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Color Makes The Room

August 16, 2002

Anyone who has bought a shirt or dress thinking it was one color and then stepped outside the store in bright sunlight to discover it's another has demonstrated the theory of color. Strictly speaking, color is defined as the visual sensation produced on the retina by light waves of varying length. There is color that depends on light alone and color that is partially absorbed and reflected by a substance such as a pigment. The latter is the color that shapes choices in home decorations as well as clothes.

One of the simplest yet most complicated ways to change or refresh a room is to change the colors. The owner may decide new wallcoverings and curtains will do the job or may prefer to change carpeting and upholstery as well. The trick is to find a color the family likes and feels good around and a color that works with the room including its size, location and lighting.

"There are a few ways of doing that," said Joan Polk of Joan Polk Interiors in McLean. "It's usually easier to do (choose a color) with upholstery or a color in the rug or the carpeting. You can pick the least color in a fabric and put it on the wall."

Polk, who is designing a morning room and pantry for the NSO Decorators' Showhouse, mentioned a client who is redoing her family room after 12 years and is changing the carpet and reupholstering, as well as changing the walls, which are currently wallpapered. "We are having an artist redo it, doing a strie (stripe) in a totally different color." She noted that a wallcovering could also be chosen, but in this case an exact color was wanted.

"Before you pick any color for a space, be sure you look at it in the room where it is going, " said Carolyn Ann Taylor, of Waterford Interior Design in Reston and Waterford. She pointed out that when someone looks at color in the store, he is looking at it under fluorescent lighting, and it is completely different at home.

"Paint changes from day to night," she said. "You can find as many as five or six color hues in the same room (depending on placement and number of windows)." She suggested that the owner buy a small can of paint and put two coats of whatever color he wants to use on a large piece of cardboard and put it up against the walls. If someone doesn't want to do that, then she recommends taping together several of the small chips offered in a store. She also recommends looking at the color by itself, separate from any other color, and looking at it vertically, since that is the way it will be on the wall.

"Color is the easiest, quickest and cheapest way to change the total look of a room," said Diane Johnson of Bloomingdale’s Design Studio in Tysons Corner.

For a bedroom she would recommend cool colors, the greens and blues, because "they are more calming, more restful." For a ceiling she would take white and add a bit of the wall color to it or take the lightest shade of the color that is used on the wall.

In contrast for decorating a dining room, she would recommend warm colors. "One of the best colors for a dining room is red," she said. "Red stimulates the appetite."

She would paint the walls red, "It's very dramatic - stimulates conversation and appetite. If you had a crown molding, I would paint it in creams or white."

"It's incredible what color will do. That's how I start," said Amy Waldrop of Waldrop Designs in Clifton. As an example she talked about a kitchen redesign with clients who have a budget to keep. The first step for transforming the rather dark kitchen was to paint the walls a creamy yellow color. "It's incredible what it did," she said.

Waldrop, who comes from Atlanta, described a dining room she did as formal, Southern style with a Southern feeling. The salmon-colored walls were inspired by the fabric used in the room.

"For a family room, I like to work in light greens, yellows, beige. A family room is a great place to add art, Polk said. "I use grass cloth in mine. You are able to hide holes."

She also suggested staying away from white-white on the ceiling. "White-white is too white. It really puts a glare, and it comes off like ice." She suggested using the least number in the shade used for the wall, or a white with a slight tint in it. There are so many shades of off-white, she noted. Crown molding painted in a different color from the wall or the ceiling, or a chair rail, also adds to a room. "I like the chair rail 32 to 34 inches high," she said. "In the old days they were much lower, but it is more natural to have it higher." If a room had wainscoting, for example, she might paint it lighter that the walls. "But it depends on the size of the room and what is going on in the room," Polk said.

"Today there are no dyed-in-the-wool musts unless you are doing historic preservation, " she said.

"I'm one who throws all the rules out," said Waldrop. "There are times you have a tiny room and use a bold color and make it bigger. It all depends on how you put it together."

Waldrop believes her clients should determine the look and feel of the room and that it should be personalized. She depicted a foyer she might decorate, explaining, "I like to use clocks, family pictures, some fabric, a place to sit down. Sometimes a home is decorated from the decorator's view instead of the client's view."

New to the designing business, Waldrop resigned as president and CEO of a health-care organization to go into home design and is very much interested in family. In one home, for example, she focused on a collection of plates, in another, tassels.

"I think it is wide open and depends on the space you are working with." What she strives for is a place "that is inviting, that you would walk in and want to sit down, as opposed to not touching anything."

Johnson, who came to Bloomingdale's a year ago after running her own shop in Bethesda, noted that in the end choosing color depends on "what clients have existing in the room, what fabric, what carpet." She said that changing a dining room is easier than a room with upholstery. "You are usually just dealing with wood pieces and maybe a matter of flooring."

"Taking color from a rug or a painting is a great way to get paint for a room," said Taylor. "If you use fabric, take the least amount of color," she said, explaining that if you have a large red couch, you don't want red walls, but another color from the fabric. "Let the fabric be the accent for the color. Go to the color that has the least."

Taylor, who has nearly 30 years’ experience in interior design and once decorated the model homes around Lake Audubon, stresses that when changing color, one should pay attention "to what's in the room, what's going to stay. If you have a fireplace with brick or marble, you have to pay attention to the color." In a kitchen, she noted that the color of the countertop, the kitchen cabinets, the floor all matter.

Before choosing color for a living room, Taylor said that the homeowner has to start with the front foyer. "It is the very first thing people see, the last thing people see." So while it is a place of high traffic, it is also a place of lasting impressions, where color does matter.