Master Class

April 10, 2020

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San Francisco has shut down. A “shelter in place” order went into effect March 16th at 12:01 am in an attempt to contain, to whatever degree, the spread of  Covid-19 and its onslaught. School has also been closed through the end of this year (June). I had begun this post a few weeks ago. I am going to finish it but its meaning has changed for me.

They say it takes ten years to master something. What happens in those ten years? What is maturity as applied to any discipline? Mastery is the summation of many things I have discussed over the years. For example, a master has a catalogue of information at the ready, which is part of her intellectual and other processes. I have described this cataloguing as “intuition,”  when the exact origin of a conclusion or decision is unknown, and “experience” when it is known. They call artists of a certain age or level of practice “mature.” Usually this refers to someone over forty years old or who has x number of exhibitions or grants under his belt. Although artistic maturity often comes with either or both of these things, it does not have to.

When I studied yoga with the Iyengars in India, BKS’ son, Prashant, described three kinds of knowledge:  books and sacred texts,  trusted personal sources (e.g. a guru), and direct experience. To follow only one of these is dogma, he explained. This does not mean the artist (or other type of master) does things willy-nilly; it just means she recognizes that there is almost never one answer to any question, never one workable or even great solution. and that the answer(s) can come from many sources and is usually nuanced. Dogmatism is a sign of immaturity then. Conversely, if you do anything,  including designing, undogmatically, I claim you are mature.

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My yoga teacher mentioned he does not know what he will teach until he sees us in front of him. He has been teaching yoga for over forty years. When I first started teaching art, I of course, had a lesson plan. This was for several reasons. Just as it is customary to learn expository writing with an outline, lesson plans provide a framework to conduct a class: they keep you on point, propel the lesson, cover state standards where applicable, etc. I taught yoga for a while. I had a tiny sheet of paper with a sequence that I kept in my pocket. Both as art teacher and yoga teacher though, little by little, I learned to be responsive: this person right then needs to know how to mix a tint without subsuming the white; that person has a slipped disk and requires substantial support for Paschimottonasana. Maybe I kept the kernel of an idea going in but I dispensed with the fixed and concrete. To meet another’s needs you must be able to deviate from your plan.

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Maturity is often relational.  When I hear a sophisticated drummer in any genre it is evident. She never overplays nor overshadows the song or the other band members. All components are in harmony. The master orchestrates, calls, and responds. So, first the maturity is in relationship to music itself, and depending, other musicians. But, there is a relationship to the audience too. This is not the same question as: if a tree falls in the woods..? The maturity of the drummer puts me at ease so I can fully engage and enjoy; I do not worry that I will hear an egotistical misfire. When I design, the client is the band and the audience combined; the music is Color and the design goal in concert. I know my clients trust me.

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I do think you can have a notable design style and be mature. Missoni is a mature designer obviously. His zig-zags are unmistakable. And, some people really like to consume a particular style. One of my very first posts was called “Invisible Woman.” My style is to be unrecognizable. Both approaches are fine so long as the artist is free, confident, avoids schtick, and is capable enough to abandon whatever notion she might have about herself.  When I walk into a consultation I do not know what I will do or how I will respond. My knowledge and experience with color are an armature on which I hang or construct a design. A lesson plan is no more than that. My yoga teacher knows all the poses, their effects, and how the various sequencing of those poses effects the body and all its facets. He can, therefore, teach novel sequences. People ask me, have I used this or that color before for this or that application? I know what will work even if I have never seen it before. In those ten or so years you pare away and recognize what is essential.

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As we continue to hunker down,  I have done minimal work: some interior design assistance via the web for current clients and an exterior here and there (with a mask on and at least 6′ between us). I wonder how maturity bridges practice: meaning, how long can I be an artist or be mature at my art without practicing it?  Practice does lubricate  so you are efficient and quick on the creative draw. Maturity is not a plateau above which you cease to ascend. I have been doing color consultation for fifteen years and working with color for over thirty. Artists do have a way of looking at the world.  (So do other esoterics, if I may coin a term.) I draw with my children. I write a blog. I look at colors and I think about them. Is my maturity sufficient to tide me over? Yes. I practice philosophy.

