Making a pretty home: choosing and using colo(u)r

By Caitlin Kelly

This is the first in a series of four posts, each one focused on an aspect of making your home (more) attractive. As a former student at the New York School of Interior Design, I learned a lot, and color theory was one of my favorite classes…

All those teeny, tiny paint chips!

Few decisions are as stressful for many people as choosing the colors for their homes: walls, ceiling, baseboards, floor, front door, interior doors, window trim, shutters.

Not to mention all the rugs, pillows, bedding, furniture, lighting.

Your wisest first step?

A few basic questions:

— Where does the majority of the light in each room come from? If north light, which is cooler in temperature (i.e. bluer), factor that in. If the room gets little natural light, will you paint it a rich, deep jewel tone that absorbs even more light?

The view, of a Pennsylvania field, out my friend Scott's window
The view, of a Pennsylvania field, out my friend Scott’s window

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

— What do your windows look out onto? We live on the top floor of a suburban building, and face trees, hills and a river, i.e. all natural tones. Maybe you live in the middle of a noisy, crowded city, or out in the quiet countryside. Consider your outdoor surroundings as well.

— What mood to do you hope to create? Bright and cheerful? Calm and soothing? Warm and welcoming? Bohemian gypsy? Formal and elegant? Every color, and combination of them, carries a feeling and a mood. Make sure it’s the one you really want!

— What are the most flattering colors in your wardrobe, the ones you wear again and again? Yes, really. Interior designers often take many of their initial cues by carefully observing what colors their clients wear. Makes sense — if you absolutely love black or navy blue or creamy white, (or coral or pale yellow), why wouldn’t you want these in your home as well?

— How adventurous am I willing to be? Unless your landlord forbids adding color to your walls, it’s all up to you to decide what your choices are: a ruby-red dining room, a bright yellow hallway, a charcoal gray bedroom? Simply defaulting to safe/boring white or beige can leave you and your family stuck in neutral (pun intended.) My living room, over 20+ years, has morphed from grey/beige sponge-painted to a rich deep Chinese red to its current pale yellow/green. The hallway has been several shades of yellow, coral and now the same color as the living room. Paint is the least expensive way to change the look and feel of any room.

— How much physical work/time are you willing to put in? Almost every piece of furniture can be painted to a more interesting and beautiful color. Some of my best finds have been objects that I bought in another color and later painted, like the wooden table lamp whose base was a sickly pale green with pink (!) striping, but the shape, size and price were perfect — $55; a $7 can of matte finish cream color spray paint and it looks fantastic. Ditto the enormous baskets I bought at Crate & Barrel but whose unfinished surfaces didn’t match anything. Two coats of pale turquoise paint later, they’re a nice accent atop an 18th century teal-toned armoire of the same color.

— Find inspiring colors and color schemes everywhere — from hotels, restaurants, even the movies! One iteration of our living room was inspired by the film “Gosford Park”, with deep ruby-colored curtains against rich red walls. Gorgeous! I’m still dreaming of the deep, rich turquoise walls in “The Last Station” about Tolstoy’s final days. The kitchen in “It’s Complicated” is often cited as one of the dreamiest ever.

A fact many people easily forget — the floor itself adds a large block of color! 

Before you start piling on even more new colors, look carefully and critically at each room’s floor color to make sure it will work well with everything else in the room. A common error is buying a bold carpet that ends up visually dominating the space when a softer mix of tones gives you inspiration instead.

The loveliest rooms are so harmonious in their mix of colors that nothing stands out on its own but adds to the overall look.

How, then, to choose the colors for a room?

If you’re starting from scratch, the two common and easiest inspirations are curtain/bedding fabric and/or your rug(s), as most will have a mix of several colors and tones to work from.

 

I lovelovelove this duvet cover from Pottery Barn: soft colors, classic pattern, rich but not wearyingly busy
I lovelovelove this duvet cover from Pottery Barn: soft colors, classic pattern, rich but not wearyingly busy

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Which is why solid-tone curtains are difficult! Do you really want an entire wall of…beige? Dark blue? Cold white? Check out the lovely linens from retailers like Pottery Barn, Crate & Barrel, Anthropologie and Zara Home and see what sorts of color combinations speak to you; once you’ve  chosen a harmonious palette, look for ways to repeat it throughout the room, remembering that every piece of furniture in the room, even just the trim, (if it’s wood, for example), adds yet another color to the mix as well.

Download or buy a color wheel, so you understand color relationships.

Red and green are complementary colors, and we tend to associate bright red and deep green with Christmas…but color comes in every possible tone and shade. Our living room works well visually because its color scheme is, at root, red and green — but a variety of reds, from rich bright red (rug) to Chinese red (a chest of drawers) to a burgundy/rust tone as the sofa’s trim. The greens range from sage (velvet sofa) to olive (cotton, loveseat) to pale yellow-green walls.

