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The Origins, History, and Design Power of the Color Copper

More flattering and gentle than gold or silver, copper in both its non-metallic and metallic forms is a beautiful and versatile color for brand design, graphics, and interior design. Traditionally associated with industrial manufacturing, copper has been revisited by designers in recent years looking to inject an understated glamor into their projects. Read on to discover the origins and psychological properties of the color copper, as well as tips and inspiration for using this warm red-brown in your designs.

Eager for more color inspiration? Discover a spectrum of colors to use in your designs with our new color tool.

The Origins, History, and Design Power of the Color Copper — Design Tips
Image by contributor philip openshaw.

Where is Copper on the Color Wheel?

Copper doesn’t always feature on a traditional painter’s color wheel. The non-metallic hue is a blend of red and brown—so it’s not strictly a shade of red (which would incorporate black, rather than brown). Metallic copper can appear more orange, and in some incidents more beige or creamy in color, due to its reflective qualities.

Generally speaking, on a contemporary color wheel copper appears between orange and red.

The Origins, History, and Design Power of the Color Copper — Color Wheel

Color wheel images adapted from contributor Antun Hirsman

Types of Copper

Copper can be used in both its metallic and non-metallic forms.

Non-metallic copper is more subdued than its metallic counterpart, and the shade is often seen in nature. Naturally occurring in the pigment of some plants and animals, such as the copperhead snake, copper can vary from deeper, redder tones to paler, buff-colored hues.

The Origins, History, and Design Power of the Color Copper — Copperhead Snake
Image by contributor Wildvet.

Some historically recorded hues of copper include:

  • Copper rose—a pinkish, almost mauve tone of copper first recorded as a color name in English in 1928, in Maerz and Paul’s A Dictionary of Color.
  • Copper penny and pale copper are two copper shades created and named by Crayola. Pale copper is a non-metallic shade created in 1903. Copper penny mimics the hue of US currency, and was a metallic shade formulated by Crayola in 1990.
  • Copper red is a deep tone of copper containing more red and dark brown. Copper red was first used to describe a color in the late 16th century.

Discover how you can use a variety of copper, brown and red hues using the Shutterstock color tool. Explore palettes and images related to a range of warm colors, including amber, burnt orange, and copper.

Copper’s Complementary Color

Being closely related to brown and red, which complement blue and green respectively, copper can be paired with blue-green to create a dramatic yet complementary result.

The Origins, History, and Design Power of the Color Copper — Complementary Color

However, because copper is a dynamic color that blends red, brown, and orange, it can be teamed with a broad range of hues from the cool side of the spectrum, such as turquoise, purple, and navy, to create a similar high-contrast pairing.

Color wheel images adapted from contributor Antun Hirsman.

The Meaning of Copper

Effectively a dressed-up shade of brown, copper also embodies the color’s warm, homely energy. A hint of red lends it a more impassioned and lively energy, which is then further enhanced in its metallic form. Rose-toned coppers are more feminine and playful, while orange-infused coppers are energetic and exuberant.

An overwhelmingly warm shade, copper has a comforting, homely feel that makes it feel more approachable and down-to-earth than other metal shades, such as gold and silver.

Because of its association with money, copper can be indicative of wealth. But, the fact that it is a feature of low-value currency makes it feel more comforting than luxurious. Popular in rustic interior design, copper often features on traditional cookware and basins, lending it a soothing domesticity.

Also strongly associated with the Industrial Revolution and Victorian period, during which copper was used for water piping and, later, for electrical wiring, copper still retains a factory mood. When used in urban settings, its vintage industrial flavor is enhanced, especially when teamed with warm woods and ironwork.

The Origins, History, and Design Power of the Color Copper — The Meaning of Copper
Image by contributor Lia Koltyrina.

The History of Copper

Copper is a native metal, meaning that it can be used directly without extraction when it occurs in nature. This allowed it to be one of the earliest metals to be used by ancient people, dating back to 9000 BC in the Middle East. 4000 years later, cultures developed a stronger alloy of copper, bronze, by alloying it with tin. This development marked the start of the Bronze Age.

The Ancient Egyptians used copper for its perceived medicinal properties, using the metal to sterilize wounds and drinking water, and later to treat ailments like headaches, burns, and itching. We now know that copper and its alloys are naturally antibacterial.

In the Roman period, copper was celebrated for its natural luster. Venus, the goddess of love, was associated with copper in mythology, in part due to its beauty and also because of its use as a material in mirror production.