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While in the midst of the San Francisco lockdown “shelter in place” order, let me first wish everyone safety and well-being. It is likely that inessential work will be especially hard hit in the aftermath (and current condition) of Covid-19.  Readers know that I find optimization of humans in their environments (color design) imperative however, I am not a health care worker, sanitation worker, childcare provider, etc. My work is essential to me though. Also, I work not just to make dough but because my spirit and intellect depend and thrive on it. I, along with all parents in my town I am sure, are going nuts trying to home school and take care of little ones without respite. “Get off me!” I say to my daughter. I pray for school to open on time.

We are one. We are in this (and everything) together. I am my brother’s keeper. I won’t go into politics except to say that forty years of neoliberalism  have made a collapse imminent; transformative change comes with a crisis real or perceived; and power cedes nothing without a demand. I guess I will go into politics! Until the end of April I am offering any residential remote consultation for a flat $400. This can be interior or exterior. I am also continuing to advise new and continuing clients remotely on interior design matters such as furniture selection at a pro-rated hourly rate. In person exterior consultations can go on as usual, at an ample six feet, until our order is lifted. I have promised a sloppy French kiss to anyone who wants one when things clear up.

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I am struck, and even moved, at the transformative power of color. It sounds grandiose but a handful of jobs over these last fourteen years have changed lives. This is not due to me in particular.  I have been honored to participate in a process. Even the most modern societies have rites of passage: a bat mitzvah still practiced, a wedding, a ribbon cutting. Those attuned to their surroundings recognize color and design as a potential symbol of personality, change in circumstance, or personal epochs/epics. An external change can reflect an internal one but also perhaps will one into existence.

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Roberta has been trying to settle into San Francisco. She always wanted to live here but her closest friends and family are in Canada. Her design goal, then, was to make her living space as beautiful and idiosyncratic as possible.  If her immediate surroundings were sublime she would feel tethered. First, we did the colors of the walls, subtle and botanical greens that remind her of Japan, a place and aesthetic she adores. Next, we selected tile for the kitchen, window treatments, rugs, and upholstery. Every choice served to put down visual roots that would have other kinds take hold. Even the design process itself was a ritual.

The prognosis for Jennifer’s husband was a few years. They sold their house and bought a very small condo close to her work, so she could walk and so he could have a doorman/woman and an elevator. She knew that the condo was for Jack, really, and for a very specific time and purpose. The building used to be a hotel for musicians. In fact, it was the first integrated hotel in the city. The couple love/d jazz. We had to make the unit glamorous. The bathroom-probably my favorite thing to design-is the showstopper, with nacreous tiles in the shower offsetting the simple white subway, and bronze-black penny rounds on the floor. We stained the floor a Spanish walnut. The walls are C2-851 En Pointe, which as you would imagine, is a luxurious satiny-talcum sort of rosy white. Posh, fashionable without trying too hard, and slightly retro. Like the two of them were together.

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My sister and I share a lot of DNA. We grew up together mostly and mostly had the same cultural influences, yet, our taste and aesthetic could not be more different. For example, she likes bronze art nouveau statuary and Faberge eggs and has many replicas. Her bed is decked out in lavender satin and gold sequined pillows. She has Kimba the White Lion paraphanalia everywhere.  You could say I have the opposite of these things in my home. There must be myriad components that formulate an aesthetic: culture, neurology, circumstance, and much more undoubtably.  I am fascinated by this nearly every day.

Here am I: looking around the house for things to change. After fifteen years I am finally able to contemplate (including budgetarily) redoing my kitchen countertop. Samples sit next to the computer.  The countertop that works best is a little too reminiscent of my bathroom walls once you get in there; from a distance the bathroom appears rosier but I will have to repaint the bathroom door to ensure compositional balance and Feng Sui appropriateness. I will also need to slightly alter the parakeet green cabinets to something more absinthe. If you close your eyes and imagine a green meadow you will feel as peaceful as if you were actually there gazing at it. A lot has changed for me in the last year. Is my desire to (re)design a celebration, a prognostication, or an incantation?

