Multicolored insights from HGTV star Antonio Ballatore, top chef Cindy Pawlcyn, green guru Danny Seo and branding pro Joe Duffy.
In the Driver's Seat
What happens when you mix the theatrics of set design with the edge of rock 'n' roll, and throw in some New York attitude? You get The Antonio Treatment, which Design Star winner Antonio Ballatore now delivers on his new HGTV "docu-design" show. Inspired by cars, tattoos and you-name-it, Ballatore and his crew transform lackluster spaces into custom creations.
STIR: Tell us about a recent color inspiration.
AB: I did a hotel room at the Highland Hollywood. It was the hotel Janis Joplin passed away in – a West Coast version of the Chelsea. They gave me a suite. Me and my crew just went nuts, did all this crazy stuff. It was a take on a '70s Matchbox car, with a cobra … purple, with a red, white and blue stripe. I get inspired by all kinds of crazy things. Things from my childhood.
STIR: How does your background in set design influence your interior designs?
AB: As a set designer, you're always under the gun. You're doing major rebuilds in two or three days. I'm used to working under that kind of pressure. I've had to think outside the box. I'm bringing in a lot of my tricks, along with a lot of my guys.
STIR: What's your process for choosing colors?
AB: I kind of go by gut. I'm big on putting samples on walls, and seeing how it looks at night, in the daytime – a lot of trial-and-error.
STIR: Are there any colors or combinations that you just can't stand?
AB: Everybody knows I'm not a fan of tan and beige. They're overdone. Everyone always plays it safe. But color is so easy to change. If you can't live with it, paint it over.
STIR: What's the weirdest thing you've done with color?
AB: Define "weird." We're always doing something different and weird.
STIR: You like to mix custom paint colors. What's the best one you've concocted recently?
AB: In my place, I didn't want anything to compete with the artwork. I came up with a grayish purple. At night, it becomes a little more purple. It's a cool color. I really dig it.
STIR: When you were on Design Star, Candice Olson called you "the bad boy of design." Do you feel pressure to live up to that?
AB: "The Tony Soprano of design." The whole thing is a trip. I guess I'm just the first guy on HGTV who's a little different. I don't feel pressure. I'm not trained to be a designer. I'm just doing what feels right, feels cool. I want people not to feel intimidated by design.
STIR: Your signature moment on Design Star was putting hot-pink ducks on a white wall. Where did that come from?
AB: The pink ducks happened by accident. I originally wanted to do a pink steer head, but the girls came back with ducks. It was made fun of, but that's an example of turning a mistake into something good.
STIR: What's the coolest thing you've tried with respect to color in the past year?
AB: I like to get existing pieces and customize them with color, turn them into something special. I have my airbrush, and I blast it like a car, with metal flake. That's what's so fun about this. It's like working with David LaChappelle [the photographer renowned for his use of outrageous sets]. I'm reliving that all again, but it's my vision this time. My vision is becoming clearer.
One of the pioneers of California cuisine, Cindy Pawlcyn, was advocating the "farm-to-table" philosophy long before it became fashionable. Her Napa Valley restaurants – Mustards Grill, Go Fish and Cindy's Backstreet Kitchen – all share a focus on fresh, seasonal fare, much of it grown in her kitchen gardens. The author of four cookbooks, she recently added TV personality (Top Chef Masters) to her repertoire.
STIR: You're known for great presentation as well as good food. What's your strategy?
CP: Food is also eaten with the eyes, and color makes the plate more interesting. You have to have balance. It's much easier in summer, when everything is fresh. In winter, there are so many browns, with meats and sauces. I like uneven numbers, and I always try to break it up, the shapes and elements. And, of course, it has to be edible – you don't want pieces so big you can't get them on a spoon.
STIR: You've been promoting heirloom potatoes this year. Why?
CP: I love them! Potatoes with different colors on a plate make it more exciting as a diner. My dad used to grow Peruvian purple potatoes in North Dakota. Farmers would help him and think they were weird, but now people are used to seeing them. Heirlooms are not always better, but it's nice to keep the seeds alive.
STIR: Is there anything that you grow primarily for what it adds to the color palette?
