The Conspicuous Color Drain

It was over a year ago that I got the first inkling that there was something going on in the world of residential interiors. I had just received a new edition of the Restoration Hardware catalog, and it weighed as much as a New York phone book. This was far more than just a “catalog,” this was a design style guide much like you would find in such furniture-and-more stores like Ethan Allen, Thomasville and Bassett. Page after page of stylized interiors beckoned and tantalized that you, too, Mr. or Mrs. Average, could have a room (or a whole house) that looked like it belonged in the tony enclaves of Hillsborough, San Francisco, Palo Alto or even Paris. As in France, not Idaho. (I have nothing against Idaho, it’s a lovely, refreshing place. Just not a place one thinks of to find $13,000 leather sofas).

Yes, the pieces were striking and in many cases unlike anything I’d seen in other similar establishments. But there was one obvious theme that presented itself in these hundreds of pages – there was no color. Now before you throw brickbats at me, I mean color in the sense of rainbow colors – reds, blues, greens, etc. There was none. Just every possible shade of white, cream, beige, taupe, gray, silver, graphite, tan, brown and black. The rooms even lacked plants, something that I consider a faux pas. Greenery brings life to a room, and would have improved the overall look of many of these pages. (Note to Restoration Hardware magazine people: I mean it. Investigate. Ask. And then fix this is upcoming issues). Multiple textures made these rooms far from boring, and with the exception of no plants, they were amazingly beautiful. You could find luxurious velvets, supple leathers, worn woods, gleaming metals, sparkling glass and rough jutes in nearly every photograph. The textures made the rooms interesting. I kept the catalog with the rest of my design books; this was definitely one to keep for future client projects.

It was about two months ago when I finally put it all together and realized that it was more than just one retailer’s vision. Right on schedule, Restoration sent me the next version of their book. Same idea, some revisions and new pieces. (No plants yet…) But by then I had received other catalogs, including Crate & Barrel and Pottery Barn, as well as picked up a number of style magazines and periodicals.

What I saw was neutrals …  times 10 to the 10th power.

My two deep red sofas in the living room are very distraught; they believe that their species has been hunted into extinction. Maybe they’re right, but at least I saw color being used, although in a much more subdued way. Among the taupe fabrics, dark leathers, cream walls and simple, stripped-down fireplaces were jolts of color in the form of fabulous pillow, beautiful floral arrangements (yay!), rugs and window coverings. But rather than being two or even three coordinating colors, this was either monochromatic, washed-out or color-blocked.

Here’s what I mean:

  1. Monochromatic:  I’m sure most of you know this one – it means one color theme in the room. Shades of the one select color are often used, so that it doesn’t look odd or boring. This has always been a popular design choice because it’s hard to mess it up, but it’s changed somewhat over the years. I’m seeing the larger pieces stay neutral while the accents and windows pick up the color.
  1. Washed-out:  Pastels fall into this category, as does the use of color that is faded out or just plain worn. Think cottage looks. “Cottage” seems to be the new, more accepted form of what used to be called “shabby chic.” Love it or hate it, you have to admit cottage rooms look comfortable. They’re places where you don’t have to worry about using coasters, where dings in the furniture won’t cause panic attacks and the pets can get on furniture without fear. Note: The slip covered sofa is the de rigueur piece; I have to chuckle because so many folks think these covers are machine-washable. Trust me, the good ones are NOT. They need to be professionally cleaned to maintain their shape and integrity. There’s no residential washer that I know of that can thoroughly wash a large, sofa-sized structured slipcover, not even in a Laundromat. If you need this sort of cover due to babies, incontinent pets or other such situations, use bed sheets, tucked in where necessary. Seriously. Sew two together for larger pieces.
  1. Color-blocked: These are the fun, vibrant rooms where the colors are anything but faded. Two or more colors are used, but only on accents or small pieces. You’ll find acid yellow and plum purple pillows, and a big vase of colorful flowers on the coffee table. Or turquoise, orange and hot pink against a backdrop of cool white walls and slip covered pieces, again in white or cream.

Personally, I like the change. As a designer, it can be downright difficult to coordinate and balance a room full of demanding colors. Those “Tuscan” and “French country” rooms that I did a few years ago took a lot of time, and required the review and study of many colors and fabrics to get the look right. This is going to be much easier, especially for those folks who are “scared” of color. Select one or two colors to be used in smaller amounts, and then focus on getting a good mix of neutrals in different shades and textures to complete your room. It’s still going to take time, and the help of a trained eye is still worth it, but these looks are going to be more approachable by the masses.

Stuck on a room? Tell me your challenge!