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Color Story

July 1, 2019

In one of my earliest posts I discussed introversion and extroversion as applied to color design. To recap, in a residential setting the user seeks homeostasis between the external and internal environments: the more extroverted a person (the more stimuli she requires), the more dynamic her environment needs to be. The inner and outer thus match and the  nervous system is at rest.

My house used to be very colorful. Then I had children. The walls have always been mostly pale because there is a lot of light here: the soft  chartreuse transformed itself over the course of the day with every changing angle of the sun or passing cloud. Each door was a different color. The living room rug was a radiating sunburst of red, blue, golden yellow, and green, with the hallway doors  painted to match. It is worth noting that when I bought the house I knocked down several walls to create an open plan: on the first floor everything is visible simultaneously. Shortly before I gave birth to my daughter, my (typical) Sunset District red oak parquet floor began to grate on me. It seemed loud and heavy. I already felt heavy, as you can imagine, so I floated  wide planks of white oak to create a  beachy feel. (I live near the beach.) The house became immediately more expansive and peaceful. This was my first major move in subduing or eliminating color, but now,  the walls were acid and deafening.  I repainted: still chartreuse but more neutral and complex (PPC-B3 Raffia). The idea of children is one thing; I somehow anticipated the visual, aural, and even olfactory commotion to come and bought a different rug. Cream and grey, like hundreds of pebbles cast on the sand, it melts into the floor and renders dirt invisible.

Ryla’s presence was an increase in stimuli, to be sure. As soon as I had energy and a moment to spare, I painted all the doors a velvety cashmere (AHCD 96),  a highly neutralized version of the wall. I switched from the motley run of color to a soothing repetition.  This was not enough though. As time elapsed and her energy increased (my daughter is a radiating sunburst herself), my cherry kitchen cabinets were  plodding and chunky, overpowering the sandy colored floor. The black granite counter tops did not help. I contemplated replacing them but this was cost prohibitive.   I had to paint the cabinets a hot parakeet green. I know I am adding a bright color to this story. Let me explain.

I was never attracted to monochrome. First, in those days, it connoted to me lots of greys, which I am mostly only attracted to in clothes; second, I am an extremely extroverted person, and as I mentioned above, my organism generally requires a fantasia of color and pattern. As my external environment became more humanly energetic however, the visual field’s dynamism overloaded me. Homeostasis was gone. Why the bright green then?  The house is quieter because I have limited and restricted complementary color relationships. My favorite color is green, particularly yellow-green. (It is worth noting quickly here that in studies of major hues, people reacted to green as they would natural sunlight: their vital signs showing excitation without enervation.) The first complementary color I removed was the red of the floor. Then the red in the rug and doors. I still have a sort of flamingo red (C2-527 Fandango) accent wall in the foyer but it is contained and reminds me of a flower, which goes well with my Macintosh woodcut (of a flower). Even my wooden dining room set in a bronze finish was too graphic.  I now have a white top table with tapered chestnut legs and apron; I painted each chair a different subtle green in a high gloss finish and reupholstered the seats in restaurant grade white vinyl with white sparkles. The mood is light.

When tightening a color palette it is imperative to increase other areas of contrast: these could be value and saturation, for example. Varying textures also becomes extremely important as you remove hue. I need the rich kitchen cabinets for interest and depth precisely because the majority of what you see is some type of green: an emerald jelly cabinet,  nearly-neon chartreuse velveteen pillows, handmade flaxen tiles for the kitchen backsplash. Of course, some complementary relationships are necessary. Instead of red, green’s diametric complement, I use charcoal purple, black and white to bring focus.

My daughter’s “suite” is another story. I built out the garage in the nick of time before Max entered the picture. There is less light there, despite the many design choices I made to remedy this: for example, skylight, window from bathroom into hallway, doors with large single lites. Contrary to what most people assume, this kind of environment in fact, requires more chroma. Pale colors are  illegible in weak light;  strong colors do the sun’s work when there is little, less, or none. In terms of color, downstairs is a play on monochrome.  Each room is saturated in its own  hue but the two rooms are almost exact opposites on the color wheel.  This binds the two spaces as a unit. Ryla’s bedroom is the jungle and savanna rolled into one (50% C2-650 Plantain + 50% C2-652 Al Green), a somehow intense yet mellow golden-green. In the landscape sits a neighbor’s re-bar fitted tiger from Burning Man. (It is so large you can sit astride it.) The furniture is white and the bedding is natural with bits of bright color.