CP: Bronze fennel. It's beautiful, and we can use it for sauces – and some of the micro lettuces.
STIR: You're a potter who makes a lot of your own dishes. How do you pair plate colors with food colors?
CP: I tend to like white plates, although there are some great little appetizers that jump off a dark glazed plate. Cheese also looks really good on dark plates. I like food colors for plates. Purple doesn't work. Or blue. I don't like sharp geometric shapes. Food is soft, and hard-edged plates take away from that. I use brighter-colored plates in summer. The food can stand up to it. The mood of the room also influences the color of the plate, and whether you're going for edgy, comforting or hipster.
STIR: What are the color palettes in your restaurants?
CP: Mustards has a creamy-butter dining room, with dark mahogany. It's very clubby, very welcoming. Cindy's is off-white and black, with a lot of botanicals in the wallpaper and dark-chocolate distressed furniture and dark carpet. Go Fish is mostly blue, white and gold, with chocolate brown. It gives a feeling of seafood, the ocean and water.
STIR: You took part in a color-related cooking challenge on Top Chef Masters. Tell us about that.
CP: I did yellow – a yellow vegetable curry with cornbread and garnished with a poached egg. It was hard. Yellow is a late-summer color. Green was easiest, because there are so many options.
STIR: Is there any color you hate to see on a plate?
CP: Gray. You can't make it look good. It's almost always a mistake. I made gray mashed potatoes once. Very bad!
STIR: Your most recent book, Big Small Plates, focuses on appetizers. What's one of the most visually striking ones that you feature?
CP: Avocado papaya salad. You've got the orange papaya, the black seeds, the lime-green avocado and brown toasted hazelnuts on a little black plate that I made.
STIR: Colorwise, what's the most interesting thing you've seen or created this year?
CP: I did a beautiful red corn and popcorn sundae. We just introduced it this year. It has burgundy red heirloom popcorn kernels; you pop them, and still see little red dots from the husk. Then we grated fresh corn and mixed it into the ice cream, and topped it with popcorn, hot chocolate and caramel. It's like caramel corn with chocolate, and it's gorgeous!
Going green hadn't even entered the vernacular when Danny Seo started exploring eco-friendly living as a youth. Since then, he's emerged as a leading voice on sustainable lifestyles and built a green empire that includes books (Simply Green Parties, Simply Green Giving and Conscious Style Home); a blog; and a growing line of branded products, including mattresses (Simmons Natural Care by Danny Seo) and a new bath and beauty line (Wholearth by Danny Seo).
STIR: What's been the best advance in green design in the last year?
DS: LED [lighting] technology. It's been around forever, but it's finally in light-bulb form. In my hall, I put in LED, individual diodes, and it creates this cool, modern, futuristic look. There's the energy savings, the bulbs don't get hot, and they last for 20 years. They do cost $10 a bulb, but it's nice to know I'll never have to think about changing bulbs.
STIR: What's the most interesting thing you've seen, with respect to color?
DS: Color-blocking is interesting right now. You can do it with modular elements, like carpet, or create a patchwork effect on a wall. People are more willing to take risks with paint. It is reversible. And darker colors are huge, like ebonized wood floors. It really anchors a room. That's what you see when you go to a boutique hotel, and that's influencing all design. There's a misconception that dark is like a dungeon; it's more rich.
STIR: What's your strategy for choosing colors?
DS: Go to your closet and get a solid-color T-shirt you love. Take that T-shirt to the store and color-match instead of looking at paint chips.
STIR: What color is that for you?
DS: Really, it's gray. I'm very happy in gray. I have a heather gray T-shirt that I love. It's the first thing I pack. All the walls in my midcentury modern home are gray.
STIR: What inspired you to go green at such a young age?
DS: I was born on Earth Day, and that was a big influence. It's an unusual holiday because it wasn't really celebrated – it was more doom and gloom. I started an environmental group, Earth 2000, when I was 12. The roots of sustainability always fascinated me. I liked growing things, refurbishing things. When I got my first apartment, I was able to marry those interests.
STIR: Even a green guru must have a few guilty secrets – what are yours?
