Balancing Act

August 15, 2016

Decalcomania, 1966

To light a candle is to cast a shadow…
Ursula K. La Guin

Many fandecks are what they call a “let down.” I find humor in the term but what it means technically is that a page will have the same hue at various values, usually the lightest one on the top and the darkest one on the bottom. These ratios are made by dropping basically the same formula into different bases, which allows for different depth in color without sacrificing performance. Some people design color in the same limited way:  choosing a white trim, for example, from the top of a page that seems to correspond to a similar color farther below, because they are clearly related (e.g. both cool). This is a kind of shorthand. A language, to be sure, but an unpoetic one.

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In nature there is wide and varied spectral distribution, as I have mentioned in a previous post. Color theory is the codification of the natural way we see. A while back I was giving a talk at a design conference in Canada and the designer before me said that warm and cool colors should be used separately. I was flabbergasted. Cool and warm, light and dark, dense and diffuse should and do coexist. This applies to design  because it is the natural order. Even within the most striking scene is an element of quietude.

 The proper proportion of predictability and surprise (even calculated) provides the most optimal and beautiful architectural environment. When the scale is tipped too far in either direction the result  is either monotonous or disturbingly illogical. There are myriad ways to balance a design. Color theory lays out a few: the principle one is harmony versus contrast. Harmony gives an artwork or color design coherence and unity. An example of color harmony is a complementary color relationship: green with red or violet with yellow, in the most basic terms.  These are pleasing and orderly to us because of the after-image effect and because they are also commonly found in nature as we perceive it. Contrast refers to how colors diverge. Saturated  as opposed to neutral, or light as opposed to dark, for example.

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Once in India I bought a scarf. I wear it every winter (and San Francisco in the summer). It is flame orange and bright turquoise, and yet, where the two thread colors come together you will see a shimmer of grey. Within this vibrant color relationship a neutral color emerges because our eyes do the blending, as if mixing paint. Our natural inclinations draw us in certain color directions. A  client might favor intense over subdued colors but I will always argue for at least some relative neutrality in a design; this is, in fact, the only way to  see truly the saturated color in its splendor. The balance between saturated and neutral color is probably the one area that most designers comprehend to some degree. Usually the more saturated color is relegated to pillows or small objects. I have discussed previously that accent colors are usually used on small surface area because this reflects nature however, this also demonstrates a limited understanding of what it means to balance a design. The strongest color in a design can and often should be on the wall to drive a desired effect. If the color is well formulated this is never a problem. But color itself (hue, saturation, value) is not the only way to balance a design.

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Synesthesia refers to the brain’s ability to conflate the senses and other neural pathways. Perhaps when you were a child you assigned colors to numbers, for example. Most adults’ brains develop out of most synesthetic connections but many remain. Colors trigger certain sounds, smells, and other sensory output for almost all human beings. For example, earthy greens are sonorous and can be used to muffle high pitched sounds; astringent yellows and oranges to mask narcotic, sugary scents; and warm tones  to make people feel less physically cold. Of course, the colors do not change any given physical properties present but rather trick the brain into changing its perception of the environment. Colors have textures. This is easy for most people to see when it is explained.  Neutralized ones for example, seem heathery and soft; some saturated colors seem smooth and glassy. Once I was called in to specify walls and a cabinet for another designer’s work; everything she had chosen from paint to textile in the room was basically the same color and had the dry look of burlap. It was boring:  the hues and values lacked sufficient contrast and color texture was likewise limited. A successful and beautiful design should balance  all aspects, not only the materials used, but the colors themselves. This is especially true for a monochrome palette.

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A client might ask for an ethereal and airy design. As you can imagine, a pale blue feels light and an oxide red feels heavy. The former feels slight and the latter seems to have mass. Warmer colors appear weightier and cooler ones the opposite but these properties exist in colors of the same hue too. A dark blue can anchor and even feel warmer than a lighter blue of the same temperature.  The proper distribution of gravity and levity provides dimension to a design. The deepest darkest mancave needs a hint of grace somewhere.

Scale and weight are related. The relative proportion of colors also drives effect. As I alluded to, red on a pillow and red on four walls engender  different responses. There is a video ad on Wayfair where the designer explains that a successful/easy/good way to design is to make all the walls of your main areas the same, with the same accent colors carried throughout the dwelling on different objects.  What this does is prescribe the same scale to every room: all large surfaces areas are  null and void with bits of color scattered about. The result is monotony again.  Too much predictability certainly looks designed but it creates stasis. Colors, be they soft or loud, should move you through a space and in any given space, move you.

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I used to be an actor. I was also a scenic designer for the theater. Many minute and seemingly convoluted decisions go into a performance that transforms an audience. Any piece of art should feel effortless, no matter how much work was involved. Clients are continually surprised at the amount of thought and strategy I put into a design.  Every single paint line is important so the many machinations result in a beautiful environment that seems to have appeared magically. Ironically, the designs with the least or most automatic thought behind them look the most effortful and even stilted. There is a misconception that architecture (and in particular, interiors), I suppose because it is man-made of angles, must look excessively or perceptibly systematic. Architects by and large favor white because in their minds it most clearly reveals or maintains their design. (Data from an informal poll…) I have written a long essay that I am sure, based on my experience, must be true on all counts. We are all susceptible to bias and these biases lead us to habit and preconceptions.

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I just worked on a lovely Moorish building nestled between five story apartments on either side in the Marina District. When I arrived the house was white with brown windows. It was unremarkable and lost among a run of other white buildings of all sizes on that side of the street.  Working with couples is always a blend of art, mediation, and diplomacy. In this case, each person had strong and differing opinions but admitted flexibility.  At our design meeting I had explained that anything but a white would change one’s perception of the building, including its size, but that a richer color would make it a jewel.  Together we agreed on a strong mocha-colored pastel for the stucco, a hard-to-pin-down greenish putty for the decorative elements, and a dark tobacco for the windows. It was uniquely subtle and celebrated the architectural period while avoiding staunch traditionalism. The design satisfied all goals as stated at our meeting. The house was painted. The scaffolding set to come down.

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Then, one member of the couple called me back to select a white and essentially revert the building to its original state. When I arrived she told me that the house looked small (as reported by a neighbor), she did not want to be a “target” by standing out in any way, and some other  things. Though more petite than its neighbors, the house actually now looked taller than buildings of the same height on the street, due to the relationship between body color and the roof. As we worked to find a  white, a couple of strangers walked by and told us “what a beautiful building!” Aside from the  aesthetic and other struggles some couples might have (which I am quite skilled at negotiating), it became clear to me that she was simply and fundamentally averse to change and/or unable or unwilling to look with fresh eyes. I am here to make you happy and pick a great white but I am not going to agree with you, I said to her cheerily. Now, for those of you who know Yiddish, these folks were mespucha and I could speak to them in this kind of loving yet unvarnished language. I mourned a little for this gorgeous house.

I always design for the user.  This goal is tempered by a few factors, including the imperative to make the best art possible. Sometimes there are limited solutions due to light, material, or scale;  a building ends up looking about the same as it did before but with finesse. We call this “color correction.”  Not everything can be an innovative,  jaw-dropping masterpiece.  Good art  does require an element of risk however, and a willingness to change perspective. My best designs are achieved when  clients can let go enough to get what they always wanted but could never quite imagine.

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