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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.






Under Construction

August 4, 2016

“Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt.”
Though many self-employed people in the digital age are encouraged to blog often in order to advertise their business and success, I heed Mr. Lincoln. I post pictures whenever I have time but blog only when I have something I really want to say. I am currently working on an essay about balance. Please be patient and stay tuned. In the meantime, some Emilio Pucci.

Parts and Labor

February 2, 2016



I have an MFA in printmaking. Painting was always too immediate for me. I like working with my hands and I needed to carve a block or etch a plate, something that allowed a conversation between me and the material. How easy and boring, I thought, to slap paint around on a surface. If painters weren’t so lazy they would be printmakers. This is ridiculous, of course. Artist gravitate toward certain media but there is always a conversation. The more collaborative the art form, the more conversations there are.

When you make a woodcut it is an extended process: you conceive a vision, then carve it into the block, responding all the while to the grain, for example, that dictates the way you cut. You must extrapolate as you work: the most obvious way is that you  create the image in reverse. Ink the block. Prepare the paper. Print. And what results is always a glorious surprise you have known all along.


When I enter a space it is not a blank canvas. Even if the building has just been built and is devoid of furnishings, finishes, and the like, there are planes and angles-dimension-I must consider. I set a design goal with the client. At this point, then, there are already three collaborators: the colorist, the client(s), and the architecture. Color is sensory perception and this requires light. Now we have five elements in collaboration: colorist, client, architecture, color, and light. I use the word “collaborate” because even though there are only two human parties operating so far, the rest have a distinct say in the outcome.

Colorist and Client

Humane design principles require that I determine the desired effect of the colors, since they have such material influence on us. Once we establish our design goal, it is my responsibility to create the most beautiful (and I would say, original) iteration of said goal by picking just the right colors that satisfy both the client and the space (which I will address shortly). For me, two  of the client’s responsibilities are to be open to the process and to know himself, her business, etc. This facilitates my creativity because often the most successful designs, though  a complete surprise to the client in terms of actual colors chosen, are based on a firm knowledge of his or her wants and needs. The flip side of this is that my responsibility is at once to satisfy and push past what is familiar or habitual, both to me and you. Otherwise, you would not be hiring an artist.


Architecture and Color and Light

These cannot be addressed separately. San Francisco is an interesting place to do architectural color design because there is every type of building here. The city is dense and you will find a building built in 1880 stuck next to one from 1920, 1960, and three weeks ago. The architectural period communicates certain information about what colors will work, both for interiors and exteriors. This applies to line, form, and material. For example, specifically talking about exteriors, Victorians generally have a lot of detail and are made of wood (unless they were resurfaced during the “asbestos shingle period”). They have smooth surfaces and many contained shapes bordered by strong trim, and thus, can accept all kinds of colors. Pale and strong look equally good. Victorians are like paintings in this respect. A stucco building of any period, on the other hand, tends to look best with colors that are somewhat neutralized because these colors have a visual texture that mirrors the material: the color looks integrated rather than stridently applied.

I have an obligation to your building. I want it to be as beautiful as possible and this means that your design goal, what you want to express with your colors, must be tempered by  the architectural space itself. This is the key to a successful design that you, the client, will appreciate and adore. The Victorian period was long and had many trends but it is not necessary to follow them. Any building can communicate modernity and this is a frequent request. I would say that intricate architecture demands respect for that intricacy: one should seriously question the desire to choose colors that hide detail. Though it was commonplace at the time, for example, to encase a Victorian all in white (with black sashes), and I have done this, white shows off carving and detail very well. The current Techie trend of black or dark grey does not. Shadows are absorbed and high-low lights disappear: the building becomes flat. The effect can be Gothic not modern. I am not saying such choices can never work, indeed I have done a few myself, just be respectful. The architect was trying to say something too.