Her bathroom is tiled floor to ceiling in a sea foam blue tile from Fireclay. It is large scale herringbone on the floor, smaller herringbone on the tub, and squares on the wall plane. The grout is grey, so the obvious pattern of the tiling gives dimension and movement. The uniformity of the color makes a small room feel large. Lucite rods and shelves disappear into the wall. The trashcan, towels, and even the toilet brush holder are some kind of blue, with a pop coming from a wild black, blue, and gold octopus bath mat that Ryla chose herself (at 5 years old!) for its aquatic relevance.

My  son is relaxed by nature. On the energetic scale he has as yet, not effected household color, and I suspect he will not.  At a tender eighteen months he does pick out his own shoes every morning though. He resides in Ryla’s old urban bedroom: i.e. a walk-in closet. It is painted a neutral violet (PPC-V4 Silver Sapphire), with her hand-me-down purple, yellow, and grey hippo bedding. How could he complain? Our house is more vibrant than most people’s yet everyone who enters-no matter his or her taste-comments on how happy and peaceful it feels.  For me, it is an oasis of cheery quietude, a twinkling eye in a brilliant storm.

My Joy and Torment

February 27, 2019

 
The property possessed by an object of producing different sensations on the eye as a result of the way it reflects or emits light.
OED

 

Color is the place where our brain and the universe meet.
Paul Klee
Mere color, unspoiled by meaning, and unallied with definite form, can speak to the soul in a thousand different ways.
Oscar Wilde
You put down one color and it calls for an answer. You have to look at it like a melody.
Romare Bearden
All colors will agree in the dark.
Francis Bacon
I saw a sunset in Queretaro that seemed to reflect the colour of a rose in Bengal.
Jorge Luis Borges
Yes,’ I answered you last night; / ‘No,’ this morning, sir, I say. / Colours seen by candle-light / Will not look the same by day.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning
The color of truth is gray.
Andre Gide

 

My skin is kind of sort of brownish
Pinkish yellowish white.
My eyes are greyish blueish green,
But I’m told they look orange in the night.
My hair is reddish blondish brown,
But it’s silver when it’s wet.
And all the colors I am inside
Have not been invented yet.

Shel Silverstein

Double Indemnity

February 3, 2019

I admire the French who see fashion, in part, as the recognition that we are all part of one another’s aesthetic experience.  Even a nicely tied scarf can do the trick. My former husband was from Peru and had a similar point of view: “Nanita, why does everyone here dress in their pajamas and sweats?” He was incredulous that people who could afford at least one nice outfit would be seen in public looking like shlubs. When choosing color for an exterior, people often look to buildings they admire. If your house faces East you might look at other East-facing houses that you like, etc. This might be a fair way to start. I have written before about the nature of my own color work: how I view art and the artist; and that I strive to capture the essence of what is desired and apply it to your architecture, so what you truly appreciate-the overall effect- is realized. Why am I so adamant about not copying anything or anyone, including myself? I am doing it (or not doing it, in this case) for you.

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. This adage must have been coined by a serial duplicator. While it is true that a designer might want to emulate what a client deems beautiful and successful (usually) in order to satisfy him or her, this approach in the end, serves to mollify: for the imitator, to deflect from and soothe against a lack of originality; and for the imitated,  to feel less robbed. The latter actually refers back to the first designer who can then feel less like a thief. Consider this in the context of a street,  a neighborhood, or city. What happens when you copy your neighbors’ colors? How do they feel? How would you feel? Not that feelings are exactly my main concern here.   I am questioning notions of proprietorship and of desire too.  What are my responsibilities? Foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds. No one owns colors however, the designer and client have worked together to create something one hopes, is unique and fabulous. In an important way, that design belongs to them. What I design for you is ours together.

