AT on Color 101: Cool Colors & Warm Colors

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Earlier this week we talked about cool and warm people. This is different.

Mike bought two beautiful brown modern couches and then a soft blue rug to go in front of them. Something wasn’t right in his living room, but he didn’t know what it was. Laura wanted to paint her bedroom green, and ended up doing it three times, but was still not happy. Sarah is a lawyer, and she wanted to be safe, so she went with a lot of neutrals in her apartment. Then she wished it all had more color, but didn’t feel comfortable deciding where to put the color. She didn’t want to screw it up...

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Color is powerful. It is stimulating, healing, soothing and fun. It is also a big commitment. With the money that you spend on your average living room, buying an armchair in a colorful fabric can be downright terrifying. If it doesn’t work, you are up the creek. That is why most people just follow the cow path of color towards beige and stay there forever. Not that there is anything wrong with beige! It is a fine neutral color; it just shouldn’t ever rule your apartment... In order to make good choices with color you only need to know a few things. Here they are:

1. There are warm and cool colors

The interior palette is roughly divided between these two groups of color and they are pretty self explanatory. Reds, yellows, oranges and beige or creamy colors are WARM. Blues, greens and grays are COOL. If you look at the color wheel – which you may remember from elementary school – the warm colors are on one side of the wheel and the cools on the other. Where they meet, they mix forming some hybrids. Green and Purple are the hybrids, and they can be warmer or cooler depending on their mix. For example a lime green has a lot of yellow in it and is warm, whereas a Kelly green has more blue in it and runs cool.

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2. Warm colors are stimulating

The reds, oranges, yellows and all the off whites that tend to this direction possess all the qualities of warmth in that they are hot, stimulating and soothing to our emotions, which crave warmth. This is the reason red is the most successful color in our consumer society and found in such icons as Coca-Cola, Ferrari, and red lipstick.

Warm colors are therefore best in social rooms of your house, such as the living room, dining room and kitchen.

3. Cool colors are calming

The blue side of the spectrum along with cool browns and grays and the cool off whites possess all of the qualities of coolness in their ability to calm our emotions and focus our thoughts. While our heart may crave warmth, our head and our thoughts crave coolness in order to its best work. This is why the cool blues are the most popular color for men’s business suits and shirts, as well as police uniforms, why the old time bank teller wore a green visor, and why the Yankees are considered gentlemen in their blue pinstripes, whereas the Red Sox are emotional barbarians (not this year).

Cool colors are therefore best in the rooms where concentration and calmness are most important, such as the bedroom, office, and nursery (and I would throw in the bathroom as well).

4. A short note on black and white

Thought both black and white do not count as colors per se, they do have warm and cool properties, which is sometimes surprising. White is cool and black is warm. Therefore, remember that when you paint a room straight white, it is going to need a lot of color or other warmth element to make it physically comfortable, whereas black is instantly warm and needs to be used sparingly so that it doesn’t overwhelm. A little black will go a long way.

5. A short note on neutral colors

Neutral colors are like mutts; they are mixes where no strong color is evident. Since all colors tend to make brown, neutrals cover a dizzyingly vast landscape of browns that run from the warm, red brown of milk chocolate, to the cooler taupes and stone colors, to the light beige off whites. Neutrals are rarely exciting in their own right, but they become very exciting and sophisticated with put together with one another and with a starring color in their midst. I recommend getting to love the wide array of neutral colors and using them liberally as a base for any room.

6. Putting color to use…be consistent!

With all this in mind, when you design a room, you need to decide in advance what kind of an effect you want in the room, whether it is going to be predominantly warm or cool and then stick to your guns. Don’t paint your kitchen green (cool) when you have a terracotta floor (warm) and gold finish hardware (warm). Don’t put down a blue carpet (cool) in your living room if you have brown couches and off white walls (warm). Don’t mix warm and cool palettes unless you want your room to be purposefully funky or off beat.

7. The 80/20 rule

Then use strong color sparingly to punctuate the room, not define it. I recommend 80% neutral colors and 20% strong colors. Just like a woman’s face is made up with bright lipstick in a small portion of her face and neutral colors in the rest, so should a room be balanced. For example, in a warm living room such as Mike’s, I would recommend off white walls (warm/neutral) to go with his rich, brown couches (warm/neutral) and then a deep red rug (warm/color) and colorful table lamps in either black, silver or reds to wake up the room. Small batches of color have a tremendous effect on the whole and will “wake up” and bring out the more neutral colors around them. For example, take a look at this print ad for Ralph Lauren. It is a beautiful example of how he has used the color red in the words “Polo” to bring to life the neutral clothing and model behind. The red color brings out the warmth of these clothes.

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With this approach, you treat color as the star of your show and don’t want to have too many stars. A few well placed pillows, lamps, rugs, flowers, curtains or single chairs with color on them is all a room needs. The rest should be filled with supporting members of the cast: neutrals.

Now you know what to do to solve Mike’s rug problem, why Laura had trouble painting her bedroom green (too much yellow in the green – needed to go towards blue green/sage), and how Sarah could confidently finish off her living room with color (warm pillows and a lampshade). Of course, color can get much more complicated than this, but these are the basics. And the basics work. If you start here and begin to open your eyes to the colors around you – what works and what doesn’t – you will start to see the patterns emerge, and you will start to more and more expert with using color in your home.

(ReEdited from 2004-11-02 - MGR)

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Maxwell left teaching in 2001 to start Apartment Therapy as a design business helping people to make their homes more beautiful, organized AND healthy. The website started up in 2004 with the help of his brother, Oliver.