ColorTherapy: Notes on Color in Small Spaces

ColorTherapy: Notes on Color in Small Spaces

Mark Chamberlain
Dec 2, 2008
I recently took a call from Anh-Minh Le at our sister site AT:SF, who was interviewing people for a piece on color in small spaces for The San Francisco Chronicle. I decided to type up my notes to her as a column of my own…

When pressed with the issue of what colors are best suited to small spaces, I realized that I don't really consciously adjust my palette at all but am always asking myself, "What does the room want?" My color interest generally lies in dark, saturated colors and old-world colors used to contemporary advantage; and if the room "wants" a dark color I'm happy to oblige. I'll note that the annotated Farrow & Ball catalogue will describe something like Hound Lemon No.2 as a cool yellow to be used in well-lit rooms, but that Pale Hound No.71 gives the effect of Hound Lemon "when used in smaller spaces." I think a good colorist would make those same decisions based on gut instinct.

For the article we focused on my own 225 square-foot New York studio apartment as an example. It's so small that last week I pushed the key in the door too fast and broke the window, but that doesn't stop me from painting a long dark accent wall that I could curl up under.

The color shown is Galvanized, UL12 from Ralph Lauren. I can't decide if it's a black that feels brown or a brown that feels black, but in this context at least it's a very dark color with a red base and looks like an espresso bean. The wall opposite is exposed brick and the walls in between are off-white so it never feels completely like a cave. Every single guest I've had over here absolutely loves it — it's cozy, urban, handsome and sexy. People are seduced by this room, they settle in and then float away. How's that for comfort? In this context, darkness doesn't matter in smallness of space. A dark wall doesn't merely shrink the room, it makes it vast like the night.

Another clever trick I recommend for small spaces is this: paint fun saturated colors in bathrooms. They're small, ugly spaces in which we spend enormous amounts of time every day; or try decorative painting. For my own small bathroom (5'x7') I've just completed what I call a Faux Chinoiserie, mostly as bird practice for my decorative painting for children. I've started by painting an ugly grey strié over a bad strié, which wound up looking like hopsack cloth. I continued by painting weird, vivid birds I've found from high-end wallpaper catalogs and adding flowers, trying to make it my own and fit into this particular room. The effect is transporting and whimsical, and I forget that I'm in the smallest, ugliest bathroom in Christendom. When life gives you lemons, or a small bathroom, make lemonade by painting colorful birds and flowers. Call for yours today.

(Completionists and devotees of this column will remember my former Riviera Bathroom, posted one year ago. Ok, so it got a drubbing from the peanut gallery and I, too, loved it but didn't like it. For me the color was the problem, it was too vivid. I miss my cypress alley and those grass steps every day. But ugly bathrooms are like a blank canvas and next year I'll have probably have something new to show yet again. Neo-classical grotesques? Stay tuned…)

- Mark Chamberlain, interior and decorative painter

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