Many people are afraid to make mistakes in colors they choose for their home and opt for neutral beige and brown palette. However, there are certain pitfalls along this path.
Is neutral colour scheme a good choice for a living space?
I am very fond of ‘emotional design’ approach initially introduced by Benjamin Noriega Ortiz, one of the most prominent architects and designers in the USA. This approach is based on individual perception of a living space, emotions and associations spaces evoke in people. It implies creative interpretation of individual preferences and feelings of the client, which inspire original design concepts.
It is well known that from psychological standpoint colour is the most important element of the interior, causing the strongest emotional reaction. But how is it possible to evoke strong emotions if only neutral beige-gray-brown palette is used? In these complex hues the main colours of the colour wheel compensate each other’s effect and their combined impact on human eye and brain is reduced. Is it possible to create an impressive interior using a neutral palette? This is the main difficulty in working on neutral interiors.
There are certain objective reasons for choosing a general neutral colour scheme for an interior.
One reason, in my experience, is that many people are afraid to make a mistake in the colour scheme (although they like bright colours and are unconsciously attracted to them). So they choose a neutral beige-brown palette. In such cases we take it for granted that colour should not be the main means of expression, and go from there. Architectural shapes, forms of interior objects take first place.
Another reason may be a conflict between clients’ colour preferences (husband and wife having opposite tastes are a common example). One of the ways to solve the conflict may be choice of a neutral colour scheme for the interior. In my work I am often faced with situations where a couple is actively participating in the interior design process, trying to put their feet down when it comes to colour choices. To mitigate the conflict we sometimes opt for beige-brown hues. Neutral colours are so good as compromise decisions exactly because they do not evoke negative emotions in most people, although they do not evoke positive emotions either. So basically they satisfy most people, but do not make a strong impression.
One more reason for choosing the neutral palette may be the theme of the interior. In such cases neutral colour combinations could be the key to creating the right impression. Such interiors are based on subtly coloured finishes and expressive textures, lines and patterns.
Obviously, a neutral colour scheme has its pros and cons.
As for the negative aspects:
- personal colour preferences of the clients are not fully satisfied,
- overall impact of the colour palette on human psyche is not very strong.
Still, there are also certain perks:
- it is easy to make the interior appear harmonious and balanced,
- neutral background allows nuances of other colours to become louder,
- “colourful grays” can be really beautiful (gray-green, gray-pink and other hues of gray).
Colour nuances mean for a neutral palette much more than for any other. For example, a small shift of brown towards appetizing chocolate hues (or dark chocolate, if some like it hot) – and the interior suddenly becomes intense and embracing. Wenge woods used in furniture and interior objects brings a subtle exotic vibe. And here comes the familiar interior style which has become increasingly popular over the past decade. It is a sure choice: easy to implement, exotic and sophisticated at the same time. Besides, many people see it as modern and classy.
Different approaches to creating an interior in neutral colours
There are three main approaches to picking the colours for the architectural shell (walls, floors, ceilings) and interior compositions (furniture, lighting fixtures, décor, etc.).
1. Neutral shell + colourful interior composition. This is a popular design scheme. Rich colours stand out across a neutral background, so the main impression is created by the interior composition. Since all the objects are bright, there are no colour accents as such. For the composition to be impressive it does not really matter if there is plenty of interior objects or just a few. Introducing new objects does not alter the effect the composition makes, although its scale changes. In a way, these interiors resemble a kids’ playground or a Lego set, but nevertheless can be stylish and interesting. The impression in this case does not really depend on the costs involved: Ikea items, antique furniture or objects by famous designers could produce an equally successful combination.
2. Totally neutral interior: neutral shell + neutral interior composition. For example, white on white. Here I am talking about ‘pseudo-white’, since in a moderate climate there is not much daylight in winter, so a pure white interior looks dull and grayish. So normally designers use light shades of other colours, but avoid pure white. If this approach is used, the role of accents cannot be underestimated. These can be objects in the same neutral colours, emphasized by their form or texture (this is when the colour idea is taken to an absolute extreme).
3. A mixed neutral colour scheme. Shell, objects and décor are all coloured in different neutral shades.
An example of the third approach is Elephant House. In this project we aimed to create an interior using a neutral palette which would nevertheless be impressive and would evoke positive emotions. The effect a colour produces on a person is relative, i.e. the impression is formed depending on comparison with other colours. So the stronger the contrast is, the stronger is the impression. In this case our goal was to emphasize the contrast between neutral shades of the interior and the bright garden outside. The idea of the project was to dissolve the house in the surrounding landscape. The interiors were to become transparent, with beautiful views out of the big windows.
We used colours from “cereal-chocolate” palette for larger interior objects. For the background (walls and floors) we chose misty and silvery blue-grays. We paid special attention to textures and patterns.
The quality of lighting was especially important. Weak yellow light would swallow the nuances of colours and textures, but in bright white light they are expressive and work together with reflections on glazed surfaces, creating a game of reflections and vibrations of the nature inside the house.
Combinations of neutral colours
In my opinion, in a moderate climate combination of white and gray does not work for interiors: it is too cold and formal in scarce winter daylight.
Combinations of beige and brown hues are easy to work with, it is almost impossible to go wrong with them. These combinations are attractive, because light brown is a friendly colour which creates a welcoming atmosphere.
Gray and brown is also an easy match. It emphasizes the blue nuances of gray and red nuances of brown.
Gray and beige is a difficult combination which may turn out gloomy. White is a bad addition here, since it makes beige and gray look dirty. Yellow is also a bad idea, as gray would become greenish in such neighborhood. In this colour scheme textures and their combinations play a crucial role. If they are chosen well, the palette will be impressive and exquisitely elegant. A good example is long-lasting popularity of designs based on colour greige invented by Giorgio Armani. The palette expanded from fashion to interior design and became a symbol of contemporary chic.
When I suggest that my clients use shades of gray for living spaces, they often look surprised. Apparently, several generations of our ancestors have this ingrained negative notion of ‘ordinary gray life’. However, gray is the third emotionally neutral colour (after beige and brown) which makes for a peaceful atmosphere and should not be disregarded in interiors.
Neutral gray is a characterless, indifferent, achromatic color, very readily influenced by contrasting shade and hue. It is mute, but easily excited to thrilling resonances. Any color will instantly transform gray from its neutral, achromatic state to a complementary color effect corresponding mathematically to the activating color. This transformation occurs subjectively, in the eye, not objectively in the colors themselves. Gray is a sterile neuter, dependent on its neighboring colors for life and character. It attenuates their force and mellows them. It will reconcile violent oppositions by absorbing their strength and thereby, vampirelike, assuming a life of its own. (Johannes Itten, Swiss artist, 1888-1967).