On choosing colors and that less isn’t always more

May 14, 2012 § Leave a comment

I am repainting my apartment.  With 7 rooms facing three cardinal directions, I have color options and have been discussing them with Zenobia.  Our discussions have usually ended in her stated objection to my recommended color on the grounds that it was “too strong”.  I am familiar with her objection — when I first began experimenting with color 15 years ago, I too tended to timid whites and off-whites.  Only subsequent experience has shown that strong colors do not disturb the dweller as long as they are good.  In other words, it isn’t the intensity or saturation of the color that determines the resident’s comfort.  Something else does.  I was reminded of this fact last night while watching a film with richly colored, yet absolutely gorgeous Italian Renaissance interiors.

Publicly stated preference for timid wall colors, wide-spread as it is, has three possible sources:

1.  Poverty of experience, a.k.a. “the poor Richard’s habit”.  Poor people — and socialism has made nearly all of us poor — tend to spend a lot of time in spaces whose color is “public” (i.e. not determined by their studied likes and dislikes).  And public colors — such as colors of rental units or shops or offices — are utilitarian.  The person choosing the color determines that the walls don’t have to be liked, but they must not offend.  Whites and off-whites are unnoticeable, can be counted upon not to offend, and are therefore preferred by owners/decision makers interested in crowd-control.  Most of us spend most of our time in such interiors.  We don’t know any other color schemes and assume that the status quo must somehow have been proven superior — because it is wide-spread.  (Cf:  “Fiat Punto must be the best car in the world because it is most widely owned”).

2.  French-historical-ideological.  The best-known rule of thumb concerning taste is “less is more” (and its opposite, meant as a scathing criticism, that “more is more” — i.e. “more is bad”).  It is the programmatic summation of Marie-Antoinette’s neoclassicism, associated with Louis XVI and Empire epochs.  (It is ironic that this queen — the mother of what she thought was virtuous return to simplicity in style — has become in the public mind, falsely and only as a result of maliciously mendacious revolutionary pamphleteering, the symbol of decorative excess).  The classical style is not a bad style in itself — pearly grey, white, baby-blue with occasional, sparing gold or silver accent is a color scheme that works reasonably well and in many climes.  (It was Chopin’s favorite scheme and some find it in his music). Its success therefore may not be entirely due to the terrifying success of other French ideas of the turn of the eighteenth century.

But it isn’t a rule:  anyone who has spent any time at all in Italy, Turkey, India, China or South East Asia would have had the opportunity to see other, richer, more intense color schemes which also work well.  Some — not all — are outright gaudy, dripping with intense color and ornament without being in the least disturbing. Much gaudy design does fail, but certainly not all of it.  It appears therefore that some gaudy colors, or some combinations of colors, or combination of color and decoration, do work, and therefore whether much, or little, more or less, is not a reliable aesthetic rule.  One is certainly not wrong in identifying some gaudy decoration as a failure, but in light of all those gaudy schemes that work — anyone who doubts it ought to visit a few Roman palaces — it is a theoretical failure to ascribe the aesthetic failure of those designs which do fail to the intensity of their colors.

The French neoclassical color-scheme, adopted later by much northern Europe, has remained in force in France until present day.  One can usually tell a Frenchman by the color of his tie or his scarf:  the colors are “French” — they are “understated” — i.e. tend towards the pale — but studiedly beautiful.  French TV and French internet pages are instantly and unmistakeably recognizable as French and are generally very pleasing to the eye.  Costumes in films like Princesse de Montpensier are a feast for the eye.

Compared to the French, other practitioners of color-classicism are not as successful:  in Germany, French neoclassicism mutates into a kind of institutionalism (dull navies, dark browns and steel greys) — which are not so much a choice of color (one cannot possibly choose those colors out of preference) as an avoidance of color.  It strikes one as a kind of helplessness.  It is as if, not knowing what to choose, but strictly told to avoid “more”, the poor German chose the least he could find, eliminating, in his search for refinement, all pleasure.  Don’t blame the poor German layman:  at one point architects began to make the same mistake, declaring all decoration a sin.

All is not well with the human race:  we are susceptible to glib formulas (“quantity becomes quality”, etc.); it is easier to parse a sentence than to introspect and see how we really feel; a catchy phrase can easily override any clear evidence of sensory input.  And introspecting about sensory input — looking at things and taking stock of how they make us feel — is actually very difficult.  It is a skill which requires both a talent (totally absent in some) and practice:  a connoisseur is only as good as the sum total of everything he has seen.

Having said all this in the interest of disproving the “less is more formula”, I now hasten to add that there may be a strong objective reason for the strength of the neoclassical color scheme in northern Europe and it is:

3.  Natural light.  Although many people whom I tell this refuse to believe me, there is a marked difference in quality of light between the temperate and the more southerly climes.  Paris looks fine in its beige and grey because it is where it is; it would look awful in Tuscany where one has to paint himself like Siena in order to look good (and like Naples even further south).  Roman walls in Poland would no doubt look dark and depressing on most days when there is so little light; but Polish walls in Istanbul would look washed out.

This effect isn’t limited to sunlight.  Years spent as a fashion consultant on international scale — and looking at women of all shades and colors — has taught me that pinko-greys like myself look better in French pale colors with finer patterns; while women and men of more decisive hue look better in more saturated colors and bolder patterns.  That pale Frenchmen reside where the sun is lukewarm and darker Italians where the sun is stronger is a lucky historical accident:  it makes it possible for each to choose a color and pattern scheme which suits him and his native sunlight simultaneously.

Having said all which, my apartment lies south; it is surrounded by lemon trees and rosemary bushes; it looks out over the glittering sea called, on account of its color, The Sea of Straw; in a city whose light was best described in an article by Lawrence Weschler in an essay on another city, one located in exactly the same climate and nearly the same geographical conditions, an essay entitled “Light in LA”.  My apartment’s walls can afford a little color.

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