, and yellow-green. The basic color wheel is a useful tool because colors are made up of each other. The primary colors are mixed together to create the secondary colors, then the secondary colors are mixed with the primary colors to create the tertiary colors. (Holtzschue 72)

        When designing with colors, one should always strive for color color harmony, “one of the main tenets of color theory suggests that our vision is always trying to achieve equilibrium or to arrive at neutral…. This idea is supported by several experiments that show that if a person stares at one block of color and then quickly looks away, he will see the complement of that color. The implication is that the eye is always searching for symmetry or to find the balance, which comes when a hue is combined with its opposite. Harmonic pairings can be made up of colors that have similar intensity, or they may include tones that sharply contrast each other.” (Sherin 26).

        A designer can achieve color harmony by using complementary colors, which are the colors directly across from each other on the color wheel, In the basic twelve color wheel, there are six pairs of complementary colors in the wheel, that includes yellow and violet, yellow orange and blue violet, orange and blue, red orange and blue green, red and green, red violet and yellow green. (Sherin 19)

        However complementary colors are not the only way to achieve color harmony, designers can also use split complementary. “Split complementary hues refer to a primary color and two secondary colors that are located adjacent to the hues’ complement on the color wheel.” For example, yellow, blue violet and red violet. Designers also have the choice of analogous combinations, which refer to a “primary hue and two adjacent hues next to each other on the color wheel, analogous color combinations tend to be harmonious because they reflect similar wavelengths of light.” For example, blue green, green and yellow green. Lastly triad harmonies can be used to create harmony as thus are any three hues spaced equidistantly around the color wheel.” For example, red orange, yellow green and blue violet. (Sherin 19)

        The Grand Budapest Hotel itself consists of shades of pink with accents of dark grey and white, since pink is the main color of the exterior of the hotel, we will use it as the starting point to the analysis of the color pallet. The color pink falls under red because pink is red diluted with white, meaning it is a hue of red. The color pallet of the exterior of the hotel actually uses the progressive system which “refers to a sequence in which a color or colors change in constant steps from dark to light or light to dark, and results in the appearance of continual progression. Progressive value shifts are particularly good at producing color palettes that include three or more hues.” (Sherin 33) The pink facade of the hotel is movie’s first scene, by using a unique color for the hotel and abiding by the rules of color in design, Wes Anderson has captured the viewer’s eye and made it memorable.

    In the 20th century a prominent study carried out by Max Kushcher, a former psychology professor at Basle University claims that color preferences demonstrated certain mental states that could be used as the basis for physical and psychological diagnosis. His theory forms the basis of the Kuscher Color Test that is still used in clinical settings, and demonstrates how color can influence our mood and behavior. “We provide support for persons facing the challenges of cancer, says Nichols, ‘so it’s important that our surroundings reflect a peaceful and serene environment. That’s why I chose to decorate with warm, inviting colors like soft mauves and purples, calming burnt oranges and quiet ivory tones – colors that make you feel good when you walk in the door.’” (Sherin 14-15)

Even hospitals that receive patients in difficult times try to decorate their lobby area with welcoming and inviting colors so people feel good when they walk to the door, which only makes sense that a place like The Grand Budapest Hotel would want to utilize color to help their guests feel welcomed and relaxed as well as the viewers greeted by the hotel for the first time.

        Next we will analyze the interior of the hotel. The color pallet consists of orange, brown and green. While the characters shown in the first scene wear shades of brown to blend in to the color scheme of the hotel, there are a few exceptions. The concierge is wearing a violet blazer with a red bowtie, and the hotel owner a blue violet blazer with a red blouse underneath and red pants. Brown is actually a hue of orange; it is made up of orange tinted with black. Green, orange and violet are secondary colors, and they are also evenly spaced on the color wheel, which makes them triad harmonies. While Wes Anderson has applied color theory on the interior of  The Grand Budapest Hotel, he also made sure the important characters did not blend in with the hotel’s setting. The colors worn by both the concierge and the owner create analogous combinations as violet, red violet and red are adjacent to each other on the color wheel.

        The second scene to be analyzed is when Gustave is in jail serving mush to the other inmates. He is pushing a cart and stopping by every door to ask if people wanted mush. (0:41:39-0:45:10) After Gustave completes his rounds, he and his cellmates device an escape plan while splitting a dessert from The Grand Budapest Hotel. That is when Gustave decides to incorporate into their escape plan. The color of the desert pastry box is the same as the exterior of  the hotel, shades of pink with a blue ribbon. This is the only item in the scene with color, as the cell doors are grey and the walls white, the top half of the wall inside the cell is white but dirty and the bottom half yellow, and the prisoners’ uniform are grey with white stripes. The scene is monochrome and the colors used were mostly shades of grey. Given that the only good thing in Gustave’s life, the hotel, was taken away from him and the disappearance of color in this scene is a symbolism of the loss.   

