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  • Writer's pictureBen

Why are theatre and cinema seats traditionally upholstered in red?

Updated: Jun 30, 2022

Our latest set of refurbished vintage cinema seats were upholstered in a particularly striking colourful velvet fabric and it got me thinking. Why do most theatres and cinema use red velvet fabric when there are so many other options? Surely it can't purely be down to tradition?

After a little bit of research I now have my answer.. It seems that it is partly down to tradition, with the red and gold palette of Italian opera houses replicated by other opera houses across Europe, but interestingly there is also a more scientific explanation.

It's due to an effect called the Purkinje shift, named after the scientist who discovered it, Jan Evangelista Purkinje. Purkinje made many scientific discoveries during his lifetime, including sweat glands, and was so famous in his time that people sending letters outside of Europe only had to write 'Purkinje, Europe' on the envelope for them to find their way to him.

Purkinje discovered the effect in 1819 during one of his regular long dawn walks through fields of flowers in the area now known as the Czech Republic.. Purkinje noticed that his favorite flowers appeared bright red on a sunny afternoon, while at dawn they looked very dark. He reasoned that the eye has not one but two systems adapted to see colors, one for bright overall light intensity, and the other for dusk and dawn.

With red being the first colour that is lost to our sight in low-light conditions it virtually disappears when the theatre lights go down.. So the traditional red velvet choice makes sense for reducing distractions, especially when paired with a set of red curtains.

It was pleasing to find out the red velvet choice is based on more than just tradition, although I would still love to see more theatres ignoring tradition and science and being bold with their seat fabric choice.

We do of course upholster our cinema seats in red velvet for customers, but if you are looking for something less traditional we've got lots of vintage cinema seat ideas to inspire you.


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