I have had many experiences where a building seems to lovingly accept or defiantly reject a color. It always makes me laugh. A goodly portion of this relates to light. (And as I mentioned above, surface material.) Different latitudes reflect different colored light, for instance. What is outside your window effects how colors are perceived on the interior.  I recently flew down to Palm Springs to do a Mid-Century condominium. Before I went down the client had tried many kinds of whites because she thought they would well convey the modernity of the period and highlight her finishes and textiles. She complained though, that the colors were turning pink. Outside her window essentially was the desert at large and a sandstone mountain. White could not look white enough and merely functioned as a reflective surface. One could not even choose a greener white to neutralize the pink given such strong conditions. The solution here was to absorb light but also to bring the colors of her surroundings into the interior, all in a way that feels modern and appropriate to the architectural period (her stated goals).


The Crew

  I have worked with color for over twenty-five years and understand it very well. This knowledge affords me artistic freedom. The technology of house paint is something else. Not many designers have  worked in a paint store or know anything about architectural coatings. I had the good fortune to work for a long time with Philip Reno of Philip’s Perfect Colors and G & R Paint. Because of that experience I learned a lot about paint and I know many, many painters. A successful design must be well executed. This means I need to know how paint is tinted and formulated so I do not create  circumstances that are difficult either for the people mixing or applying the paint. Just one example: many designers do not comprehend that paint colors are not endlessly manipulable.  Altering  formulas can effect the way paint covers, hides, and dries, not to mention give you a color you never intended, all of which waste time on a job.  Painting is a skilled trade. Color matching is the human hand in concert with a spectrometer. Tinting is a combination of dedication and precision.  I want everyone involved to recognize the respect I have for them. This is the human thing but also ensures the best result. I cannot do my work alone.


The Ineffable

This past November I returned to beautiful Chacala, Mexico and stayed at a little hotel that doubles as a retreat center. There I spoke to the writer who was co-running a yoga-memoir retreat for women. Her thesis, especially for women, is that we must have a grand ambition to make great art when we go to create, or any greatness simply will not be achieved. (Men take that ambition for granted was her assertion.) I was not so sure.  It is easy, I think, to illustrate why something does not work but much harder to say why it does. This is true regardless of  intentions. Beauty, to name one goal, is subjective but let us say that we all agree something is beautiful. Can we say precisely why? A great design is not an accident. I know what I am doing. I have chronicled many elements that are necessary and these are somewhat quantifiable: for example, I need to choose a slightly different blue because the relative contrast from the sofa pushes the red to the fore. There is always a part that is beyond one’s control however. I joked to the memoirist that this is the reason the Greeks invented muses. Authors will say that no matter the trappings, they are always writing the same story. I end up talking about what art is.




September 10, 2015


In late May, Philip Reno (of Philip’s Perfect Colors) and I gave a talk at the San Francisco Decorators Showcase on designing with full spectrum paint, in particular C2 Paint,  which sponsored the Showcase.  If you have not attended, a labyrinthine, huge, and elegant house in Pacific Heights is opened for designers to decorate one room a piece. It is always interesting to see what is in the zeitgeist. After our talk we toured the house along with some friends.  One of them mentioned that as beautiful as  she found the individual elements, the rooms as a whole were by and large unmemorable. How do nature, art and design intersect?

In the natural environment we see innumerable colors of all kinds simultaneously. This is called spectral distribution.  Saturated and neutral colors co-exist; lights and darks constantly alternate.  Through biology and evolution we are accustomed to certain color relationships too. For example, neutral colors tend to be larger in scale and vivid colors the reverse, though this can be juxtaposed in color design. We perceive patterns not only because humans are natural taxonomists but because certain flora or formations often occur together. At the same time, nature feels spontaneous.  Because of this variety it is always dynamic: from the arid desert to the lush jungle, color feels alive.  Nature is never merely pretty: it is sublime.


I am fond of citing The Savannah Experiment. The Herman Miller Company sought to design the ideal work environment, where people would be happy and productive. The experiment derived its name from homo sapiens’ emergence on the African Savannah. What does our evolution require?  It turns out that we are optimal in health and happiness when our surroundings reflect a balance of predictability and surprise.  Predictability (rhythm)  creates a sense of security but too much  lulls us into  boredom  and inefficiency: in other words, vulnerability to attack.  Too much surprise constitutes threat and  floods the system with cortisol; our bodies and minds suffer.


