Annie Schwemmer, Renovation Design Group
The sea of ivory-colored homes with white walls and beige carpet is evidence that people are generally afraid of color. But really they shouldn’t be — at least not for architecture’s sake.
Architects love color. Throughout architectural history, various styles have used bold and vibrant color to enhance architectural features. From the blue-painted hearth of a Colonial Revival to the deep red parlor walls of a Queen Anne townhouse to the teal accents of a Craftsman bungalow, there has always been a place for color.
Even in today's open-plan homes where kitchens, living rooms and dining rooms are often one large space, color is used to help define interiors and create focal points in relatively featureless rooms. The trick, of course, is figuring out which colors to use and where to put them.
An effective way to use color to transform a room is to accentuate its architectural features. You can add layers and interest to spaces with molding, wainscots, mantels and built-in bookshelves and then differentiate them from the walls with color. Since the Federal period and continuing even today, white and off-white have been the traditional choice for molding, windows, and doors, but be bold and consider other colors than white. Try painting the casing (or trim) one step lighter or darker than the primary wall; just this slight variance will add interest.
For a bolder approach, try using two different trim colors in the same room. For example, the door and window molding may be traditional white, but try painting a built-in bookcase or niche a shade of green in a room with blue walls. This will add interest and will highlight the items on the bookcase or inside the recessed area. The back panel of a glass-door cabinet can also be accented with color to draw the eye in.
A room containing wainscoting provides a good opportunity for a contrast between light and dark. A dark wainscot below a lighter wall will draw attention to the upper walls, while a bright white wainscot next to a colored wall will focus the eye on the wainscot. You can also use paint to create the effect of wainscot where it doesn't exist by covering the bottom third of the wall in one color and the upper walls in another; place a piece of molding along the intersection and paint it the color of the lower wall to reinforce the wainscot look.
In a basic, relatively featureless room, consider using an accent wall. For the most dramatic and more contemporary look, paint the accent wall a vivid color paired with white or neutral walls. For a less dramatic look while still giving the room some punch, paint the primary walls a soft color (such as beige or green) and the accent wall three shades darker. Commercial paint companies create their colors in "families," which makes it easy to know which colors will blend well. Select two or three colors off of the same card, and they will work well together.
One big color mistake is neglecting the ceiling. When you are painting a room, think of the ceiling as the fifth wall of a room. Sticking to a typical white ceiling will make the room feel airy. For a slightly less traditional effect, give the ceiling some color by painting it two or three shades lighter than the wall hue. Softening the ceiling with a color relating to the walls will make the room appear larger. The same effect happens in a small room when the ceiling is painted the same color as the walls.
If you want to create a welcoming, cozy feeling, you can visually bring the ceiling down by painting it a completely different color than the walls. Dark, warm colors make a space feel cozier. The dark colors absorb natural light so they can be used in large rooms to make them feel more intimate.
For floors, lighter colors will make a room seem bigger. A highly polished wood floor will reflect light throughout a room, adding interest and variety to the space. Darker colors, especially in area rugs, can add drama and intimacy.
Neutral colors, such as gray, beige, taupe and ivory, rely more on the use of light and texture to add interest. If you crave variety, using neutral colors on the walls and floor will allow you to change the mood quickly and often by adding color through accents like pillows, slip covers or rugs.
Because color is affected so much by light, make sure you test your color selection on an actual wall in your space before you purchase gallons and gallons of a custom paint color. Those tiny chips aren’t much help in seeing how a color will react to the light in your home, so many paint companies now sell small bottles of paint so you can put a significant test swatch on your walls. Watch the color throughout the day and night to see the many shades it will show. If test bottles are not available, purchase a quart to take home to test the color.
Color isn’t something to be afraid of. Be inspired by your favorite things and take special notice of their colors. Why not use your favorite painting to create a color pallet for your home? Take the time to evaluate the look and feel you want for your room and don’t be a color coward. Remember, it is only paint, which can be changed without too much trauma. In other words, be bold and liven up those white walls!
Ann Robinson and Annie V. Schwemmer are the principal architects and co-founders of a residential architectural firm focused on life-changing remodeling designs at RenovationDesignGroup.com. Send comments or questions to ask@RenovationDesignGroup.com
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