The Design of Things

human endeavor + the natural world

Month: September, 2013

Color Connection


Our national colors, as expressed through Pottery Barn, Crate and Barrel, Target, FrontGate, and Home Goods, are the colors of autumn. Gold, red, brown, sage and olive green.

In the September sea of catalogs, I’ve noticed that other colors are often turned toward this palette. The oranges are burnt, the blues are tealed (or if dark, navy or denim, not indigo), the greens are yellowed or mossy, and the greys are browned. There’s nothing wrong with these colors – they’re warm and cozy where we want that effect. They can be richly pretty. But they’ve become the colors of the American indoors, regardless of light, climate, or landscape.

It’s hard to talk about color without getting into individual taste. And you can only do mass market sofas and throw pillows in so many color options. Browned colors are cheaper to make than clear ones. They’re not thinking of the light in your living room, or whether you live with a dark winter, a rainy climate, or somewhere sunny all year round.

That’s up to us. With paint, and wallpaper, we have an opportunity to tune our rooms to our surroundings.

I used to only think about colors I liked. I once painted a bedroom tomato red. I can’t remember what inspired (or possessed) me, but it wasn’t restful. And it wasn’t long before a policeman arrived, sent by the insane lady next door who had glimpsed the red through the window and decided I was a prostitute.

In another apartment I tried to spruce things up with a Ralph Lauren-ish dark moss green on one wall in my living room. It was beautiful, but it made no sense. By day it swallowed the sunlight and at night it turned black, showing circles of green only where the lamps were lit.

In both cases, I lived in down and out neighborhoods. I wasn’t trying to connect to the outside; I was trying to insulate myself against it. I had only picked the color, not the experience of it. A moss green might be incredible in a hallway in New England, dark and forest-y. A tomato red might be fabulous lit by the sunset in a west-facing study. A friend of mine just bought curtains the color of midnight for her bedroom, silky enough to catch the light by day. Another friend painted her yellow kitchen green to better frame the picture window view of trees outside.

I had all kinds of ideas about colors for my house until I lived in it. Laid up after knee surgery and unable to get on a ladder, I was forced to spend months looking at the light in different rooms. I started to understand where it was yellow and where it was bluish, and noticed what was directly outside every window. I started recalibrating my thinking to make those connections. Where I have achieved it, I feel less antsy to keep changing it up by buying accessories.

A good example of what I discovered is how our bedroom turned out, despite my original plans. On the back side of the house, facing northwest, the room is small and not very light. Evergreen spruces and hemlocks fill the view out the windows all year. Before I moved in, I had imagined “brightening it up” with yellow walls. But when I tried it (having bought a whole gallon of paint in my certainty…) the inside and the outside resisted each other, making a pretty starry yellow look garish and making the trees look “wrong”.

I ended up with deep pewter and bluish grays, not colors I am normally drawn to – not colors that I wear, for example. But it is a rich and peaceful bedroom. The greys invite the spruce and the hemlock and the trees are more present in turn, as if they are reaching inside, as if we were floating among them.

Grocery Store News


The big news in our town is that a Whole Foods is opening around the corner tomorrow.

This event has generated mainly two reactions. The first was dismay at the closing of the original grocery store, part of a depressing and yet oddly comforting local chain called Johnny’s Foodmaster. The stores reminded me of at store where my Granny might have shopped. You could definitely find Crisco there, and Christmas napkins for cheap.

The real outrage came from some people at the idea of Whole Foods coming in – old people wouldn’t know how to shop there, it caters to the rich, the town soon wouldn’t be recognizable. An outright class war was brewing, a partisan brouhaha as bad as when Carol Band proposed banning leaf blowers in the summertime.

The other reaction was excitement, which if you think about it is equally outsized. Yet people have been talking about it, and tonight two of my neighbors called to ask if I wanted to go by tomorrow, on opening day. I said yes, even though I already go to a Whole Foods nearby and I tell myself it is mainly to buy olive oil – which, at Whole Foods, is cheap.

Of course Whole Foods has worked to generate this excitement. Communicative and cheerful during construction, they used the wait to create a buzz about being Arlington’s locally sourced grocery store. The papered over windows were plastered with descriptions of local businesses in working class towns who would be involved – the bakery in Medford, the fishmonger in Gloucester, the distributor in Everett.

So tonight I walked the dogs over, just to see.

I found a sparkling new grocery store, all ready to go. It’s beautifully designed with pretty colors, stenciled signs over the deli and seafood, and a seating area in front with butcher block tables and retro metal chairs enameled in a ‘fifties pistachio green. Pumpkins and chrysanthemums lined the sidewalk outside the front door just to remind us it’s a grocery store like any other in New England this time of year. Chalkboard signboards with the latest sales and specials drawn on stood ready to put out, along with one that said “Whole Foods: Now Open!”

The whole effect was endearing – like the kids had gotten everything ready for the big production tomorrow. It was also filled with little messages that could definitely provoke disdain. Scrawled on the wall above the seafood were the words “100% Traceable”. At the front of the pretty produce I could see a sign for “eco-apples” – apples that hadn’t been treated with pesticides. Small carousels of reusable grocery bags topped the registers.

But they pulled it off, design-wise, without it looking like a Whole Foods. It kind of looks like a cheerier Johnny’s. Very clever.

A young policeman came walking up from the parking lot. I assumed he was there to protect the pumpkins.

“I’m just looking,” I said.

“Oh, no,” he said. “I was just wondering what time they were opening tomorrow.”

He peered in the window.

“Aw, it looks nice in there.”

After we compared notes on Stop N Shop (“They’re awful,” he said. “So expensive. And you never know where their stuff is coming from.”) I had to wonder about this grocery store class divide and whether Whole Foods might be aiming to change it.

Whenever I find myself starting to be impressed by a corporation, I imagine a rich guy with a cigar in his mouth and his feet on the desk laughing that I fell for the chalkboard signs and the eco-apples.

I know many environmental activists who call any corporate efforts on this front “greenwashing”. And I don’t want to know all the people who have to eat quinoa. But there is power in purchasing and marketing basic ideas of sustainability, and being places where these products and values can become normalized. (I do wonder about all the stuff they sell, but that is another post.)

This Whole Foods, like others popping up in the area, is small for a grocery store these days. They kept the Johnny’s footprint – didn’t try to make it enormous or reject the in-town location because it couldn’t be made bigger. They’re bringing us eco-apples as if we asked for them, and maybe someone who never thought about pesticides might begin to (as long as the apples don’t look wormy, which I couldn’t verify from squinting in the window).

One of my neighbors is just hoping there will be a cookie bar.

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