In this two-part series, we will examine hot colors for 2002 and beyond. A design professional’s knowledge of color trends is a pivotal factor in the sale of goods; customers need our advice and perspective based on which color is where in the cycle of use and popularity. We can guide clients to decisions that will be pleasing to live with for a long time—we hope for the full physical lifespan of the goods. When customers find products beautiful to them in style, color and function for many years, they are happy, satisfied customers who will bring repeat and referral business. Understanding color, then, is smart business sense.
THE CYCLE OF COLOR AND NEUTRALS
Color is cyclical. A color that has achieved immense popularity at a given point in history will inevitably fall out of favor for 10 to 20 years, then begin its upward journey again toward popularity. Thus, some colors are really “in” while others are “out.” Keeping track of what’s hot and what’s not requires constant effort and savvy.
There is a flip side to this coin and that is the cycle of neutrals. The neutral cycle is of a much slower rotation, so a clear understanding of this cycle has many advantages to the customer as well as the design professional.
First, all neutrals—white and off-whites, browns and beiges, grays and black and off-blacks—are influenced by the current color forecast. No neutral is exempt from the reach and influence of the latest color fashions. The neutral palette can be warmer one year (with added yellow and orange) and cooler the next year (with blue and purple undertones). Or it can be solidly influenced by hues—undertones of colors mixed with the neutral.
Second, for successful interiors it is imperative to select neutrals with the room’s color scheme as a guideline. For example, if a color scheme is based on greens, then the undertone or influence of the primary green should be seen in the neutrals selected—or the neutrals should be highly compatible with that green, which likely means warmer neutrals rather than cooler ones.
On the market at any given moment there exists thousands of hues of neutrals seen in paint, wall coverings, alternative window treatments and textiles. Selecting the right neutral means putting together an entire scheme and analyzing its base as either warm or cool, then selecting neutrals with this same base as an undertone. During this selection process, remember that each off-white, each beige, does not stand alone. The reason it is off-white is that color has been added. So begin by asking, what color is the undertone or influence in this neutral? Is it a pinkish off-white, a greenish off-white, a yellowish off-white? Sometimes with good acuity (natural or trained ability to see more colors) you can discover that there is more than one color undertone in the neutral.
THE FOUNDATION OF THE PYRAMID
Another way to view the importance of neutrals is as an analogy to the food group pyramid. Relatively new, this principle of most-to-least has led many people to more sensible eating and better health. Replacing the four basic food groups, the pyramid has five food groups plus one called Others. At the wide foundation is the Grain Group, with six to 11 servings suggested daily, then the Vegetable Group with three to five daily servings, the Fruit Group with two to four servings, the Milk Group with three to four servings, the Meat/Egg group with two to three servings and Others, which includes fats, oils and sweets, to be eaten sparingly.
This sensible guideline parallels the Law of Chromatic Distribution in the selection and placement of colors for interiors. This law states that “the most neutral colors, or colored neutrals, are found in the largest quantity. The smaller the area, the brighter the chroma proportionately becomes.”
Thus, the neutrals are the grains—often used in the largest areas or as backgrounds such as floor coverings, walls, basic window coverings (over the glass) and ceilings. As the sizes of the interior elements become smaller—furnishings, upholstery, draperies or top treatments, beds, area rugs, large artwork—the “servings” of colors become more modest. The real treats—colors that pack a punch and are deliciously powerful—are seen in the smallest amounts.
Many of us occasionally indulge in chocolate or in decadent desserts and find the infrequent indulgence decidedly satisfying to our sweet tooth. Likewise in interiors, the room with a neutral background but lavish splashes of bright color is exciting, stimulating, dramatic and wonderful.
THE LAW OF VALUE DISTRIBUTION
There is another way neutrals play a supporting role as backgrounds in great interiors. This is in how we choose to distribute the value—the lightness or darkness of the hues and neutrals. Rooms with a healthy, well placed balance of light, medium and dark values make a major contribution toward the feelings of rightness and comfort people experience in the room.
If we look at the way nature uses value, we see a pattern that works well in interiors, too. This law of nature states that the lightest colors or neutrals are found above—as seen in white clouds, and the lightest colors on the horizon. Middle values or mid-tone colors are seen around eye level or thereabout. Darker colors and neutrals are found lower and below foot.
NEUTRALS ARE FOREVER
Two of the best advantages to color schemes generously endowed with neutrals are longevity and flexibility. Carefully selected and coordinated neutrals make for great places to live and relax. Because neutrals and neutralized hues (softened, lightened versions of the hue) will be a quiet background and not make demands on the occupant, they are easy to live with for a long time. They don’t go out of style as do strong colors, so there is less incentive to change them as the whims of fashion ebb and flow.
Further, deeply pleasing neutrals provide a background for a variety of lifestyles and circumstances. As demographics evolve and the design program changes, the neutral interior can easily change with it. Backgrounds that can support one strong color scheme can just as easily be the basis for a completely different scheme. This flexibility is indeed valuable, making easily replaceable products easier to coordinate and sell—products such as window treatments, slipcovers, pillows, bedding, area rugs and accessories.
Neutrals, whether achromatic (black, white and gray) or neutralized hues (browns, beiges, colored grays, off-whites and off-blacks), form the basis for countless types of styles and color combinations. When hues are neutralized by adding a complementary color, by adding several colors or by adding black or brown, they become tones and range from mid-tone to deeper-values. When they are lightened by adding white, the result is a pastel. Neutralized pastels are some of the most pleasing to live with because they have a dimension of depth and patina, softness yet elegance.
Neutrals and neutralized colors are great choices for backgrounds and also for major design elements—thousands are awaiting your selection!
Karla J. Nielson, Allied ASID, WCAA, is assistant professor of design at Brigham Young University. She is a practicing interior designer and has authored several books including Window Treatments, Understanding Fabrics and Interiors: An Introduction, 3rd Ed. Nielson is a regular correspondent for Draperies & Window Coverings addressing the areas of fashion, education and merchandising.