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Color 101
by Maxwell Gillingham-Ryan

Color is powerful. It can be stimulating, healing, soothing, and fun. Getting color right can be tricky, and choosing can signal a big commitment.

Given the amount of money that most people spend decorating their living room, the thought of buying an armchair in a colorful fabric can be downright terrifying. If it doesnít work, you are stuck with it. That is why most people play it safe by buying things in neutral colors like beige and brown.

In order to make good choices with color, you need to know how to differentiate between warm and cool colors, as well as how to find a color family.

Warm Colors and Cool Colors

The color palette is divided between warm colors and cool colors. Reds, yellows, oranges, beige, and creamy colors are warm. Blues, greens, and grays are cool.

If you look at the color wheel, which you may remember from elementary school, the warm colors are on one side of the wheel and the cool colors on the other. Where they overlap, they form mixtures such as green (blue + yellow) and purple (blue + red).

These hybrids can be warmer or cooler depending on their mix. For example, lime green has a lot of yellow in it, so it is warm, whereas kelly green has more blue in it, so it is cool.

Warm Colors are Stimulating

Red, orange, and yellow are fire colors; they are hot and stimulating. Even off-whites with hints of these colors can have this effect. Whether we love or hate these colors, they are more emotionally reactive. This is the reason red is the most successful color for advertising and favored in such iconic places as the Coca-Cola label, Ferrari cars, and a womanís choice of bright red lipstick.

Because of their stimulating nature, warm colors are social and are often found in restaurants and bars. In our homes they serve us best in the social rooms of the house, such as the living room, dining room, and kitchen.

Cool Colors are Calming

Green, blue, and purple calm our emotions and focus our thoughts. If our heart craves warmth, our head craves coolness. While it may be good to be hot-blooded when in love, it is definitely not to our advantage to be hotheaded when working on a mathematical equation.

This is why the cool blues are the most popular color for business suits and police uniforms, why the old-time bank teller wore a green visor, and why the Yankees are considered gentlemen in their blue pinstripes (while the Red Sox have long been considered fiery warriors).

Because of their calming nature, cool colors are supportive of our mental life and can be found in schools, offices, and hospitals. In our homes, they serve us best in the quieter rooms of the house, such as the bedroom, office, and nursery.

A Short Note on Black and White

Though black and white are not considered colors (white is the absence of color, black the combination of all colors), they do have warm and cool properties: white is cool and black is warm. When you paint a room straight white, it will be cool. Therefore, white rooms require some warm color or other warm element for balance in order to make them physically comfortable.

Black adds warmth, but its darkness can easily overwhelm a room, and so it should be used sparingly.

A Short Note on Neutral Colors

Neutral colors are the mutts of the color world: they are easygoing, fit in most places, and donít offend, but they lack a strong defining character. Neutrals cover a dizzyingly vast landscape of color that runs from the warm red-brown of milk chocolate to the cooler taupes and stone colors and the light beige off-whites.

While rarely thrilling in their own right, they become more exciting and sophisticated in a group with a stronger color in their midst.

Be Consistent When Using Color!

With all this in mind, when you design a room, you need to decide in advance what kind of an effect you want in the room, whether it is going to be predominantly warm or cool. Donít paint your kitchen green (cool) when you have a terra-cotta floor (warm) and gold-finish hardware (warm).

Donít put down a blue carpet (cool) in your living room if you have brown couches and off-white walls (warm). Donít mix warm and cool palettes unless you want your room to be purposely funky or offbeat.


Author Maxwell Gillingham-Ryan is the founder of Apartment Therapy, a unique interior-design practice in the New York metropolitan area. In April 2004, Maxwell, with his brother Oliver, launched apartmenttherapy.com, one of the most popular design weblogs in the country, featured in the New York Times, New York Post, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Hartford Courant, New York magazine, Chicago Tribune, Newsweek, and Yoga Journal.

Maxwell is a regular guest on House & Garden Television's Mission: Organization and Small Space, Big Style. He lives in New York's West Village with his wife, Sara Kate, in a 250-square-foot apartment.

Excerpted from Apartment Therapy by Maxwell Gillingham-Ryan Copyright © 2006 by Maxwell Gillingham-Ryan by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Apartment Therapy : The Eight-Step Home Cure



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