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Thursday, March 1, 2012


(with obvious debt to James Andrew & his must-read blog What is James Wearing?)

What is Bart wearing? Well, it sure as hell isn't (the liturgical calendar notwithstanding) sackcloth & ashes. That is, it isn't gray--or heaven forbid--greige. I don't do drab, not in clothes, not in rooms.

Debra  (and that's Debra Phillips, the owner of SG Grand and the blogger behind 5thandState, for anybody new to the blog)--wrote a great post the other day in which she used the word "dour" to describe the color-deprived Belgian look that, in the last few seasons, has washed across the decorating landscape like dirty water from an overturned mop bucket. After a decade of allegedly Tuscan reds & golds, the pale, all-gray look looked fresh when it was new--well, at least, as fresh as something inherently dingy can be--but enough's enough, you know?

Depending on who you listen to, the human eye can see somewhere between 7,000,000 colors and 90,000,000. Either way, that's a lot of colors, so why, all of a sudden, did so many people gravitate to the neutrality of gray? Was just because gray seemed to be an easy choice? After all, everybody knows what happens if you toss a jumbo-size box of crayons into a blender. No? Well, I'll tell you what happens: all the pretty colors cancel each other out & you end up with big glob of dark, dry sludge, sort of like oily gray cookie dough, or damp, ground-up shale. If you were like me, you also ended up with a wrecked blender, a trip to your room with no supper & all your paper route tips confiscated for a month, but that's another post. This post is about color, not science experiments gone wrong. The take-away lesson, however, is the same: that all colors mixed together blend to make gray. Remember that: it will be on the quiz.

Anyway, after Debra's post about color and about how ready she is for a little levity, I figure it's safe for me to come out as a closet colorist, too--not that some people haven't always suspected as much, especially if they've ever snooped in my sock drawer.

When it comes to argyles, the more lurid their colors, and the more strident their combinations, the better I like 'em. Not, of course, that argyles the only kind of socks I own: I also have a pair of solid black ones, in case of emergency. I wasn't a Boy Scout for nothing, you know.

Anyway, color is good, and if you're as bored with the lack of color in current interiors as Debra & I are, but from lack of experience, you don't know where to find ideas on how to combine old colors in a fresh way (and, despite what the Pantone people will tell you, there are no new colors) all you have to do is take a good look around. In the real world, I mean, not online. Or not only online. Sure, there are countless blogs full of pretty pictures of rooms that you could copy, but why restrict yourself to hand-me-down notions of beauty? Don't get me wrong: Canadian sunsets & Indian spice markets & gardens in the tropics are great, but you can find color inspiration a lot closer than that, and in places you might not expect. How about the parking garage at the mall?

But you don't have to drive. Color ideas are everywhere--even in your neglected yard.
In fact, you don't even need to get dressed--just look in your closet. Remember that bit about how all colors blend to make gray? Well, here's proof:-a closeup of the vintage jacket I'm wearing in the top photo. In this optically-blended mix--think Pointillism--dozens of colors mix to create a neutral fabric that has a vibrancy & liveliness that no solid gray fabric could ever approach. The fabric was hand-woven by P. Carr for Magee of Donegal, and no matter what else I've got on, if I wear this, everything else falls into place.

This fabric is also a good example of a useful approach for those venturing out of neutral territory for the first time: the more colors a room already contains, the more colors it can accept, whereas a narrow, too-thought-out scheme doesn't allow much leeway if you should stumble--and you will--across an unexpected find that you love, but that doesn't, you know, match. It's a big, wide wonderful world of color out there. Don't box yourself in with an overly constrictive color scheme.
So far, even though we're planning on moving the shop in a more colorful direction, Debra's still forbidding me to recover the handsome settee at the top in heavy watermelon-pink linen, but that's OK: I have a Plan B. Meanwhile, watch this space.


  1. Greige works for timid do-it-yourselfers, but when a professional decorator does it for a client, it's just lazy -- or incompetent.
    __ The Devoted Classicist

  2. you have changed my mind bart, watermelon will be perfect on the gilt settee. then, let's do another pose step back and compare
    brilliant post

  3. Since moving to my new house 15 months ago, I have embraced an entirely bolder set of colors in my decor. Gray is one of the colors but not a dominant one. I do find that treading on the appropriate side of the line between bold and garish is a challenge and a drab bit of something can bring a room back from looking like a clown suit and ground it a bit.
    PS Watermelon on the settee would be divine.

