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Even a single, innocent color—a classic cream, say, or a trendy tango tangerine—has amazing powers: It can welcome or confuse us, raise our heart rate or lower our blood pressure, trigger ancient impulses or promise a fresh future. For successful design, nothing is more elemental—or essential—than color. Alas, while you’re trying to select the just-right shade for your wall or sofa, the torment far outweighs the joy. So we turned to the pros to find out what you need to know before you spin the wheel. |

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The human eye sees about


THE COLOR WHEEL Color-Wheel Spin

WARM COLORS come toward you,


while cool colors recede. To cre-

pose each other on the wheel, and

ate depth, use warm colors in the

they’re thought to complete each

foreground, then add cool ones in

other. The Impressionists added

the background.

tiny, barely perceptible dots of a

Even in fabric, there’s a tendency to create a cool background so smaller areas of warm, bright color

color’s complement so we would perceive a hue as more vibrant. The classic strategy? Let one

will pop (like a red buoy in the

color dominate and use its op-

ocean or dandelions in a meadow).

posite as an accent. If both colors

A bright, warm color can actu-

are fully saturated, they’ll bounce—

ally cause our temperature and

especially in spots where large

blood pressure to rise and our

amounts of each, like a wall and

pulse to quicken. COOL COLORS

a floor covering, come up against

do just the opposite.

one another. Tone them down; add

As a rule, warm colors arouse

a bit of each to the other; use a lot

our energy and cool colors calm

of white, gray, or black.

us. But you also have to think about brilliance and saturation.

SPLIT COMPLEMENTS, or TRIADS, are the two colors on either

Intense cool colors (like a rich

side of a color’s complement. Us-

periwinkle blue or a bright Kelly

ing this kind of color scheme adds

green) will outshout pale warm

a little nuance and tension.

colors (like a delicate pink or soft buttercup yellow).

ANALOGOUS COLOR SCHEMES use colors that are next to each other, for example, blues, bluegreens, and greens. This is a strong way to create a warm or cool mood; the only danger is that you’ll tire of it.



MAY JUN 2012


You’re Getting Warmer…

IS IT A CRUSH OR TRUE LOVE? Interior designer Victoria Dreste divides colors into true loves and crushes. “My truelove colors, I can use anywhere, forever; I’m always going to love them. A crush color can be a trend, like tangerine right now, and I’ll use it as an accent—maybe a pillow, or in a pattern. I use it sparingly, for fun, because I know it’s not long-term for me.” This is a good time for caution, because the latest trends include bright yellows and oranges and vivid blue-greens. “Sometimes people get carried away with intensity, and they’ll use a color that’s too strong,” Dreste says. “A little girl wants pink, and there’s bubblegum pink on

all four walls—oh my God. People forget that when you put a color on four walls and they all start reflecting off each other, it’s going to be intense. You have to be careful. Saturated color is OK, but if it’s in that neon section of the paint deck, be careful. Love that bright, bright orange? Do it on one wall, or for your window treatments.” Dreste flirts with pillows, lamps, and tiny accents of all kinds. See more examples online.

COLOR CONFIDENCE is Dreste’s term for the comfort zone in which we’re neither bored nor overstimulated. Interiors are like wardrobes: We want to avoid bland, but not get so dramatic it makes us nervous. Push just a bit outside that comfort zone and see what happens. You can always notch it down. |

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One of Benjamin Moore’s


It comes from the Wythe House in Williamsburg, yet its calm gives it a modern edge. Designer John Houser chose Wythe blue to set off the dark mahogany antiques his client collected when she lived in England. “The blue has some green in


it, which warms it up,” he says. “And I like

Most people crave color—lots of

match. The room becomes very

other warm colors—brown leather and the

it. “They find it enlivening,” says

one-dimensional, very flat. Different

designer Jimmy Jamieson, sound-

shades give depth.” You only want a flat, no-contrast

tend to overuse color, and it winds

interior when the room’s content—

up looking dated. I’ve found mono-

an art collection, perhaps, or strong

chrome interiors age the best,

architectural elements—is so com-

because they age the least.” He

pelling, it makes its own statement.

loves to work with SOFT SHADES OF

“At that point, it’s about form,”


Jamieson says, “not decoration.”

interior can be done just as easily

cause you’re using a single hue and

using varying shades of another

varying its brightness and satura-

color. Why vary the shades? For the

tion. There’s nothing that will clash;

same reason that you layer textures

no flirtatious relationship that could

and add interesting details. “Let’s

look ridiculous in years to come. All

say you’re doing a red room,” Ja-

of the room’s objects and textures

mieson says. “There’s nothing worse

are tied together visually. Harmony

than having every red be an exact

is instant.


which are measured by the light’s wavelength. BRIGHTNESS is how dark or light the color is; what shade or tint it is. The color’s purity



MAY JUN 2012

tal rugs.” For the trim, he chose Benjamin Moore’s Richmond Bisque, rather than “a bright white that makes the millwork zing off the walls.” It’s all very thoughtful, but in the end, he says, there’s no formula for what works: “Colors surprise you.”

Monochrome works so well be-

are shades of one of the pure colors on the spectrum,


orangey reds in some of her older Orien-


ing totally unconvinced. “But they

the way it then works in combination with

“Why do two colors, put one next to the other, sing?

