Psychology is the study of behavior as it is manifest as emotion or reason through social conditions, interactive stimuli or the environment. To say behavior can be affected by fabric is to say there is an emotional response to fabric. The first behavior we often see in our customers is their immediate reaction to fabric. While perusing sample books, a customer often is heard to exclaim, "Oh, I love this!" Or, "Oh! That is ugly." These pendulum-extreme examples evoke emotions of rapture or repulsion, and yet many fabrics evoke very little emotion, if any. Why? The answer probably is found in the three attributes of fabric: color, pattern, and texture.
It is a broadly accepted notion that people are affected by and react to color. However, what is exciting and wonderful to one might be disgusting and distasteful to another. This is not because colors are seen differently (except in cases of color acuity deficiency, formerly called color blindness), but because emotional needs and prejudices vary from person to person.
A person may have had an association or experience with a particular color that made a profound impression on him or her, be it positive or negative. Or the person may have no opinion at all of the color because there are no experiences or emotions attached to it.
On the other hand, a color may make a person feel a certain emotion because of its association in culture or the calming or stimulating effect it has on the psyche. The effect on the psyche occurs because refracted color bands of lightwaves (the way light travels to our eyes) are absorbed by the cones and rods in the back of the eye, which turn into impulses, some of which are sent to the pineal and pituitary glands where they are interpreted as messages instructing these master endocrine regulators to speed up or slow down systems in the body. We react to this internal messaging by feeling emotions or reactions.
There are four groups of color to which people may respond in a typically anticipated manner.
1. Colors that are light in value (pure or with white added) and bright in chroma (pure, intense) often make people feel happy, spontaneous and optimistic, although they tend to be viewed as temporary or less serious colors.
2. Colors that are light in value and dull (grayed, neutralized) are calming, reduce stress and expand space, but may make people feel insecure or bored.
3. Colors that are medium to dark in value (with black added) and bright in chroma (pure, intense) are richly stimulating or exciting and dramatic.
4. Colors that are medium to dark and dull are serious, profound and introvert-ish.
Individual colors also have associations, and although this list could be extensive and exhaustive here are a few of the common associations with specific hues:
• Red (bright, pure): Vibrant, passion, love, stimulating to appetites, mental energy, aggression.
• Red (dark, dull): Sophisticated, rich/wealth, antiqued, respected.
• Pink (bright, vibrant): Sugar (sweet to taste), celebration, fun, excitement.
• Pink (pale, dull): Calming, low energy, deferring, placid.
• Yellow (bright, clear): Stimulating, sunshine/cheerfulness.
• Yellow (pale, dull): Compassion, intellectual and spiritual, clear thinking.
• Gold (dark, brilliant): Wealth, thirst, power.
• Blue (bright, royal): Safety, recreation/relaxation, stimulating in large quantity.
• Blue (pale, light): Imagination, insecurity, calm/cold, introspective.
• Blue (dark, navy): Secure, conservative, trust, strength, earthiness.
• Green (pure, kelly): Nature, safe, comfortable, concentration.
• Green (pale, light): New growth, inexperience, youth.
• Green (dark, forest): Secure, wealth, success, good judgment.
• Blue-green (medium/pale): Artistic, romantically calm, secure.
• Blue-green (bright): Stimulating, success.
• Orange (bright, clear): Harvest, earthy, exciting or fulfilling to senses, common.
• Orange (pale, dull): Slightly stimulating or enlivening, comfortable, stress-reducing.
• Orange (dark, dull, rust): Rich, spicy, earthy, handsome, strength.
• Purple (pure, vibrant, also dark): Theatrical, serious, intellectual, spiritual.
• Purple (light, pale): Sweet, sensuous, imaginative, feminine, aesthetic, ethereal.
• Beige/tan (will take on qualities of its colored undertone): Calming, stress-reducing, earthy, natural, kind, non-assertive, passive.
• Gray (also will take on qualities of added colors): Neutral, non-committal, cold, sophisticated.
• Black/off-black: Drama, enlivens other colors, stimulating in small quantities, oppressive in large quantities. Off-blacks are less harsh, easier to live with.
• White: Clean, crisp, cool, sharp.
• Off-white: Neutral effect (but do match it carefully to other undertones or backgrounds in fabric or wallpaper so the warm or cool effect and hue is correct), open space, cleanliness.
Some Sound Advice
All colors are influenced by other colors with which they are surrounded or by those mixed into the dye as undertones. These undertones affect the psychological effect of the color.