 If I take a photograph of a landscape am I capturing nature as it is? Nature is panoramic but we do navigate it, in a certain way. Our eyes focus on a particular thing that attracts us due to its scale, color, or our own affinities, for example, and then our sights dart around taking it all in. A photograph on the other hand, like a painting, is composed. The artist  clearly guides us: there is usually a focal point, an entree into the picture plane (if the work is two-dimensional). From there, other compositional elements such as directionality dictate how our eyes move. Critically, not every part of the image is equal, either in scale, color properties, level of detail, etc. There is usually no  pattern per se. Even in certain abstract work if there is a pattern, the artist might refute that predictability, taking advantage of  our expectations. In any case, the artist guides us. A textile, in contrast,  is specifically designed to repeat a pattern; and yet, the upholsterer or clothing designer  cuts the fabric in order to compose its design onto the structure of the furniture or human body. That artist too, therefore, has directed us how to perceive.


Individual rooms in the Showcase tend to be highly unified: color relationships are  relatively monochromatic with minimal contrast in value (i.e. light/dark ratio), temperature, or saturation. This is true even in the designs that use stronger colors. In other words,  spectral distribution is low. This reflects a certain cultural aesthetic, to be sure, but what happens in such a design is that what should be a 360 degree experience becomes flat. There is no focus, no polestar from which to navigate. Instead, we see a haze of pretty objects or a warehouse for the bright and wacky.  Both are monotone. Such  environments indeed feel designed but lack the critical ingredients of spontaneity and surprise when the entire room is considered.


Webster’s defines Art as: “the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.” Design as “to create, fashion, execute, or construct according to plan; to devise.” The best tragedies contain irony, the best comedies poignancy. Or, think of your favorite album (or facsimile). I like to think of Stevie Wonder’s Musiquarium. The individual songs display variety, texture and innovation, first, and then propel us one to the next. Each song and the album as a whole tells a story both musically and as a narrative; and while everything is unmistakably his, none of it feels self-conscious.  Such  works are not mere collections of tracks, though the individual songs are great singles.  The whole transcends the parts and the entire enterprise exists as if it all just suddenly appeared. Of course, Art is devised, even if your plan is to throw paint on a canvas and see what happens. The best design displays creativity, imagination, and I would say power. Sometimes that power is ingenuity, wit, or plain old aching beauty. But you remember.


March 10, 2015


In second grade I would use my allowance money to go to the Ben Franklin store to buy colored light bulbs. They were called “party bulbs” and I had the entire available rainbow. Shortly thereafter when I moved back to Oklahoma, my stepmother, who was an interior designer, cut in half her Color-aid set and gave it to me. Color-aid was a collection of silk screened sheets of ten hues in ten values. I played with it like other kids play with dolls, making up stories and having adventures. Many decades later I am still using little pieces of it for collages.


Most humans can distinguish around one million colors. A house I design for a hummingbird would be different than for a wolf than for a dolphin: all animals perceive different amounts of the “visible spectrum” and some well beyond into the ultra-violet and infrared. Scientists posited and recently proved the existence of “tetrachromats”: folks (women only) who have four cones instead of the usual three. Cones are the mechanism in the eyes that interprets the entering  light  and converts it into color, along with the brain, of course. (The rods are mostly responsible for value.) Tetrachromats can see  many more  millions of colors, perhaps up to one hundred million, much like certain shrimp can. A scientist in the UK found that out of twenty-eight potential tetrachromats she could only confirm one; that is, only one of them exhibited the ability to distinguish the staggering multitude of hues.  She speculates however, that through training any such endowed person could harness her super-human vision.

People ask me if I am a tetrachromat. I do not know why color has been so fascinating to me for so much of my life.  Color is the epitome of visual information but other types too. Each color has synesthetic properties: associated sounds, textures, scents, and more. I can hypothesize that being both an extroverted and somatic person, I would gravitate towards what provides a complete sensory/bodily experience. Color nourishes my scientific leanings too, as regular readers of my blog know. Was I born like this? In a Radiolab show on color a strangely proud and self-proclaimed tetrachromat, a designer, was administered one of the typical visual tests for verifying this. She passed with flying colors. So did a (male) house painter who looks at colors all the time. I see intuition and talent as somewhat analogous in that they are rubrics under which many phenomena happen: the former is really an instantaneous discernment based on a catalog of experience, which is felt through the body (“I have a gut feeling.”) ; the latter is what we deem  inherent capacity but is really the product of propensity combined with dedicated practice.


