Last Updated on September 5, 2019 by Dave Farquhar
It’s a common question: Why were early computers beige? In some ways it seems a curious color choice today.
Due to their tendency to yellow with age, there’s some occasional debate over what color early home computers really were. But, having spent about a decade working with them starting with when they were new, I can tell you that the original breadbin Commodore 64 was definitely a tan or beige color. It’s not terribly far off from a Sherwin-Williams color that they call Keystone Gray, or a Benjamin Moore color they call Bennington Gray. Its official color match is called RAL1019, but there are others that are close. It’s a dark beige with gray undertones. But the color definitely runs toward tan or brown much more than it runs toward the gray color of, say, an Atari XE or Atari ST computer of the mid-late 1980s.
Early computers from Apple and Atari were similar colors. They weren’t a spot-on match for the color Commodore used, but much closer to that color than to the light beige that became associated with PC clones for a couple of decades before black came into vogue.
I have no insider knowledge but I think I can provide some insight into the design choices.
Dark beige is a color that has been common in homes for decades because it’s a neutral color and it conveys a mood of safety. Real-estate books recommend painting rental properties a dark beige because it will look good with any existing woodwork that might be in the house, will still look fine if you have to paint any damaged woodwork (white is a common recommendation), and the combination won’t clash with whatever the tenants bring in. The scheme won’t win any awards, but it won’t ever go out of style either. Benjamin Moore says their Bennington Gray is a color that has been popular since the 18th century.
So there are a combination of factors in play here. These colors were popular in homes. In the early 1980s there was a lot of woodgrain, particularly fake woodgrain, in consumer electronics. Plus, wood paneling was extremely popular. So a dark beige color like what the Commodore 64 used was a very safe choice to use in 1982. It blended in well with a 1980s living room.
What about the IBM PC? Office equipment was often a lighter but still neutral beige. So IBM went with a color scheme along those lines so their machines would look the part in those environments. IBM also found that color did a good job of hiding dirt and dust. That meant it looked good longer between cleanings.
The IBM PC was a runaway success, although the Commodore 64 and Apple II were anything but slouches. But by the mid 1980s Commodore and Apple shifted to colors much closer to the IBM PC. I don’t know that the modernized design of the Commodore 64C and Apple IIc did much to help sales. After all, it was the software library that sold those machines, not looks, but it didn’t hurt either. The Apple II line survived into the 1990s. And when Commodore finally closed its doors in 1994, they were still finding buyers for the small number of 64s they were able to cobble together from old parts.
As consumer acceptance for computers grew, their manufacturers got more bold with their designs, and the beige designs of the 1980s and 1990s looked boring. This led to a shift to black or metallic, and even translucent designs for a while. But for a time, the boring beige boxes of old made a lot of sense.