In this lousy economy, it’s a safe bet that the classic job-hunter’s guide “What Color is My Parachute?” is selling even more than usual. I’m crazy about color, and in awe of its complexity.
In July’s British Vogue, a writer whose name combines a fruit and a color, Plum Sykes, wrote about her love of a soft pink especially flattering to her pale English complexion. August’s issue of House Beautiful is devoted to color and reveals how some interior designers figure out what to suggest to their clients — a standard trick is observing what clothes they choose and what flatters them.
Planning to leave journalism and become an interior designer, I studied at The New York School of Interior Design, where I learned firsthand, by mixing it from scratch, how incredibly challenging it can be to mix every permutation of a color. (Earning that A- was a triumph.) Creating the color of putty doesn’t sound difficult, but it is. Yellow is everything from daffodil to butter to turmeric. I learned what chromatic means and when a color is just too loud, how to mute it (not by adding white, but its opposite on the color wheel.) Some of the most beautiful combinations, not coincidentally, are color wheel opposites — for example, the classic combination of a pale pink and wine bottle green, variants of red and green. When two colors work in harmony, this is often why. Look at a sunset — all purples and yellows — and look at the color wheel. Nature gets it right.
Color fanatics, and fellow shelter book addicts, know Farrow & Ball isn’t a law firm but the British makers of quiet, subtly-hued paints and elegant wallpapers. Mixing their paint, which you’re instructed to do gently, never shaking the can like a cocktail mixer as I usually do, is like handling Devon cream, thick, smooth and luscious. I live surrounded by their gentle colors, and love them. How can you resist colors named Cat’s Paw, Down Pipe or Dead Salmon? A Seattle psychiatrist and New York photographer have put together a coffee table book showing F & B colors used in interiors.
House Beautiful suggests a few fun color-focused websites in their current issue, colourlovers.com to find fellow obsessives, and donaldkaufmancolor.com, the site for some of the softest, most interesting colors out there. Kaufman is a legend in his industry and his site explains color well.
When the going gets tough, I wear navy blue. It makes me feel like a BOAC stewardess circa 1964, all crisp, cool, calm competence. Cops and airline pilots wear navy blue. They handle stress with grace and so, I hope when I don it as well, will that color offer me some of the same talismanic protection. I wore navy blue, top and bottom, when I went on a cold, wet, February day to meet the publisher of Pocket Books, a scary and career-making (or breaking) encounter that I hoped would result in the sale of my first book. It did. I wore it when I interviewed in 2005 for my first newspaper job in 20 years, (different outfit, same deep hues), and got it. Like the soothing sound of waves on the shore, navy blue lowers my blood pressure.
Travelers see how color shifts by region and country. The brilliant hues of Ionian or Oaxacan walls can leave you breathless, but translate poorly, if at all, to a more northern place with very different light. Shopping for clothes in Stockholm, I thought the colors looked weirdly and incomprehensibly wrong — all pale, icy blues and deep, saturated shades like a brown-soaked plum or burnt orange. It took me a while to figure out why, but they are colors that look best on people with extremely pale skin, eyes and hair. Makes sense, there, but it also made me appreciate the variety at home in New York, where clothes have to suit people whose skin comes in a wide range of colors. I buy objects in other countries for pleasure, but also to recall of how differently color is used there. A pair of earrings from Paris are a soft red and smoky gray, an unlikely combination in New York. When I go back to Canada, I often find clothes in colors and shades — like navy blue, a more European classic — I can’t find, or find as easily and in many styles, in New York City, where black often rules.
If you’re as obsessive as I, here are some terrific articles on the subject from back issues of House Beautiful. I love this book by Victoria Finlay, a former Reuters reporter, that examines color and its meanings. Amy Butler Greenfield’s book, about the color red, is filled with historical detail and won the final Martha Albrand Award, in 2006, for an author’s first work of non-fiction.
What’s your color and why?