DS: My "eco sins?" Well, I was doing a photo shoot, with a lot of props, so I had to rent a giant SUV. Someone saw me and tweeted: "I just saw Danny Seo in an SUV." I overnight a lot of stuff, all the time. Using airplanes is the least energy-efficient way – ground shipping is always the most fuel-efficient, but there are so many time-sensitive things I'm working on.
STIR: What's the state of green in 2010?
DS: What's new is the marriage of sustainability and style. Ten years ago, that was an oxymoron. Green people were hippie-granola types, and people with great style didn't care about the environment. Now people care – and they want gorgeous homes.
STIR: Some industry experts say we've reached the tipping point in green building and design. What do you think?
DS: We're getting there. The thing that makes people shift is when it benefits them. Nobody wants to shift because it's the right thing to do. With heating costs what they are, energy-efficiency is a huge motivator.
Duffy & Partners, the award-winning Minneapolis design and branding firm, has created logos and packaging for some of the world's best-known products. Founder and chairman Joe Duffy also wrote the book on global branding, Brand Apart.
STIR: What role does color play in brand identity?
JD: It's huge, if not the biggest player. There are two sides to color. A color like red, for Coca-Cola – when a brand has been around that long, it owns that color in that category. There's the emotion aspect, the way color makes you feel about a brand. There's also a product-information aspect to color. When we did Diet Coke, we knew we had to use red and a combination of silver and white. Those are the category-signifier colors that tell you it's "diet."
STIR: Tell us the color story of a recent project.
JD: We redesigned Herradura Tequila, the No. 1 premium tequila in Mexico. There are informational colors in the tequila category: silver for young tequila, amber for reposado or slightly aged, and reds and golds for anejo, the most aged. We stayed true to the color category tradition. But there was a big problem. It's expensive tequila – in Mexico, they know it's the best – but here, it looked cheap. We had to tone down the color, make it richer and give it depth.
STIR: Have you ever told a client to ditch their color palette?
JD: Yes. If they say, "Our brand is just doing terribly in our category," the formula for success is to really change. If a brand is designed right, the most incongruous color might be perfect – exactly what the brand needs to break through. That's what we did for New French Bakery. Every bread brand is warm: reds, yellows, beiges and browns. We let the beautiful bread provide those warm colors and wrapped it in blue. The packaging stands apart in a sea of sameness. When you use blue in a warm way, it complements the warmth of really fine bread and makes the real color more important. You need a brave client to go with that path. Most want to go with tried-and-true category norms.
STIR: What's your process for working with color?
JD: When we're starting from scratch, like creating a new identity for the Bahamas, we went down to the Bahamas and traveled the country. That was the big "aha!" There are 14 different destinations to experience there. The brand is literally a stylized map of the Bahamas, and we tried to capture what you see there, using a palette that is part of the experience: coral seas, tropical fish, brightly colored graphics in signs and people's dress.
STIR: What has had the biggest impact on color palettes in the past year?
JD: The best way to approach design is to experience pop culture. Go to Avatar, the next performance at the Guthrie, take a look at Fashion Week. It's amazing how those things influence how people experience color – their likes and dislikes. We recently chose cardamom as an emerging flavor trend, then looked at its impact on color palettes. We're always trying to keep an ear to the ground.
STIR: What's the color story for 2010?
JD: Green, because of the environment, but it's being done to death. Now is the time to come up with alternatives. Everyone is trying to say they're earth-friendly and sustainable. My take on the nature bandwagon is, let's do it in a way we can own.
STIR: You work with brands all over the world. Is color global, at this point, or do different locales interpret colors differently?
JD: It's becoming more universal, primarily because of the Internet. Still, there are some color issues. You don't use black in some countries, because it designates death or that something is bad for you. For Minute Maid, we had to take 125 different brands around the world and give them a unifying look. They all had different colors and names, and one of the challenges was creating a common look and feel. We used a black mortice with a curved green line above it that suggested a canopy of leaves, like being in an orchard grove. Everybody in the juice category uses a pile of fruit on the label, so we tried to use fruit in a unique way and came up with what we call "the smile." We stack the fruit with a wedge that creates the smile. You can stack the containers together to get a line of smiles.