One day two interior designers and I were talking about design and color. One of them, a gay man, was saying how gay designers have innate  ability, while women need to study in order to augment whatever ability they might have. In other words, the men have natural talent that renders practice unnecessary. The two of us, both women, had to laugh.  In fact, men (gay and straight) are more confident because they are inculcated to believe they can do anything, and just throw up a shingle; women, on the other hand,  are generally by nature more methodical and by culture more insecure and so want to create a map before setting sail. For example, despite my two decades of working with color I recognized that I had gaps in my knowledge as applied to architecture, so I boned up. It takes ten years to master something, they say. This male designer is simply unaware of the effect of his own practice. It is like how we do not notice our own aging, seeing the process in tiny increments everyday in the mirror; only when confronted with photos is the transformation clear. Every tool, no matter how fabulous upon arrival, must be honed.


Let us say you were born with the ability to see many more colors and this might be why you become an artist. How do you employ this tool? How useful is it to you and to others? In one of Jared Diamond’s books, I cannot remember which, he cites how the printing press was invented in China several hundred years before it was used to print the Guttenberg Bible, the apotheosis of its “invention,” but it was abandoned for lack of utility. If I can distinguish more or less red in two different greys I can use this information  to balance an overall design, and you will benefit from that, even if you cannot identify that difference in two paint chips. But what if those colors look exactly the same to you? Then of what use is my special tool? Also, when we know we are talented we sometimes overestimate our “gifts,” and this can dull  our perception and hamper our creativity.


I consult in a paint store a few hours a week. This experience has added even more nuance to my work because I understand architectural coatings. I help many designers. One came in to work on an exterior. He was doing two purples, one darker for the base of the building. I showed him a few things and he mentioned preferring one slightly.  I told him that no one would notice that difference. He protested he would and I had to contradict him. Not even he would see the difference because of the sun and the expansive surface area. Any discernment his special ability afforded him (through practice, since as a man he could not be a tetrachromat), would be nullified. Another designer, this time for an interior job, was asking to have colors lightened in increments of six  percent, because she could notice the differences in small brushouts.  First, most humans can only begin to distinguish value differences of fifteen percent. When you extrapolate a little paint chip into an entire room even a fifteen percent difference all but disappears. Second, for folks tinting paint, six percent calculations are a pain, difficult to reproduce or scale, and for designers are ultimately useless for most if not all clients.

images-6Because most human beings have only three cones scientists believe that the mutation of four could be an evolutionary advance. I wonder if that is why the Radiolab designer seemed so pleased with herself. My male designer friend, too, seemed tickled at his own native capacity. I find this puzzling for many reasons. From an artist’s point of view, if I am too enamored of my own abilities (from wherever they come), I might become cocky. If I become cocky I lose my powers of discernment. I might think myself infallible, or more likely, rely on formulas or ideas that have worked in the past because these then confirm my talent. I might think the way I have been doing it is the best and only way. It has been customary in Japan that artists change their names every ten years or so in order that neither they nor the public hold them to a singular style. This is also why writers nowadays often take pseudonyms. An artist cannot do great work if her greatness is based on repetition; if I am known for something very particular people expect exactly that product in perpetuity. I can neither be free nor open-minded and am seduced by past successes.  (See my post “Invisible Woman.”)