        The human brain always try to reach equilibrium while looking at colors, therefore we must strive for color harmony. This scene does not use color combinations to create color harmony, instead it uses a monochromatic color scheme. “Monochromic refers to variations of a single hue that include tints (the hue plus white) and shades (the hue plus black). Like analogous colors, monochromatic color combinations are considered to be harmonious. This may be the reason that one-color palettes are often so successful in design solutions.” (Sherin 21) Although the jail scene was not shot in black and white, the use of monochromatic through gives the feel of black and white. Gustave does not stand out in this scene, and in prison he is just a prisoner wearing the same clothes and eating the same food as everyone else. This scene uses dark grey as dominant color, “Dark colors contain black. They can add drama and create mood. Dark colors can sometimes be used as neutrals within a composition. Like very light tones, colors with dark values have less contrast as they get darker. In order to achieve balance, it is often best to include a lighter or more saturated accent color in a palette that is dominated by darker tones.” (Sherin 97) As you can see Wes Anderson is always trying to strive for color harmony, and he did it even when using a limited color scheme of mainly shades of grey.

        Different colors can convey different emotions, and this is one of the somber scenes in the movie. Wes Anderson follows the rules of color in design by using a monochromatic scheme in the jail scene, and by using grey, he helps conveys different emotions. In the Marketing world, researchers have started to use neuromarketing to study how color affects consumers’ respond to products by assessing the influence of the color (black or white) and shape of the plate on the perception of the food placed on it, and using color-odor correspondences for fragrance packaging design. (Trimble) “Researchers have found that the presence of color can positively affect our behavior. Dr. Carlo Raimudo, codirector of the School of Color and Design in Sydney, Australia, found that subjects in a colored room who were asked to perform basic tasks had lower levels of anxiety and lower heart rate and blood pressure than those who did the same tasks in a gray room. Dr. Raimudo suggests that adding color to our environment can enhance our ability to engage in problem-solving activities. Color’s ability to improve productivity and mood may account for why a large number of design offices use color prominently in their décor.” (Sherin 83) Even though as viewers we are not in the room with the characters, colors have unconscious impact in our brains

        The third scene to be analyzed is the scene where Gustave, Zero and Agatha attempt to steal the painting back from Dimitri. (1:20:19 – 1-27:57) Since Gustave, Zero and Agatha knew that the painting was located at the hotel, they sent Agatha to get the painting. When Agatha found the painting, Dimitri comes to pay a visit at the hotel and catches Agatha in the lobby with the painting, Dimitri starts to chase Agatha trying to get the painting back. In the process of that, Agatha falls through a window, but she manages to hold on to the ledge while the painting is hanging over the building. People outside of the hotel sees her and yells for help, Zero hears the call for help and runs to try to lend a hand but Zero falls through the window managing to hold on to the ledge as well. While they are hanging on, Agatha informs Zero that the second will is hidden behind the painting. After everything is settled, the reading of Madame D.’s second will is held at the hotel, and she leaves Gustave with everything, including The Grand Budapest Hotel, as she was the secret owner of the hotel all along.

        Throughout the movie, the hotel staff dresses in violet is seen a lot. According to the book “If It’s Purple, Someone’s Gonna Die: The Power of Color in Visual Storytelling” by Taylor and Francis Group, the color purple often appears in movies to announce the death of someone of something. They state “that purple is a color that inspire associations with the non-physical. It sends a signal that someone or something is going to be transformed. For example in West side story Ronaldo, his purple shirt as intense as his attitude, members with Anita, not knowing that in twenty four hours he will be dead. In The Sixth Sense, dressed in elegant iridescent Violet, Anna goes to the Wine cellar only to return and within minutes see her husband murdered. In Gladiator, Marcus Aurelius, his silver hairs shrouded by a Violet hood, watches his legions demolish the barbarians within the next half-hour of movie time, he, too, will die.” (Bellantoni 191)

Photo by Vulture

        One of the most iconic scenes from the movie is when Madame D. is in the red elevator with three of the hotel concierges, as they all wear violet, while Madame D. is wearing red. Since red and violet are analogous colors, they go together and it shows strong contrast, the shade of red that Madame D. is wearing blends in with the elevator, as if she was fading away. As mentioned above, Madame D. died, and the hotel staff’s uniform in the color violet foreshadows her death.

        The lobby of the hotel has red carpet, and walls have pink panels with brown and white marble walls.  As you can see, the color pink is consistent within the hotel. Pink can mean different things to people, but in this movie we associate it with the hotel, “image schemas and semantic frames of color conceptualization, with the resulting assessment of a given item, support the hypothesis that it is impossible to interpret color without context; indeed the meaning is made known to us through our perception of color in an embodied Figure/Ground alignment.” (Biggham) The reason we associate the hotel with the color pink is because throughout the movie it is always present. The reception area has red cupboards, and the concierge wears purple uniform. A war breaks between the hotel and Dimitr’s family causing many to gather in the hotel’s lobby. Because of the war, the government was sent to help and each department was represented by different colors. Hotel staff’s uniforms are purple, Government officials wear grey and Dimitri’s family wear black.

