What do you think is the most universal interior design problem? Although I’m tempted to give my answer as “budget”, the pervasive question that clients ask on every project is “what color should we choose?” From start to near finish, color choice shows up at every step, as every material’s color must be specified. Even if you have a favorite color, existing artwork or furniture, picking the correct color on your own can be as difficult as choosing whether to save or spend your tax refund. But why is that?
Our eyes can differentiate between millions of different colors. Yet perceived color is not constant due to the ever changing nature of light. Most tend to think light sources are pretty much plain white. In reality, they aren’t. Usually they tend towards yellow, as with incandescent lamps, or blue, as with fluorescent lamps or the midday sun. The perceived color of an object, be it a wall, carpet, or flower, is simply the light reflected off of it and into our eyes. And unless it is a mirror or pure white, the remainder of the light is absorbed into the surface of the object.
So, if you start with a yellowish light, every color you see illuminated by that light will have a warm and yellow and cast to it. A white wall near a bright window will have a blue cast at midday but will then look yellowish in the evening under incandescent lamps. This is why after painting a room, many perceive the final color to be different than their original color chip. Lesson 1: the colors we see are only as good as the light source.
Complicating matters, the color of one object can be influenced by the color of another. For example, a bold wall or furniture’s color reflects its color onto other nearby objects. A bright red wall next to a white couch will cause the couch to appear slightly pink. Throw in some strong noon daylight and the red wall will look flat and the couch will look purple tinged. At night and with incandescent lighting, the red wall will come alive and the couch will appear orange. Our brain compensates for this phenomenon by making us believe that what we see is white. But if you concentrate – you can start to see the difference. Lesson 2: boldly colored objects influence the color of other objects.
Color psychologically impacts us in different ways. For example, red is a great accent due to its aggressiveness and intensity (yet pink is weakening,) green reflects the calm of nature, yellow brightens areas making them more cheerful (yet is the most fatiguing,) and purple can denote sophistication or cheapness depending on the hue. Think about your own environment and how the colors around you make you feel, and then compare those feelings with those of your roommate, partner or friends. Also think about the language you use to describe color. Your “aqua” might be very different than my “aqua”. Lesson 3: language and reactions to color are personal and can differ between people.
And lastly, the old rules for color use are pretty much obsolete. By “old rules,” I mean those that say use dark colors to make a room look smaller, bright colors to make a space look larger and never paint your ceilings anything other than white. In real life, there are so many factors that influence a space, its color and how it shows, that simple rules can’t be applied. When people do try to follow them they’re usually disappointed and subsequently don’t understand why. Lesson 4: Don’t stick with convention when it isn’t working.
So with all these misconceptions, pitfalls and curveballs how do designers actually select colors and color palates? Some of our secrets will be revealed in the next post later this week!