Designers and artists, like other human beings are susceptible to manipulation,  our minds are slippery, and we have psychology. If I tell you the same two colors are different-I give them different names, for example-you will swear they are. Even I will do that and I have quite a good eye. Likewise, I could present two different colors as being the same and you will see them that way. The designer requesting six percent increments actually might not have been able to see any difference at all, but only thought she did, because she gave them different labels. I am not saying there are no color savants out there but a client who needs to see fifteen samples of different reds for the same room, for example, might require protraction to make a decision; this is psychological or methodological, not  visual or aesthetic. Similarly, a designer who presents fifteen samples might either be fabulously discerning or engaged in a bit of theater or both.  I, too, can distinguish the nuances in a panoply of reds and all might be creative and beautiful solutions for a space, but is this really necessary or useful? Could it even be considered wasteful, with cans of paint piling up all over town? One or two of those reds is/are likely to be superior so why not identify these beforehand? Monet advised, “Paint what you really see, not what you think you ought to see.; not the object isolated as in a test tube, but the object enveloped in sunlight and atmosphere, with the blue dome of Heaven reflected in the shadows.” The analytical and ineffable unite; clarity and concision, and beauty too, are the products of sharp tools wielded well.



Both a whale and and the Grand Tetons look more or less grey to us.  Surface area viewed from afar appears neutral (or grey) and this is why, in harmony with our perception of Nature, humans are generally comfortable with more neutral colors on walls.  Neutralized colors are those where complementary pigments are present: a green that contains red, for example, has been neutralized (moved towards grey). Designs can be organized into Dominant, Sub-Dominant, and Accent colors.  The dominant color sets the principle mood and the other two balance and supplement, with the dominant color usually applied to the walls, which have greatest surface area. In a few previous posts I have mentioned how predominantly neutral, often monochrome architectural environments, at least in most of the US, seem to signify wealth. A synonym for wealth could be “rarefied”: only the very special can posses or afford such designs. Here are some of my theories why (all yet to be proven and in good holiday fun).

Classicism Theoryimages-2

Many of the world’s great ruins from  Stonehenge to Tulum are white to many shades of grey. Bereft of color, the stone has both  mystery and majesty. We are awed by the age and constancy of such structures but their relative colorlessness also contributes to their power.  We associate the Acropolis with the senators in togas formulating democracy, not with run-of-the-mill Greeks who probably liked the deep indigo of the sea. We therefore view similarly monochrome environments as being classic: enduring in both style and import. The only thing is, most of these buildings we now know were covered in elaborate and gaudy frescoes.

Puritanism Theory


Hester Prynne wore a scarlet letter. Saturated colors connote passion, excitement, and earthy pursuits that the godly would surely avoid (or at least suppress).  When we enter  a highly neutralized (bloodless) design our heart is stilled, our ardor quelled. Quietude and rectitude dominate. We dare not transgress.

Neurological/Marxist Theory


Humans have neurological responses to color. These are pretty much universal and are also effected by the duration of exposure to said color. For example, humans viewing the major hue of red display elevated heart rate and blood pressure. (The system enervates.) Please note this is the immediate effect of the color and exposure  over time often creates the opposite effect. Individual results may vary according to one’s particular neurological makeup.

So,  more saturated colors energize and more neutralized ones pacify. Thus, subdued colors are high brow for upper classes engaging in lofty things, while bright colors are for bawdy pub-goers and serfly mud-rollers. Know your place. (Of course, the Czar and Czarina’s palace was intensely colored because they could afford expensive dyes and all those jewels (and were not Western really)).

Geographical/Cultural Theory


A culture’s attitude and use of color generally reflects what is seen and/or available  in the environment. This is translated into the architectural space. Turquoise symbolized heaven for the Persians and appeared in every aspect of their daily life and ornamentation. There are still huge deposits of the stone in what is now Northern Iran. Once at a zoo in Mexico I visited a taxidermy display of butterflies from all over the world. Tropical insects are much more colorful than those from Sweden, for example. Scandinavian interiors are generally subtle and frosty, and for a Southerner, perhaps austere-feeling. Northern latitudes have housed more dominant cultures in the past century and so its cultures’ aesthetics have also reigned.


Please note that while I have listed these theories separately, there are surely connections among them. Also, I like greys, taupes, and whites… when used with purpose.

Happy Holidays and Peace in the New Year!



