"Light is a thing that cannot be reproduced, but must be represented by something else – by color." – Paul Cezanne
I often wonder: Why do so many people think white can solve every design issue? To me, a white wall is a blank canvas, a beginning crying out to be personalized with a finish of color. As an architectural color consultant, one of the biggest misconceptions I come across is the idea that pure white &ndash independent of any other factors &ndash will brighten, lighten or enlarge a space. Color is reflected light; without adequate lighting, white just looks gray. Check out the shadows at the corners of a white room or ceiling and you'll begin to wonder, how did this trend become so popular?
Somewhere along the line, people started associating pure white with modern, sanitary and the ultimate in neutral. But "contractor white" is a utilitarian color &ndash a temporary solution until the space's occupant can select an appropriate palette. Due to its overabundant usage, people are conditioned to see white as a cure-all. This should not justify the end result of sterile white spaces.
Take the gleaming white monuments and government buildings in Washington, D.C., designed to mimic the famous temples of ancient Greece. Recent research reveals that those ancient buildings, our original models of elegant design, were often coated with saturated colors to maximize visual impact under the strong Mediterranean sun. (To read more on this subject, go to Classical Color.)
In my work, I often find architects and designers limiting themselves exclusively to black and white, and the grays and browns of concrete and wood. And the clean, sparse, modern all-white interiors showcased in shelter magazines help perpetuate this trend. Unless your space is flooded with natural light, or you have access to a slew of special equipment, you can be assured your interiors are not going to look as bright as these glossy, professionally lit and styled photos. Dingy, windowless basements and small dark rooms will never "become" light on their own.
Another problem occurs when people don't take visual ergonomics into account. How does it feel to actually spend time living in a room? Contrary to popular opinion, decorating a space in dazzling white is not always soothing and neutral. White jumps out at you just as any bright color does. The human eye sees pure white as brilliant, and its highly reflective quality can cause eyestrain and headaches.
As you can imagine, there is no one-white-fits-all solution. Color is all about context, so if you're going white, it's important to pick a white with the correct undertone for the space in question. Whites can be tinted with yellow, pink, violet, blue, brown or even green. Whites with some saturation are imbued with their own luminosity, and therefore will not turn gray and shadowy, as pure whites do. Just as you would analyze a highly pigmented hue for its underlying color tone, so too should you closely examine whites.