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.