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American Women's Club of Hamburg

Paint It Black

Q. What can I do for under 100 EUR to dramatically change a room? MC

A. Quite simply: PAINT. I love the whole process of painting. Choosing the color, buying the buckets, rolling the color on and, the best part: removing the border tape to reveal the final product. Painting is relatively inexpensive if you choose a basic process, and it will provide the most impact quickly. Buy, paint and you’re done.
I earned my painting lumps the hard way years ago interning in textile design in NYC. Design interns spend hours at a color copier, and also a lot of time doing things like mixing the exact tone of barn red until it is matched perfectly. You put the radio on and just start mixing, painting a tester strip, mixing, testing, mixing, testing, until you realize you’ve been sitting for 3 hours, earning a well-earned break of color copying a whole magazine for your boss. This is really mundane work, but it does reward you by subconsciously feeding your eye to precision standards, which in my case paid off with a job as a wallpaper and fabric colorist for F. Schumacher. As a paid colorist, you can expect to mix and paint hundreds of color samples a week. Then you will spend the next week in some obscure mill town, working the night shift printing wallpaper with the factory dudes, insisting that they heed your words and add two more shots of blue to get the exact tone of purple for the floral wallpaper that you would never personally buy. Color savvy kind of gets under your skin, and there is no turning back.
Lack of color experience is just one of the reasons some folks are fearful of straying from white or cream. If you have been a renter for most of your life, white might be the default setting. Almost every German rental agreement will require that you return your walls a freshly painted white, so I think this is your chance to explore since you have to paint it all over anyway when you leave. One has to get over the sacred wall thing and play. Buy sample pots. Paint swatches. Try layering, brushing, sponging. Research some techniques and finishes. Get limber and relax…it is only a wall.
It takes a lot of guts to go for color, and people tend to feel locked into a predetermined mood stereotype when the color gets bolder. These are the standard myths: red=racy, blue=calming, green=outdoors, yellow=cheery, grey=prison, brown=blah, orange=acid trip, black=never. I say “myths” because all of these colors can read the exact opposite depending on the lighting, furniture and accessories in a room. An all-red room (walls, curtains, upholstery) with subtle lighting will be much more restful than a blue room with lots of metal objects, stark furniture and halogen lights. A brown room with rich textures, leather upholstery (+ that wonderful leather smell), intense flowers and sconce lighting will be spectacular compared to a yellow room that just looks dull on a severely grey Hamburg day. Grey is not the same industrial concrete it used to be, either: accented with lavender & cream plus sea-glass green or brown and you have a restful Zen room that is peaceful and soothing. My new favorite is black because it poses so many challenges. I like to think of fun things like chalkboards, suede leather, and onyx to come up with the right surface for black: matte, napped and lacquered, all possible with your painting technique. Black can be very classy without screaming cheap mafia princess. After all, it is the absorption of all light whereas white is universal reflection.

One of the biggest challenges when transforming a room to a distinct color is the stress that it might not fit with the otherwise harmonious flow of the other rooms in your house or apartment. You can defuse this bomb in two ways:

1. Have a buffer room. This is a room that neighbors your newly painted one, which should be outfitted with accessories/fabric/furniture in your “chosen” color. An example: Newly painted red living room walls = buffer dining room with cream walls + red furniture or red curtains/upholstery or red vases/table linens/ glassware. Ease the eye into your new space with style.
2. Color the whole lot. If every room in your house carries a color flag, it is far more balanced than one colorful room in a sea of beige or white. Just be sure to keep the range similar (cool or warm).

In New York City, I liked to attend an annual charity house exhibit called Kips Bay. Every year a new historical house was selected, with each room renovated and sponsored by a design house or a prominent interior decorator (http://www.kipsbay.org/show_info.html). With only one room to express a vision, you can imagine some of the impact of color on the walls. Murals, fabrics, stuccos, trompe l’oeil, glazes, varnishes, stamping, wallpaper…everything you could imagine bedecked the halls. Some of the rooms simply glowed with color as the artisans would layer color on clear glaze, then another layer of color and clear glaze, repeating up to 10 layers! The intensity was astonishing. With so many rooms, each one was like a Christmas present as you entered and discovered the mood it conveyed.

My point is that with enough courage, you can make that happen for you, too. A tub of black paint has been sitting in my upstairs hall for over a year waiting for me to gather up the nerve to do one wall in my bedroom. Should I do it? I think so. Soon. I’m almost there.
Think about color as a gift from the inner you to yourself. Let color lead the way. And, you can always paint it back (black).

originally published in Currents Feb/Mar 2008

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