Above all, respect the response of the customer. Innately we all feel what colors are right for us and will respond positively to those colors. Remember, however, that intense quantities of color actually may reverse the effect or the emotional response after a brief exposure to it, and this can be the opposite of what you are trying to achieve.
The Psychology of Pattern
Closely related to color in fabrics is the pattern, woven or printed, that spells the character, inspiration or theme of the fabric. Some handy rules to consider are:
1. Very tiny patterns often are read as texture.
2. Large patterns will reduce or enclose space because they visually advance.
3. Patterns that can be "counted" in a vertical, horizontal or diagonal manner should be avoided or used as fullness (pleated, gathered).
4. Patterns that moire should be avoided as they are disturbing to the eye and can cause a person to feel unbalanced. This means patterns that seem to quiver or move or jump. Plaids may do this (in large quantity), as do some stripe, spot or dot patterns.
5. The character or theme of the fabric pattern should be conducive to the overall plan of the interior, matching or blending with furniture and architectural styles.
6. The pattern or motif should be harmonious with the color, both producing the same effect.
7. As with color, respect the personal preference of the users or customers. Patterns, like color, should speak to their senses and feel right. They should be happy and comfortable with their choices.
8. Avoid too many different patterns, even if they are coordinated unless a Victorian cluttered look is the desired result.
9. Vary the size or scale of the pattern. A general rule is: Large pattern, small pattern, stripe, geometric, solid. Or, very large pattern, medium-sized pattern, stripe, geometric, solid. Although this is a recipe, it usually works if the color, pattern and texture are compatible.
The Psychology of Texture
Texture used to be a cut-and-dried issue. But no more. Whereas only formal textures-sheer, brocade, damask, velvet, lampas-used to be considered mutually exclusive and rough/informal textures used to be purely casual, today we see a remarkable mix of textures and a great deal of visual and tactile excitement as a result.
A note of caution, however: Those who mix textures successfully generally have a great deal of experience and truly an artist's eye for balance and surprise.
Harmony, that great principle of design, is made of two sub-principles. First, unity (meaning a theme around which basically all textures revolve) should find all textures with a similar character, feel or goal. Second, variety (the variable within the theme) is seen in textures where a bit of delightfully unexpected juxtaposition assures the fabric scheme is not the same old stuff but delightfully wonderful.
Savvy professionals today freely mix old and new, formal and informal. Wisdom, however, dictates there be one theme with accent. Don't try to be even-handed-the same number of one rough texture as another smooth texture-or the result will be confusion. One should clearly dominate. And don't overlook the tried and true-what works from a proven, historic viewpoint. Georgian fabrics together; Country French fabrics together, American Country fabrics together-these are standbys that always work.
Texture is read in two ways: visual and tactile. The way a fabric texture looks to the eye is a purely aesthetic selection. Faux textures can be as good as real ones if vision is the only judge. Textures that are unusual beg to be touched, and here the variety and sensuality of textures can make an ordinary room something really quite special.
What is it, psychologically, that we have to gain from fabric? Consider these in summary:
• Fabric can quiet a room, absorbing not only noise from within but noise from without as well. Interiors hushed by lavish use of fabric evoke respect, calm thoughts, solitude, repose, refinement.
• A heavily fabric-clad interior can seem as a warm emotional cloak, insulating not just sound and temperature, but seemingly keeping the world at bay, insulating us or providing privacy.
• Fabric lining and even interlining are recommended wholeheartedly for the protection they offer and the enhanced heaviness and substantial feel they offer. Lining also looks best from the outside of a home or building providing a uniform look rather than the backs of various decorative fabrics.
• Fabrics selected via personal preference-colors, patterns and textures that feel right-can become as an old friend welcoming us each time we enter the room. This familiarity and fondness spell security and satisfaction.
• Weight has an impact on the psychology of the interior. Thin, sheer and very lightweight fabrics give a sense of ethereal, dreamy, romantic places without substance and almost (or very) seductive. On the opposite end, heavyweight fabrics such as velvets, tapestries, tweeds and twills, for example, give a sense of profound importance to a room. They lend a sense of stability and security. Fabrics with medium to heavy weight vary in their effect by their color, pattern and texture.
• A little extra fabric can go a long way. Puddling or pooling stationary side drapery panels gives a substantially impressive look. Fabric as accessories and table covers can provide soft but dramatic finishing touches.
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 and Understanding Fabrics. Nielson is a regular correspondent for Draperies & Window Coverings addressing the areas of fashion, education and merchandising.