The Origins, History, and Design Power of the Color Copper — Natural Luster
Image by contributor Kisialiou Yury.

Copper’s role in currency has a long history, stemming back to the Romans, who used lumps of copper as money between the 6th and 3rd centuries BC. Copper alloys, such as brass and bronze, have been widely used in currency ever since.

In the late 19th century, a new use was found for copper, in using the material to create electrical wires. Favored as a material for the construction of ships, roofing, plumbing, and industrial machinery, it was also famously used to build the Statue of Liberty.

During the 20th century, metallic copper was the preserve of rustic interior design, the favorite metal of farmhouses and country inns. Industrial designer Tom Dixon is credited with resurrecting copper as a desirable metallic for urban home products when he created his first Copper Shade pendant lamp in 2005. A wealth of other home brands, such as Habitat and IKEA, have since followed suit. Copper crops up on everything from chair legs to wastepaper baskets.

The Origins, History, and Design Power of the Color Copper — Tom Dixon
Tom Dixon’s iconic Copper Shade pendant lights, launched in 2005. Image by contributor Natural Mosart.

While some critics have declared the copper trend to be at saturation point, the metallic shade still remains a timeless and versatile color for use in the home.

How to Design with Copper

In its non-metallic form, copper is a warmer and more fiery take on brown, mimicking the color of brick, autumn leaves, and suede. Use it as a substitute for brown to warm up a scheme, and to add more vibrancy and vitality.

In fashion and interiors, copper can conjure a 1970s mood when applied to soft-focus materials like velvet or satin. Here, fashion designer Christian Siriano maximises the cosy and comforting characteristics of copper by imagining it in luxurious plush velvet.

The Origins, History, and Design Power of the Color Copper — Fashion
Image by contributor FashionStock.com.

Metallic copper is incredibly versatile, blending luxury with a down-to-earth quality, and remains an extremely popular color in graphic design and branding as well as interior design.

Copper accents on home products, such as lamps, picture frames, and kitchen splashbacks add instant warmth and luxury to a space. Graphic designers can achieve the same effect by adding a small detail of copper foil on stationery designs, or by adding metallic-effect backgrounds to websites and apps.

The Origins, History, and Design Power of the Color Copper — Interior Design
Image by contributor Photographee.eu.

What Colors Go With Copper?

Teamed with deep shades of forest green, midnight blue, or blood red, non-metallic copper is exceptionally chic, masculine, and sophisticated.

In this brand identity for restaurant Duda, Brazillian designer Gabriel Ramos uses a rosy copper to lend warmth and cosiness to menus, business cards, and wine labels.

The Origins, History, and Design Power of the Color Copper — Print Design
Brand identity for Duda by Gabriel Ramos.

With its eye-catching reflectivity, metallic copper is best used as an accent color. It pairs beautifully with a wide range of colors, from turquoise blues to inky blacks.

This stunning map design, created using letterpress and copper metallic foiling, by Leslie Olson, teams copper with deep inky blue and green for beautiful contrast.

The Origins, History, and Design Power of the Color Copper — Metallic Embossing
The Lake and Stars map design by  Leslie Olson.

In this typographic illustration for Offf Barcelona, Dutch designer Rutger Paulusse combines a dusky pale blue shade with copper accents for an eye-popping result.

The Origins, History, and Design Power of the Color Copper — Copper Accents
Typographic poster by Rutger Paulusse.

Here, discover three stylish color palettes to make the most of copper in your designs.

Palette 1: Copper Tropics

Taking inspiration from the iridescent feathers of tropical birds, this rich palette combines jewel tones of grape, chartreuse, and emerald with an orange-copper. This is a grownup, sophisticated palette suited to luxury branding projects.

The Origins, History, and Design Power of the Color Copper — Copper Tropics

Palette 2: The Patriot

Paler coppers are rounded out nicely with strong, primary colors like red and blue. A delicate shell pink provides some feminine balance.

The Origins, History, and Design Power of the Color Copper — The Patriot

Palette 3: Alchemy

This palette looks to copper’s historic associations with alchemy and healing. A golden copper hue is made sophisticated with a deep forest green and cool pale gray. Sparky arsenic green plays the accent.

The Origins, History, and Design Power of the Color Copper — Alchemy

Eager to discover more incredible colors to use in your designs?

Discover a whole spectrum of incredible colors with our new color tool that helps to bring your projects to life.


Cover image via contributor matike.

Want to learn more about designing with color? Check these out.

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