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