The renowned color expert and longtime The Urban Electric Co. friend, whose New York–based firm has helped shape the palettes of high-end design firms for more than 20 years, shares her thoughts on hue harmony, debunks popular color myths, and muses on the current wild west nature of light bulb technology.
Tell us a little bit about your background and how you became an expert in the color field?
It is an interesting field, and one that I feel fortunate to have landed in, this slim slice of the design world. I grew up in a bright yellow living room in a beige world — the daughter of an artist. I took the traditional artist path and eventually began work as a freelancer. One of my early jobs was working with Martha Stewart, who asked me to develop a color line with her. I developed two color ranges for her line. People kept asking me to consult on colors and exteriors, and that led me to where I am today.
You are often cited for your holistic approach to color and color selection. Tell us a bit more about what this means when approaching a project.
People often want to isolate color. They will ask, “What’s your favorite color?” To which I reply, “That is like asking what is your favorite musical note.” Everything must work together. It is always about the context that you are inserting color into. There is a whole list of criteria, and everything comes into my consideration — including the kitchen sink.
At The Urban Electric Co., we allow clients to mix metals through our customization program. How do you use materials to inform the type of color for a specific project?
Color behaves differently in terms of application and the materials [to which] you are applying it. I am often dealing with stone and the application of color, or glass and the application of color. A lot of times, we don’t think about the surface texture in materials and how color may behave on those textures. I also consider the muscularity in certain materials. Stone is heavy, silk is light — how does one build a color narrative based on the weight and size of objects and materials? It must be a consideration.
How does artificial light play a role when deciding on a color?
It is the wild west in lighting. Light bulbs have made my work a bit more difficult, especially as it relates to LED [technology] and the shift from incandescent light. Every light bulb has a Kelvin scale — 2700 is about the same as a warm incandescent light bulb (the higher the number, the cooler the light temperature is) — but even these measurements vary by manufacturer. As light changes, color changes. Color is only reflective light. Without light, we are literally in the dark. We wouldn’t see color. I am always dealing with the balance.
Do you have a recommended light bulb?
Yes, I do in terms of color temperature. Warmer light is what we are used to, because it’s what we’ve had in the history of light bulbs, so I prefer 2700 Kelvin bulbs. Cool light can be alienating and often feels more commercial or institutional. People have associations with types of light. As a preference, we are used to seeing our world illuminated with a much warmer light source. A lot of light bulbs will issue a CRI or Color Rendering Index, and it will tell you how accurately colors will be represented with that light source. I recommend a CRI higher than 90 because lower numbers make colors look odd and dull. Generally high CRI bulbs are more expensive, but I think they are worth it. It is infinitely more complicated than it was 15 or 20 years ago, and I have had to educate myself along with the consumer.
As a color expert, you are consulted daily about color choices. How do you guide someone through the endless options for color. Where do you begin?
I generally always have a client, and they are the starting point. I have learned to be a good listener. People who don’t care about color don’t call me, so my clients are already knowledgeable and their projects range from residential to commercial. I listen to what their objectives are, and I view myself as a guide. After that, I will decode a space by placing it in context, which has to do with everything I have learned about physical space and how color behaves. Maybe it’s light coming in from the South and the room is only used at night, for instance. I also consider the scale of the room, and how people are going to see it and interact with it. It speaks again to that holistic stew.
What are the most frequently asked questions you receive about color for a room or design element?
Generally people have preconceived notions about color, like “I don’t want the room to look too small, so I don’t want to make it a dark color,” etc. Don’t I wish that these color rules applied! It would make my life a lot easier. Sometimes a small room is so much more interesting when painted a deeper color. It doesn’t matter if it’s small or feels small, it matters if you want to go in and use it and if it’s interesting. People also need language to understand color. People want to know what the color is called, because it helps inform them.
What do you think about the white trend?
I am aware of color trends because I have to pay attention to these things. I get exhausted by trends more quickly, because I am constantly researching them. Some rooms are driven by materials, particularly kitchens. I think white has long been a default color, especially in the modernist movement. People think that it’s not a color, which is also interesting. I often find white to be hostile. It can be stark, and it can be sad. Color can add character. But, white seems like a safe choice to people. The statistic used to be, and I imagine it hasn’t changed, that 80% of consumers walked out of a paint store with white paint.
What is your greatest source of inspiration?
Lately, I have been doing a lot of research into frescos. I find that whole mineral surface interesting. I have also been looking into historical pigments. A lot of time, I am directed by a project. For example, I have just begun a conversation with the Art Institute of Chicago about art and color. This propelled me into research about colors in museums. I am impressionable. I will immerse myself based on my clients' needs.
Overall, I love all things English Georgian. It was a great time for color and color in interiors that I find inspiring. Museums are a life source.
Traveling is great big visual refresh. It’s amazing how different New York looks when I return home.
Is there a person living or dead that inspires you?
One person I did sit down with was Richard Avedon. He actually confessed to me that he was color blind, and could not differentiate between reds. He was an amazing artist.
What is the future of color?
Changing the color of a room and the objects within it with a certain kind of light. This is informed by a project I am doing in the new Moynihan Train Hall in New York where the designers have actually developed a lighting system that can change the color of the space, so all of the sudden the whole train hall can be blue. That means that instead of painting everything, you use the light source to change the shade. I got really excited about thinking that this is the future of lighting. You could make the whole room glow in a certain way. It happens frequently in commercial environments, but eventually you will change the color of a room anywhere by toggling the lighting.