Genome Project

November 15, 2014


I am working on a large Victorian that houses condo units on the corner of 16th and Guerrero (in San Francisco). We were refining our palette when a realtor, who was there as proxy for one of the owners, suggested I give folks the addresses of buildings I have done in the same color(s) to give a better  idea of how things might look. I can send you to a blue building on Fulton (Summer Squall) or on Divisadero (Shale). Viewing that work can only confirm I am successful using blue(s). I have never before put these particular colors together though, but  if I had (and liked repeating myself, which I do not), that hypothetical building would be in a different location with different exposure and different surroundings and would, well, look different. Color is not just a collection of paint chips to be applied willy-nilly. Color is perception. Light, surface, proportion, shape, and line are a few of the factors that effect our perception. There is no such thing as color that is unrelative.


San Francisco is the home of the Painted Ladies. We are into color here. People go around town laying fandecks on houses trying to capture  what they admire. I am reminded of how children always want another kid’s toy: it is not the toy itself they want to steal but rather that observed happiness. Folks think they want an exact color, and in a way they do, but really they are responding to the total effect that building creates. You cannot perceive that coveted taupe out of context with the other colors, the neighbors’ colors, the trees, the time of day, etc.  Your field of vision will not permit it. What we call color is a product of our eyes and brain processing together in response to stimuli. One color changes our perception of another.


This is a building I am designing in Miami. It is a single-building sprawling condominium with seventy-nine units built in the late 60s/early 70s. It looks it. The architecture itself is not quite what you would call elegant yet that quality is exactly what the HOA wants. How is this achieved? The color committee sent me several examples of sophisticated South Miami color design. Your building is neither Spanish Revival nor Bauhaus Modern, I explained; that is to say, these particular colors will not look elegant on your building due to its shape(s0, material(s), exposure, etc. For example, white is clean and crisp. When applied to smooth sharp lines it accentuates and conveys  modernity; when applied to the softer shapes of stucco it can feel like the plaster itself (if not too white), shaped by the human hand. White likes to be contained in some manner. On an unwieldy building like this, white will look like primer, unfinished and clumsy. Duplication of design will not work. I proposed doing some effects on the building, creating shapes that would break up the current color relationships and mitigate the datedness somewhat. The HOA Board is by their own admission conservative and wants placement to be in current locations, therefore, the  colors themselves must do all the communicating.


The  effect of colors, or what they communicate,  is a function of our humanity (biological and otherwise), culture, and individual subjectivity.  I interview clients about the look/feel/style they seek. Then I ascertain how to achieve it through the filter of those particular clients, in addition to the compositional elements I discussed above.  For example, in a lot of the United States, and certainly among many designers (whose work is viewed in magazines and thus disseminated, etc.), highly neutralized colors are synonymous with elegance. Grey, taupe, and white are code for expensive. (Things are different elsewhere.) I have a few theories about why this is so but for now: can I just make the building grey, taupe, and white and be done with it? Or aqua, because this is Miami? As I mentioned, I cannot do that because of the lines and scale of this particular building; true grey will look like some weird 60s county jail and white will look unfinished. (Aqua will look dated on those crazy curved balconies.) Another reason is that the building resides in a grey highway scape with no flora nearby; organic-looking colors will both soften and refine. The building needs earthier tones to balance its exposure and context. Colors will be neutralized without being full on grey. This is the most enduring, modern, and chic option in this case.


It is impossible to copy something for the perceptual reasons I stated but why would you want to? For the client it is the feeling or overall look that is desired, which you can achieve in a myriad of ways. Carbon copies in Nature are a fluke; should a street or neighborhood really look like ticky-tacky when it could be a landscape, albeit an architectural one, with cascading diversity great and small?  Even identical twins differentiate in response to their environment. Lastly. for the designer, don’t you get bored doing the same thing all over town?


If the same colors look different everywhere then why do I rail against “go to” colors? For similar reasons to why I disfavor trends in architectural color; they are two sides of the same coin. Radiant Orchid is not right for everyone everywhere. Nor is Acme Beige. Trends serve only aesthetics (and mercantilism) in complete disregard for the effects of color. So do “go to” colors, because they are used without thought. Humane design principles demand that the user’s state of being is always considered.   Such stock colors might look different and decent in a lot of places but their effect will also change: does this color achieve what I want in this specific environment? And just as important, is it the most beautiful choice I could make? Mimicry of oneself or others  is unartistic, and dare I say, lazy. Mindless repetition is unnatural: every daisy in the chain is unique, if you look close enough to see.