The Dark Side of Color Theory

There are many things to consider at the high level conceptual stage of an interior design, but one of the most expressive fundamentals is crafting the color palette.  Here are two palettes from recent projects that, while distinctly different visually, rely on a similar theoretic principle.  Each palette was based on the decision to promote artistic drama rather than the oft over-prescribed notion that spaces should be made to seem larger.

The Garret Room

When we began to noodle the best approach to a family media room in an attic of an historic home, we rejected the obvious choice of painting the walls in light, bright hues to make the space appear larger.  In this home, we had already created fresh, sunny palettes on the main and second floors, so we felt the attic could be better served is a deeply-shaded and cozy away space.  We theorized that the value of visually expanding the room was not trumped by the greater goal of giving the homeowners a nurturing and even theatrical sense of place. 

Because the house has a classic mansard roof, the walls slant on four sides as they approach a narrow jot of ridge at the middle of the room.  Two dormers - one tasked for window seating and the other for a modest custom bar - provided a fair amount of natural light.  By painting the walls from base to ridge in a dark blue, we promoted a cozy sensibility for the attic.  The rather beaten up original wood flooring we had painted in a green hue equal in saturation and value to the wall color, so that while there was some variation, the floor and walls had minimal visual distinction; our goal was to keep the eye moving fluidly with the architecture instead of the gaze hanging up on sometimes awkward transitions.  A large sectional in dark chestnut leather further promoted the rich palette, while accents in bright yellow and taupe provided points of brightness and chilly contrast.     

The Jewel Parlor

There was something about this parlor in another historic home that seemed to be waiting for dramatic wall color.  And our client has a peaceful and yet magnetic energy that we felt would be nicely expressed in a space with muted variations of jewel tones.  Starting with a jade lamp the homeowner wanted to use in the room, we built an analogous palette that moved away from blue-greens and toward yellow on the color wheel.  The use of a rich plum on the walls managed to serve both a warm and cool helping of wow factor.  

Because the parlor had a large vista onto a sunny, off-white dining room at one end, and a large, off-white builtin at the other, we knew that there was plenty of lightness to offset our wall color choice.  We had purposed a boxy turret space adjacent to the builtin for a handsome Japanese travel bar; we opted to carry the soft whiteness of the trim onto this alcove to further contrast and highlight the plum tone of the primary space - and to frame the bar for emphasis.  Using dark emerald velvet on a tufted accent chair and a geometric woven in chartreuse and cream to wrap the outside back of the sofa, we pinned down our progression of green to yellow-green hues. 

We're big fans of white-wall decor and recognize the place it has taken in contemporary interior design, but our opportunities to work in dark hues are always a welcome change of pace.  The important things to consider when deciding whether or not a room should go to the dark side is how the color choice will serve the overall purpose of the room and how you will construct a palette with enough variation and contrast to not be flattened out by the weight of the main color itself.   

Tips

  • Remember that the walls will be the background of the canvas, and the furnishings will create the layering towards the foreground. If larger furnishings have sufficient lightness, they will alleviate the heaviness of the wall color.
  • Darker rooms swallow light, so consider using a paint finish with a bit of sheen to help bounce both natural and artificial light. Know that sheen will highlight imperfections in the wall surface, so we recommend a professionally applied skim coat to make the walls picture perfect.
  • In a room where the wall color is more assertive, the textures of fabrics should be far bolder and the scale of prints riskier.  The beauty of starting from a place of intentional drama is that boldness is welcome and necessary for harmony.
  • Consider how a dramatic paint color will impact the visual rhythm of a space.  If there is a series of awkwardly placed closet doors, it is sometimes advisable to paint them out in the same color as the wall.  The same can be said of a chair rail, which becomes a light belt around a dark room, often cutting the perceived height of the walls and pulling attention away from more important elements of the design.
  • Before panicking when the paint is half up and you begin to waver in your resolve, pull a few pieces into the space and view them against the walls.  You'll never feel more vulnerable about your choice than when the room is without any of the components that helped inspire the color.