        Humans do a good job at associating different colors to different things. Brand use a color to represent their product, so when people see that color, they think of the brand. “When we think of CocaCola and Verizon, we immediately think red. Likewise, the color blue is associated with iconic brands like United Airlines and Walmart. Designers often choose primary colors for the visual mark of important brands.” (Sherin 104) In an article by Adam Wooten called “Color Meanings Lost and found in Translation: Salt Lake Telegram” he talks about how different cultures interpret colors, he says that color meanings may contradict each other across borders. Black may symbolize death in western culture, but white is the color of death in parts of Asia. White is the bridal color in western culture, but red is the bridal color in China. Red symbolizes joy in parts of Asia, but it signifies mourning in parts of Africa.(Wotten)  On another research by Kauppinen-Räisänen it also states that Based on the previous discussion, a color is a symbol when the link between the sign and object is arbitrary. This means that the symbolism of colors is understood only through a silent agreement, which may explain why this symbolism is not universal and why meanings may vary across products and when crossing borders and cultures. (Kauppinen-Räisänen) Although the meaning of color can vary between cultures, Wes Anderson has developed a “culture” within the movie, in this movie, when viewers see the color pink, they will associate it with the hotel, and from the colors that people wear, viewers can identify that they belong to a certain “group”, the hotel, the government or Dimitri’s family.

        Wes Anderson is uses color to send the viewers a message and pass on information about the movie without using words. Nugraha states that signs and symbols can be studied not only in language (both written and spoken forms) but also in rituals, culture, images, art and color- in fact, anything that can be ‘read as text’. Based on Chandlers (2002:217), the advantage of using semiotics in analyzing color is as it helps us to realize that meaning is not passively absorbed but arises only in the active process of interpretation. (Nugraha) This means that color can be a form of communication, just like words. Color also affects mood and behavior. “It can change how we perceive a product or company and it can evoke atmosphere and convey symbolism. As much as 80 percent of our sensatory perception is determined by sight, so what we see is paramount to our understanding of the world around us. Given the importance of sight and the prevalence of color in the natural world, it is not surprising that humans have come to ascribe meaning to particular hues and color relationships.” (Sherin 82) Everyone sees color differently, and the colors in a movie subtlety send messages to our brain about the emotion of the scene.

        The Grand Budapest Hotel follows the rules of color in design, by pairing colors that are primary, secondary and tertiary to achieve color harmony, associating colors to different characters to communicate meaning to the audience. Color plays an important role in every kind of design, from marketing a product to the right audience, designing a logo for a brand’s success, coming up with packaging to help consumers understand what your product and brand represents, developing a webpage that is pleasing to consumers to browse, making a book cover so readers will show interest, making a poster for an event that will attract people, to communicating with viewers in a movie or show. Color is one of the many design languages that a designer cannot lack. By following the rules of design, can create an ordered environment that people can understand even if they are not consciously aware of the designs around them.

Works cited

Bellantoni, Patti. If It’s Purple, Someone’s Gonna Die: the Power of Color in Visual Storytelling, Taylor & Francis Group, 2005. ProQuest Ebook Central,

Biggam, C. P. New Directions in Colour Studies. Amsterdam ; Philadelphia: John Benjamins Pub., 2011, ProQuest Ebook Central,

Holtzschue, Linda. Understanding Color : An Introduction for Designers. 4th ed. Hoboken, N.J.: Wiley, 2011.  ProQuest Ebook Central,

Kadavy, David. Design for Hackers : Reverse Engineering Beauty, John Wiley & Sons, Incorporated, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central,

Kauppinen-Räisänen, Hannele, and Marie-Nathalie Jauffret. “Using Colour Semiotics to Explore Colour Meanings.” Qualitative Market Research, vol. 21, no. 1, 2018, pp. 101-117. ProQuest,

Kuehni, Rolf G. Color : An Introduction to Practice and Principles. 3rd ed. Hoboken, N.J.: Wiley, 2012. ProQuest Ebook Central,

Nugraha, Deden N. S. “The Color Meaning in Go Green Logo: A Semiotics Study.” Global Business and Management Research, vol. 11, no. 1, 2019, pp. 55-65. ProQuest,

Sherin, Aaris. Design Elements, Color Fundamentals a Graphic Style Manual for Understanding How Color Impacts Design. Beverly, Mass.: Rockport, 2012. ProQuest Ebook Central,

Trimble, Eleanor. The Influence of Colour Priming on Consumers’ Physiological Responses in a Retail Environment Using EEG and Eye-Tracking. 2018. EBSCOhost,

Wooten, Adam. “Color Meanings Lost and found in Translation: Salt Lake Telegram.” Deseret News, Jan 21, 2011. ProQuest,

The Grand Budapest Hotel. Directed by Wes Anderson, performances by F. Murray Abraham, Adrein Brody, Willem, Dafeo, Mthieu Amalric, Aorise Ronan, Jason Schwartzman, Tilda Swinton, Tony Revolori, Fox Searchlight, 2014.