When my wife and I bought the 1930s-era bungalow we occupy today, it was, color-wise, an absolute tabula rasa. From front door to back, it was a monotony of light-cream walls and white trim.
The first order of business was to give our daughter’s room some life with a whimsical ocean theme –– sand at the bottom, water in the middle, sky at the top. Next, we bloodied the kitchen walls with a rich burgundy, leaving the wainscoting white. Then we moved on to the living room, giving it a dark sage color, hoping to establish a Venetian color-play with the kitchen.
The dark sage broke us. It didn’t quite work for the room, and we couldn’t figure out why. We hesitated on the rest of our house. Then we had our second child, and painting became less of a priority.
But after spending a Saturday afternoon with colorist Mary Cooper, I feel inspired. There’s a reason why her house in Bywater has entered the pages of interior design books and magazines (including this one).
Her color combinations are courageous without being audacious. This may be because she eschews the belligerence that glossy paints can convey; the flat paints come off as gentle, though greatly varied. Between floor and ceiling, it’s possible to encounter five different colors in one room of Cooper’s house. She calls the dwelling a “laboratory” for her clients.
On her back porch, a breeze caresses the blue curtains that veil the backyard from view. Green stalks of sugar cane peek in from one corner. Cooper sits weaving the seat of an old chair, with a heavily weathered door behind her. The door looks like it hasn’t been painted for a century.
That’s in keeping with one of Cooper’s mantras: Keep the patina.
But there are no right answers, she says. The do’s and don’ts of color are “a snake pit as far as I’m concerned because everybody has opinions.”
Suffice it to say, however, that Cooper won’t give you the same advice you’ll hear in the paint store. For example: no white baseboards. In the old Creole days, she points out, people tended to use dark colors, such as ebony, because they hide dirt. “We are such dirty creatures,” Cooper says. “I’m just not gonna fight it anymore.”
More radically, perhaps, Cooper is no fan of white ceilings. She rhapsodizes on the effect that a pale peach ceiling will have on the skin tones of the people beneath it. Her own ceilings, exposed beams, tend to be aqua or light blue. It reminds her, she says, of being on her porch as a child.
So much of what people look for in color is nostalgia, Cooper says. She recalls the client who had spent a blissful portion of his life in Egypt. She colored his New Orleans house accordingly and then repeated that approach when he moved to New York.
Before picking up a brush, you must decide what you’re looking for –– to be soothed? A bit of drama? If you do go for drama, Cooper says, balance it out from room to room. “You have to have neutral spaces between the intense blasts of color,” she says.
Naturally, another concern is pre-existing conditions. Take furniture. If you like your furniture, you’ll have to paint to match it. If your furniture is a certain ethnic style, it might suggest corresponding color choices.
The floors likely aren’t going anywhere either. Dark woods and light woods call for different colors on the baseboards and walls. Carpets and tiles raise similar issues. For example, Cooper says a terra cotta tile begs for a Havana blue or an ocher.
There are circumstances under which you should hire a colorist. Obviously, if you want to push the boundaries a bit but are too chicken to make the decisions yourself, you’ll want to bring in someone who does it for a living. Or maybe you don’t want to think about it at all. Some of Cooper’s clients tell her, “Just do my house.”
In other cases, the colorist’s job is mediation. Cooper jokes that often she’s saving a relationship because a couple may have wildly divergent tastes and strong opinions about color and she has to reconcile two different visions. “A lot of times, I’m the tiebreaker,” she says.
In general, Cooper offers a solid bit of advice. Look at plants, at the variation of color within individual plants, and borrow from the natural world, she says. “You can never go wrong if you look at nature.”