Fences make good neighbors. A house in San Francisco cannot exist in any kind of isolation.  Almost all our buildings are attached, and if they are not, are very close together. Our perception is always relative. I cannot see my house without seeing yours and everyone else’s. My work in  St. Helena or anywhere more rural takes into primary account the natural surroundings. The majority of the landscape in our dense city is other buildings. When I design here I am considering the entirety of your building’s context: how it looks unto itself and in relation to its neighbors so you and they can appreciate its full beauty. The whole street plays into the composition and design; what color temperatures are missing there, for example? I will not deny you a blue house if you love blue but too much repetition renders your building invisible. We see a haze of uniformity. The landscape dulls.

There is nothing new under the sun.  There are finite musical notes within a certain scale but their arrangement  makes for a novel or derivative piece of work. Regardless of originality, is it good, beautiful, or at least interesting? Can a copy be any of those things? Most buildings have a body, casework and sashes of some kind. They have shared characteristics. Color theory describes relationships that are pleasing to us. Harmony and contrast, to name a couple, are qualities that make a design successful so these relationships are repeated to varying degrees. Picasso was notorious and upfront: “If you have an idea worth stealing, I will steal it.” His friends and contemporaries ended up hiding their paintings when he came for a studio visit. He took other artists’ ideas, as well as so-called Primitive Art, and spun them through his elevated gears, out of which came the work of a master. If you want to be original be prepared to be copied.

Endurance Test

December 13, 2018

Standing the test of time is misunderstood. Classic  does not mean grey. It does not mean conservative either. The primary definition is: serving as a standard of excellence; of recognized value. I just completed work on a funky three story HOA on top of Nob Hill. Built in the late 60s, it is a mod anachronism to this swanky block. The current paint job is meek: a pale peach with white. The colors are much too retiring both for the architecture itself and its position of being nestled between and recessed from its two Victorian neighbors. The building appears ashamed almost, what beauty or charm it might have, undervalued and misunderstood. It is funny to talk about buildings in these terms. At least for Westerners. Feng Sui practitioners do charts of houses much as they would do for people, revealing strengths, weaknesses, propensities, and all points to be balanced. This building must assert itself.

For smaller HOAs, I usually do my designing in real time with the color committee or HOA members present. This is efficient because I get reactions immediately and can respond; but also because it compels people to invest in or divest from the process, which acts as a tacit agreement in the end result. I have discussed this before in my post, Fight Club. When I met with the three owners who were available, I covered the points I made above. What this building needed were colors and a design that were bold enough to transform the simple architecture but neutral enough to belong in one of the toniest neighborhood in the city. We chose three designs. The main body colors were all rich but neutralized (somewhat greyed out); some trim was subdued and other accentuated; the color combinations were surprising. This element of surprise was a nod to the period: the building had to swing a little bit.

Later I got a call from an owner who was not at the meeting. She was very concerned that the colors I chose were, well, too colorful, and agitated hard for recognizable greys.  She went so far as to manipulate the process, creating a lot of acrimony. I am not telling this story to gossip. Exterior color is not private; I recognize why someone would feel so strongly however, she was misguided. Despite San Francisco’s reputation as one of the most colorful cities in the world, we have a lot of grey buildings here. I am not talking skyscrapers but Victorians, Edwardians, and new construction too. People in tech like grey. So do architects. I once worked with an architect in town whose every building is grey. It is his calling card. I do not have a problem with grey or white or taupe per se. It is easy to place some designs in time.  That looks like my avocado green refrigerator from the 70s! (Or my Danskin jumpsuit.)

Aside from the accumulation of dirt, there is no way to discern when a building I designed was painted.  Colors that serve the building first and the human second (the order is more important than the proportion here) appear atemporal, aside from the period in which they were built. Take a column or a pyramid from any part of the world. These are not beautiful because they are old or because they are neutral (most were originally bedazzled in vibrant frescoes, by the way); their proportions and scale make them transcendent. If you did not know when Chichen Itza was  built, for example, you would still marvel at its construction and solid grace: the design itself is durable. Architecture is fashion too. It goes through cycles and styles. Color design is the same.  Recalcitrance makes any innovation commonplace: the definition of cliché. That looks like it was painted during the tech boom of the 2010s!