  4. Thanks for the additional vote on the settee's color, Kerry. And I agree about the use of a no-color accent in an otherwise colorful room. Somewhere in the archives, I have a page torn out NYT Home magazine which showed an all-blue Modernist room by John Saladino, with a single pearl gray vase holding a flowering branch just coming into bloom. This was 30 years ago or more but the beauty of that room and that perfect gray vase has stuck with me ever since.

    Debra, I used to have a great summer sportcoat in marled pink linen that was just the color I'm thinking of. Good luck on finding one similar.

    And John, your comment on the relation between greige & timidity reminded me of a comment by my old piano teacher. I didn't want to take lessons in the first place, so I never practiced between lessons, meaning that there was no difference between my incompetent sight-reading a new piece one week, and my miserable attempt to play it correctly a week later. There was no way to hide my laziness from her, but in order to avoid announcing it to the other students in the rooms nearby, I used to play pianissimo. That I knew how to do.

    One week, after listening with growing annoyance to a few stumbling, barely-audible measures from me, she jerked my hands off the keyboard, then launched into a spirited renditon of "Camptown Races" that positively bristled with wrong notes & botched chords. Then she glared at me & said "If you can't play the RIGHT notes, at least play the WRONG notes BOLDLY!"

    1. Ha ha! I agree with your former teacher in thinking that courage is almost always the best way to approach something.

  5. this was a wonderful post.
    i am going to run over to deb's to read her post.
    i have never had an easy time of it with none color interiors. i think it is lazy design. here in florida...most of the designers do monochromatic beige. BORING.

    thanks for you post and your comment

  6. Lively and boldly! I'm 62. I'm too old for greige/neutrals/and, god forbid, burlap on upholstery/pillows. The world is filled with beautiful color and pattern. WTF with this neutral gray world?

  7. Well, I am here waving my little color flag and jumping up and down in glee at any push for real color. So glad you stopped by to comment on the red D&B kitchen so I could see your blog. I don't feel it's fair to totally blame the Belgians, however. I do like the linen look and I'm all for gray. But, the true blame for the no-color shabby business must be put squarely on the back of Restoration Hardware (2 years of natural linen) -- because sadly the decorating sources for most Americans are catalogs (nothing new) -- and on the sisters (HB, BH&G) which first took all the wonderful color out of Swedish interiors then beat it to death. I do think color is returning -- I'm particularly heartened by the appearance of so much lavender and purple. Bless the Brits for that.
    I do, however, think the beige thing comes from two sources: an inexplicable yearning for "timeless" interiors (which means no one's taste will ever be challenged and they will never need to be updated) and the over-stimulation we all get from what my dear DH calls the "gizmos" and TV. So when someone goes home, they may want minimal visual stimulation. That will get worse as time goes on, I wager. So the fight shall live on.

    1. You're right, Jane: Belgium is no more to blame for today's drab fabrics & dessicated finishes than Tuscany was to blame a decade ago for walls slathered with red-painted joint compound, or bunches of plastic grapes hanging from scrolly iron doodads. I wonder which country's historic style will be dumbed-down & turned into a caricature of itself next?

      As far as beige's reputation as "timeless" goes--or its use as a buffer against too much visual stimulation--sometimes it's a bit too timeless. Don't forget how fast the Vicomte of Noailles was to fill the Apollonian perfection of Jean-Michel Frank's bare parchment walls with a Victorian-style jumble of Modern art.

    2. Well, I am a Frankianne and he can do no wrong to me and I'm afraid I think modern art goes everywhere. I like parchment, too, and remain slightly thankful it has not been taken up in the way, say sheet music or flour sacks have of late. If I see another sheet-music-modge-podged tray with a black rim I fear I shall create a violent scene in the glue aisle of my local Michaels.

      Sadly, I have seen glimmers of the next caricature. Oh yes, and the culprit is Annie Sloan whose paint is turning every piece of thrift store furniture into a hand-rubbed and waxed confection so it will look ~ ~ 18th C French which is well on its way to down in the dumbs.

      But I digress. Will you please throw up a new blog post so folks can visit? You are remiss kind sir.

  8. Thank you for this post to get people thinking about colour. I paint plaster moulding and love how colour makes the details come alive. Inspiration comes from anywhere,carpet,furniture and even a centerpiece painted to match the antique china. Colour is everywhere. Why leave your details lost in white?

  9. Heavens to Mergatroyd! I think I'm in love with you! But, for the love of God, please fold those gorgeous argyles! Don't ball them! Sock matched with mate, heel to the left, top folded over, set in drawer, stacked like tiny pairs of pants. Tiny pairs of colorful, fantastic, Ted Baker-esque pants. Treat them nice, and you won't have one with bad elastic quitting on you all day.
    Love your brilliant noodle!