Can one really explain this? No. Just as one can never learn how to paint.” —PABLO PICASSO

HOW TO STEAL FROM HISTORY “If you think about mauve and gray from the 1980s, they almost encapsulate that time,” Jamieson remarks. Does that mean they’re banned from the spectrum? Not at all. “You can still use recognizable colors from the past, but use them in fresh ways, so they won’t mimic the period they evolved from. Remember the famous HARVEST GOLD and AVOCADO GREEN from the ’70s? Young designers have updated it to a gold, orange, and light green palette in which the avocado’s more like chartreuse. PHOTOGRAPHY BY PATRICK GARRETT

“When you’re choosing colors, keep the parts of the interior where you’re making your biggest investment—usually window treatments and area rugs—in as timeless a color as possible,” Jamieson suggests. That doesn’t necessarily mean beige. “What’s more timeless than celadon green?” he asks. “Than a soft blue? There are certain shades of red that could not be more timeless.” To remind yourself of timeless colors, check a paint company’s historical paint color collections. You don’t have to use those particular colors; you can use derivatives of them.

FREE ASSOCIATION In De Coloribus, a student of Aristotle’s defined the simple colors as those associated with fire, air, water, and earth. Those elemental colors have powerful effects on us still, with blue calming us as the ocean does, yellow warming us like the sun, green bringing us the peace of rolling hills, and red evoking the excitement, alarm, and fascination of fire. From there, color

gets complicated. Orange looks bolder paired with navy than it does paired with pale yellow; it seems more reddish when it’s placed next to green and more yellowish when it’s placed next to blue. Brightness and luminosity matter, too: Most living things orient themselves toward sunlight, a source of energy and growth. Dark is more passive; it’s about sleep and stillness.

COLOR FILTERS • The light around us (northern and cool or tropical and warm) • Historical and cultural associations (red and green mean Christmas) • Nature (terra cotta, spring green) • Physiological effects (the wave- lengths’ effect on our optic nerve) • Fashion and superstition (“Paint the dungeon red and drive the prisoner mad,” it was once believed) • Our own temperaments (vibrantly extroverted or coolly reflective) |

MAY JUN 2012 57


A rich, deep RED makes sense for a

GREEN is said to be the most bal-

dining room: It’s welcoming, warm,

ancing color, combining the warmth

and exciting, stimulates adrena-

of yellow with the ease of blue. Right

line, and speeds metabolism. Red’s

smack in the center of the spectrum,

about passion and indulgence. (If

it suggests the restfulness of nature.

you want to eat sparingly, go for

It’s also essentially a neutral, pairing

sky blue. You won’t find a fast-food

smoothly with virtually any other

restaurant done in that color.)

color. Use it anywhere.

For a playroom, try ORANGE:

WHITE is serene, clean, unclut-

It’s a happy color that’s thought to

tered, and wide-awake—perfect for

enhance creativity and socializing.

a breakfast room, a laundry room,

For a grown-up playroom, like a

an office, even a living room if you

terrace or an outdoor living room,

warm and ground it with a big

try TURQUOISE, which has both

fireplace and a few bright accents.

warm and cool undertones, sug-

To make a white room interesting,

gests a Mexican or Caribbean resort,

vary the tints of white, the textures,

and works easily with other colors.

the scale. To keep the room airy, use

The calmest bedrooms are BLUE, which cools both body and mind. It feels spacious and relaxing because

glass, mirrors, and reflective metals; to warm it, use wood.

BLACK makes for a sophisticated

it suggests the sky, and it pairs eas-

living room or a kitchen, if there’s

ily with all wood tones and virtually

plenty of space and some relief of

every neutral: white, beige, gray…

white or a splash of bright color.

Try VIOLET for a meditation

Every room needs a touch of black,

room; it slows nervous energy,

to give the eye a place to rest. Use

deepens relaxation, and encour-

black in details throughout, to tie

ages contemplation.

the room together effortlessly.



MAY JUN 2012

adds. “If someone is understated and quiet, rarely are they going to look at home or even feel at home in a bold interior. There’s nothing worse than wondering, when someone answers the door, if they work there or live there.”

RED LIGHT WAVES ARE THE LONGEST; purple are the shortest. The moods those two colors create are opposite, and their brazen clash has been a boon for decadent Italian artists and Red Hat ladies.



“If you like bold colors, you have to have a space that will absorb that,” says Jamieson. Can a small space do so? “Not often, unless the small space becomes the envelope for all the color.” You also have to have a bold personality, he

LIGHTING Lighting makes a difference in the way we see color, so it’s important to know which kinds to use and how to use them. St. Louis lighting designer Ken McKelvie gave us a few pointers. —Todd Schuessler

INCANDESCENT These bulbs give off a yellowish glow and are better at bringing out warm tones than cool ones.

FLUORESCENT Fluorescent lighting—the bluish-white kind—is the best choice for laundry rooms and closets (it helps you distinguish between navy and black) but not bedrooms (it’s wakeful) or bathrooms. Use the highest-quality SPX lamps.

HALOGEN This is the best choice for lighting artwork because of its whiteness. To adjust the character of the art colors, try filters. Be careful lights don’t overheat.

CFL Compact flourescent is great for energy savings, but the bulbs have a slightly sallow cast.

LED Light-emitting diodes are starting to replace recessed incandescent lighting in high ceilings because of their long lifespan and their bright, bluish-white light, which is great for reading. ■


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Color Feature Illustrations