The Power of Color

Time to paint? Move beyond white and make a drab room extraordinary.

Focus On Home Decor

March 14, 2004|By Janet Eastman

Pack it up, beige and white. You're no longer safe. Color has blasted its way back. Paint makers are pouring Pink Minx, Mystical Grape and Relish Green into gallon cans. Shocking colors are being slathered on walls by TV-show decorators who see it as a quick, inexpensive way to make over a room, and rich hues have invaded once-sterile furniture showrooms, stirring the need for Tang-colored bookshelves and banana sofas.

Inspired by all they see, savvy homeowners have seized the color wheel. Those in traditional houses are rolling over plain-vanilla walls with blueberry latex and re-covering khaki chairs with multihued beaded silks. Others in sleek glass-and-steel moderns are injecting prismatic colors that are straight from Fisher-Price toys.

These people are not timid. They understand the power of color, that it can update a room, create a space that's welcoming, highlight an architectural detail and camouflage a flaw.

But color is more than visual fizz. It changes us. Robin's-egg blue is calming, while neon orange makes us edgy.

Color, too, changes. It is influenced by light, climate and its immediate surroundings. That's why Chinese red, Mexican pink, Indian saffron and Southwest terra cotta often look best in their birthplaces.

Complicating everything for those of us who think gray is a bold step is the fact that no one sees color the same way. Your red-orangy Coca-Cola red might look like someone else's stoplight red.

So we hesitate. We worry about burning up our money, time and pride only to be forced to live in something that doesn't reflect our tasteful selves.

As one interior designer lamented about some of his clients, "Being a colorist is like being a therapist. Your clients don't know what the problem is, but you have to tell them how to solve it."

Here it is, then, the first truism for getting color to work for you: You will get it right only by trying. And failing. And trying again.

Find comfort in this: Even the pros, who know the color families better than their own, mess up. But they keep adding and subtracting until everything balances out -- lights and darks, hards and softs.

There are different ways to do this. Carl Tillmanns, a house-painting contractor and color designer, likes color and pours it on walls with a skilled eye and hand. But Jeffrey Alan Marks is an interior designer who dispenses color as if through an eyedropper. He'll design a monochromatic room and add a jolt of color such as a canary-yellow chair.

Both live in graceful Los Angeles homes enhanced by their choices. Tillmanns' Mission-style two-story is his lab. "I learn through time, experience and trial and error," he says. "Each room is a process. You build on it."

When he and his family moved into their house, they didn't want furniture or artwork to have visual punch. Instead, the walls became the focus. Slowly, layer by layer, Tillmanns found the way to make the once-neglected rooms grand with a montage of colors and faux finishes. Cheesecloth-applied glaze added texture and depth, and he put brown and purple deck paint on the resin entry floor and stair risers to simulate tile.

Tillmanns wanted the sitting area to be the highlight of the large living room, so he painted the fireplace surround and mantel the same colors as the velour sofa: cerise and black. The walls, as in other rooms, are in versions of muted yellow ochre. "Depending on the time of day, the house glows yellow, golden, green and even red," says Tillmanns' wife, Rachel Feldman.

Their daughter, Nora, asked that her bedroom be painted a potentially clashing combination of pea green, cranberry and purple. Separating the colors into defined spaces seemed best. "There is a lot of color in this room, but it doesn't shout," says Tillmanns. "Using bold color doesn't have to be scary."

Designer Marks, meanwhile, uses color sparingly, as punctuation. His rooms, painted in parchment color, are made bold by pillows, art and flowers.

Marks transformed the interior of his 1938 Hollywood Regency home by adding rusty suedes, quilted orange and apple-green silks, and shiny yellow-glazed cottons. The runner on the stairs has thin stripes of these colors.

"Everyone has seen beige and what it can do," he says. "But it's not stimulating. People don't want their house to look like their neighbors' or to look store-bought in that monochromatic, no-feeling manner. They want the emotional charge that color gives."

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.


Every year, there are new and intriguing choices in paint colors and finishes. The latest buzz:

* Hot colors: White is still the top seller, with neutrals accounting for 70 percent of sales at Dunn-Edwards Paints in Los Angeles. And the rest? Deep earth tones are especially popular, says color specialist Helen Tillotson. "The rusts, the golds, the greens."

Paprika red is so trendy in dining rooms that British paint company Farrow & Ball named one of its shades "Eating Room Red." Also popular: sage green, pumpkin orange, mocha brown.

* Special effects: Fashion designer Ralph Lauren has capitalized on the faux finish trend, adding textured looks to his paint line.

* Environmentally friendly: Casein, or milk paint, was used on woodwork and furniture in America in the 16th through 19th centuries. Created by tinting buttermilk or skimmed milk with earth or vegetable pigments and citrus juice, the paint was prized because it dried to a subtle sheen. Among companies re-creating the formula: Old Fashioned Milk Paint Co. ( and Nutshell Natural Paints (

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