Originally published in STIR®
Good Vibrations
Bohdan Gernaga is an interior designer specializing in color, but he won’t talk about color. At least not right away. Instead, Gernaga prompts his clients to talk about their feelings. How they feel when they go home. How they want to feel when they, say, sit down for dinner in the dining room.

“The point isn’t the color,” says Gernaga of Tyme Design. “It’s how the color and design affect the person.”

His methods may seem touchy-feely, but Gernaga’s emotion-based take on color has brought him a cult following in the Milwaukee area. Homeowners in the Brew City pass along his name with the frank forewarning that, if you let him do his thing, the results are worth it. Those willing to take the leap of faith are rewarded with bold makeovers. For one house, Gernaga added a pattern of random-width horizontal stripes around an old fireplace in preppy oranges and greens. He refreshed another old house exterior in a shimmery coat of copper.
But the residential work he’s most proud of is for two executive search recruiters, Sara and Willie Coffou, who live on Milwaukee’s East Side, near the lakefront, the marina and the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee campus. The project was so rewarding, says Gernaga, because his unbridled color scheme not only opened up a dramatic transformation for the house, but also for the young family living there.

“I don’t know how to say it,” says Gernaga. “It was strange because there was this vibrant, funny, interesting family. And they were living in this old, dark, grandma-ish, aristocratic house.”

Beer baron’s gift

Initially, that aristocratic history had attracted the Coffous. Their home is a Prairie-Mission mansion, built for a Uihlein daughter on the occasion of her marriage in 1886. (The Uihleins were the Milwaukee family who originally owned the Schlitz Brewing Company.) “We liked that it was historic.

We liked the idea of living near the university, in a kind of higher-ed village,” says Sara Coffou.
But the reality, after almost a decade of living in the house, was that it was kind of depressing. The formal foyer was painted in narrow vertical stripes, dull red and off-white. Other than that one dowdy embellishment, the house sported off-white or beige walls surrounded by foot after foot of dark, almost mahogany-stained, wood. The formal dining room had long ago been ceded to the four Coffou kids, who filled it with play tents and a shallow sea of discarded toys.

Though Willie Coffou was initially reluctant to sit around talking about his feelings with a color specialist, it was he who provided the greatest spark of inspiration for the dining room.

“He told me that he wanted a room that made him feel kind of like a kid,” says Gernaga. “A room where people laugh too loud, stay too late, and maybe drink one glass of wine too many, because they’re having such a good time just sitting around and telling stories.”

Festive hues

With inspiration in his sail, Gernaga specified Friendly Yellow (SW 6680) for the dining room’s upper walls, and Dancing Green (SW 6716) for the carved wood wainscoting, a hue infused with lime zest. Detail squares in the wainscoting host a range of other mood-lifting colors: Pizazz Peach (SW 6888), Flan (SW 6652), Melange Green (SW 6710), Marooned (SW 6020) and Waterfall (SW 6750). For the ceiling, Gernaga specified Peppery (SW 6615), a color edging toward terra cotta, but with a dash of hot sauce. The colors were applied in Sherwin-Williams Cashmere® Interior Acrylic Latex, chosen for its smooth application and superior hide.

The ironic thing about the kid-inspired makeover is that the dining room — once a den of Tickle-Me Elmos and plastic toy barns — was reclaimed by the grown-ups. Mr. and Mrs. Coffou have hosted more dinner parties than ever before, they say, and people really do stay too late.
“It’s like this magnet,” says Sara Coffou. “People just gravitate to that room.”

The Coffous asked Gernaga to work his magic on the rest of the house, including the foyer, the great room, the stairwell and the lower level. (“We also added the kitchen a few months after the original job was done because we wanted the entire first floor to have the ‘Bohdan’ feel,” Sara said.) The great room posed a particularly interesting challenge for Gernaga’s trusted, longtime painting contractor, Todd Grunert, owner of TG Painting in Milwaukee.

Says Grunert: “When Bohdan called me about the Coffou job, he said, ‘You’re gonna have a lot of fun with this one.’” The plan called for an almost nautical array of squares, rectangles, triangles and three-layer flag shapes bordered in sharp Black Bean (SW 6006). Gernaga took his inspiration from the Mission style of the house, an antique glass panel in the room and Sara Coffou herself.

“Sara has this very unique personality,” says Gernaga. “She’s organized and structured in her thoughts, but in a creative way.”

The Coffous say they get immediate compliments from whoever crosses their threshold.

“Every time someone says something about all the colors, it’s like I’m seeing it all again with fresh eyes,” says Sara Coffou. “It’s amazing how simple paint can breathe new life into a whole house.”

In touch with color

To tap into his clients’ inner rainbow, color consultant Bohdan Gernaga administers this “Self Color Test”:
  • How do you feel when you walk into this room?
  • How would you like to feel?
  • What kind of activities do you want to do in this room?
  • What do you want this room to say to visitors?
  • What possessions or patterns in this house really speak to you on an aesthetic or emotional level?
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Writer Alyssa Ford specializes in architecture and green design.