We found this small rug in Montreal, the exact colors and tones of the living room
We found this small rug in Montreal, the exact colors and tones of the living room

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Blue and yellow work beautifully together for the same reason. Consider a room in the same tones on the wheel: cool tones like blue, violet, lavender, leavened with cream, silver, white, for example.

I love an English country-house look — a bit weathered, lots of antiques, pattern — and that sharpened my eye when I chose this fabric for our lined bedroom curtains, a metallic-printed linen from Ralph Lauren (yes, he makes fabric, too.) It was surprisingly inexpensive and adds a depth and warmth to the room that thinner, plainer curtains never did.

A soft metallic blue overprinted on pale blue linen; note the large scale as well!
A soft metallic blue overprinted on pale blue linen; note the large scale print

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Our vertically striped living room curtains, (like the bedroom, custom-made and lined), also offered a very wide palette of possibilities and I’ve used almost every single color in them, whether in pillows, sofa trim, rug, lighting.

Once you’ve chosen a color palette for each room, find ways to link each object in the room to that scheme — I repainted plain white Pottery Barn picture frames a deep turquoise, for example, in the bedroom.

And keep your color scheme coherent! Few things are more visually exhausting and confusing than a rainbow riot of color in every space.

In our one-bedroom apartment, the dining room and bedroom are a pale, soft gray (Sherwin-Williams Modern Gray), the living room and hallways are Gervase Yellow (Farrow & Ball), the kitchen Clunch, a cool cream (also F & B) and the bathroom a rich mustard (F & B again.)

The pale gray in the bedroom is starting to feel tedious, so it’s soon to become a clear, crisp pale apple green.

When in doubt, look to nature…it’s all there!

 

Gorgeous!  A fall sidewalk in Maryland, seen while out antiquing. These are the colors of our bathroom
Gorgeous! A fall sidewalk in Maryland, seen while out antiquing. These are the colors of our bathroom

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

(I can help you — send me your questions and photos! $150/hour.)

 

9 thoughts on “Making a pretty home: choosing and using colo(u)r

  1. Your choice of paint colours sounds lovely!

    The kitchen, dining room and living room of the country cottage where I live are painted yellow. It’s not too dissimilar to Farrow & Ball’s Gervase Yellow actually, but perhaps closer to F&B’s Dayroom Yellow, as that is what we chose to paint the downstairs bathroom and utility room to match the rest of the downstairs.

    Ordinarily I wouldn’t have chosen yellow as a colour scheme: it’s not a colour that I particularly like and I don’t own any clothes in yellow. But on the walls of the cottage, it actually works really well and ties in with the greenish/blueish built-in cupboards in the living room. Upstairs we have cream, blue and a soft neutral pinkish colour.

    Oh yes, the It’s Complicated kitchen is dreamy indeed! I’d love a kitchen like that.

    1. Sounds gorgeous!

      Yellow has so many different hues, though…and it’s a great neutral background, much more interesting than beige or white. One of the things that’s fun to see is how different each piece of furniture can look against a totally different background; in The Last Station, those deep teal walls almost glow behind the mahogany furniture (but would look awful with white Ikea shelves!)

      1. Mmm, at first I thought that living with it (it was already on the walls when we moved in) would be too bright and “look at me!”. But you’re right, there are many different hues and it can be surprisingly neutral for such a sunny colour.

        Yes, it’s all about finding what works and what doesn’t, isn’t it? A TV program I often watch (reruns are constantly being shown!) is Grand Designs. You probably have something similar in the States: it’s a program where people renovate houses or build their own houses. Most of the time, the ideas are pretty good, but sometimes you see people putting really modern designs into, say, a 300-year-old farmhouse in the French Alps. And it just doesn’t work with the character of the house!

      2. It’s interesting though — the French, especially, seem able to blend super contemporary with older things quite well. It’s not easy but done well it can be really striking.

  2. fantastic questions to pose, before beginning a color scheme project in which you will live. i’ve never thought about these in a formal way, but the older i’ve gotten, i’ve evolved into using instinct, for colors i’m drawn to, or that evoke a feeling or mood within me. my little house is a combination of old and new and lots of colors, crossing over and gently bleeding into each other in a comforting way for me.

    1. Thanks much.

      When we finally renovated our tiny (5 x7) bathroom and galley kitchen, I thought less about specific colors but the mood; I wanted the bathroom to feel like a spa far away and the kitchen to be calm but sensual. Both worked out really well.

  3. Pingback: 10 MOST EXPENSIVE LUXURY HOMES IN BOSTON. - Destination Luxury

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