South of the Border

March 7, 2017


Wabi-Sabi is a Japanese aesthetic and world view centered on the acceptance and even reverence for transience and imperfection. Wabi denotes simplicity, rusticity,  and quietude, and includes an element of happenstance or even a small flaw, which gives elegance and uniqueness to the whole. Sabi refers to the beauty that comes from the process of aging: the patina of bronze, for example, illustrates the concept that time and use make an object more exquisite and valuable.

I just returned from a month in Mexico. I stayed in a small beach town of about five hundred people. Many buildings look dilapidated or in disrepair, like not-so-ancient ruins. There are piles of rubble around: brick and stone seem to sit at every doorstep and re-bar sticks out in all directions. What looks like a crumbling to the ground is, in fact,  a construction boom. The whole effect is somehow wabi-sabi in reverse: gorgeous, with raw material waiting to be cut or installed next to or even part of buildings that are finished and new.


My apartment was on the lower floor of the lovely Casa Colonial, hastily yet lovingly finished practically as I walked up to it. The periwinkle stucco is exhilarating. I have been traveling internationally since I was thirteen years old.  Aesthetic and other preferences are borne of culture, economics, and necessity. Contemporary design in the US mostly seem to favor newness, though distressed finishes and reclaimed material are more and more popular. As I have written previously, this culture also seems to equate monochromaticity with  beauty and disfavors frisson. This is the opposite of many cultures. Choice of color also comes, of course, from the quality of light in a given place, dyes originally available from local flora or minerals,  and even ontology or specific spiritual practices. All the above can influence the effect of the chosen colors too; in other words, culture may drive perception.

There is no sense in Mexico of dissonance between old and new, finished and unfinished, or strong and soft.  The intensity of  paint color combined with raw materials is astounding. In the building below, there is a density of color and the palette is over-ridingly warm, yet the variegation and texture of the ceiling tile temper the marigold yellow.


In my design work, when paint color  is the major consideration, I  capture this effect through the juxtaposition of neutrals with more saturated colors. In fact, I have been hired specifically because of this: most designers stick to one or the other, mostly neutral. This color relationship occurs naturally in la arquitectura Chacaliya, because exposed brick, wood or concrete act as the neutral. Often, when a client asks to highlight lots of natural material we choose a strong and modulated white; this works well but it should be noted that much of that selection stems from clients’ and architects’ (cultural) preferences.

Luis Barragan

Design (and Art) needs the illusion of spontaneity. This is undeniably true however, many designs (designers) here eschew this fact. I wonder if it is a fear that the work will look like a mistake; that somebody was absent-minded, lost control, and thus neglected to design something. While there are many ways to create this illusion, saturated colors feel inherently spontaneous. They are a bolt of energy into the body. Pink next to orange is surprising for its graphic tension. I am thrilled when someone “lets” me use pink, or purple, or tangerine. Mexicans, Indians, Palestinians, West Africans, and Guatamaltecos do not consider pink feminine and therefore anathema, for example. A pretty color is a pretty color.

Paired with raw plaster, Barragan’s color design transcends a mere combination of painted and unpainted surfaces. Density and sparsity of color create this sense of happenstance. The inclusion of what seems unfinished completes the design’s power; the naked concrete acts both as the flaw and the reverence for time: is the stucco yet to be painted or has the color worn away? Of course, all parts of his composition are balanced and intentional, and the plaster is not a lump but a geometric shape honed by a human hand. Stone bricks are fashioned by masons but the beauty of the workmanship and the stone are equal.

When Toni Morrison’s book Beloved won the Pulitzer I was excited to read it. I had read many of her books previously. I was disappointed. It was so polished and perfect in every conceivable way that I was bored. It was bereft of surprise. Some of her other books, Sula comes to mind, are equally well-written but they contain some element- no matter how small- of unwieldiness, a sense that a character, a plot twist, or turn of phrase escaped her control and took off on its own. That quality makes art come alive.

imagesChristof Niemann

Netflix has a great documentary series called Abstract, which highlights designers from different fields. Design is the communication of an idea or ideas through functionality: abstraction becomes material.  Two designers particularly struck me. Christof Neimann is an illustrator whom you might recognize from his many New Yorker covers, and Es Devlin, a set designer for projects as varied as The National Theater and Kanye West. Niemann explains that after many years of having it backwards, he learned to become “a careless artist and a ruthless editor.” We set a design goal: in Niemann’s case, the magazine gives him a concept to convey.  We must then allow ideas to flow unfettered, after which, we pare away to determine what is essential to communicate the idea and edit out any remaining superfluity. This process cannot be done in reverse. If you edit beforehand, you close off the mind to the novel and possible. You cannot plan everything in advance of or during the creative process. You squelch the exuberant.

Devin’s medium is spectacle. Her and Niemann’s aesthetic completely diverge. While he deals in the spare, she piles on, but nothing she adds detracts from the essential idea; this is because her work is about creating a three dimensional and enveloping experience. For her, there can be no such thing  as beauty for its own sake.


When I compose a blog I do not worry about the perfection of every sentence or the composition as a whole. I belabor nothing, at the beginning. I get every idea on the virtual page:

unforced unpremeditated

ideas take hold practice observation


concise expository poetry

human hand

Design is communication. Simple or complex.

the way a line is drawn

Essential stripping away information adding information

density v sparsity

Heavy next to heavy balanced by flora and and natural finishes

Juxtapose natural material with strong colors

construction everywhere

mirror image of wabi sabi

Likewise when I design, though I know the  effect I wish to communicate, I do not presume to know in advance the best or most beautiful way to create this communication. Through the process of designing (listening, experimenting, throwing ten chips on the wall) the best answer(s) reveals itself. The revelation works through elimination and modification. I edit my writing too many times to count but I hope the liveliness of my thinking is evident. What makes so much of Mexican architecture fascinating to me is the  balances struck. I have mentioned many related to actual colors and materials used but the most impressive thing, which no doubt is due in part to these, is the way the act of creation remains apparent. Everything is not wrapped up in a stultifying  little bow. Yes, the artwork is finished and complete, but somehow it is ripe for the possibilities the user will bring. Past, present, and future are made visible.





Fashion Editing

January 1, 2017


Greenery. Shadow. Poised Taupe. Shrubbery. Dado. Bumbling Beige. (The last three are mine.) 2017 is  upon us so paint companies have rolled out their colors of the year. Every time this happens I suffer a bout of ambivalence mixed with understanding imbued with annoyance. I get all paradox ridden. For a paint company, the mercantilism of this trend-setting is obvious.  Many designers also embrace the unveiling because it generates excitement, which is both fun and good for business.  Let me be the first to say that color design should be fun and I am always gratified when a client ends a session proclaiming how much fun it was however,  trends exist solely to stimulate consumption. Color forecasting is a cabal.

Designers might be quick to point out they are not advocating painting your living room once a year but rather that using one of these special colors will make it easier for you to accessorize, since other companies like textile manufacturers are following the same trends. Colors of the Year perhaps provide an entree  for  homeowners, a starting point from which to embark on color design themselves.  There is a tension though, between the desire to empower clients to make decisions and  trust their preferences, and the fortifying of the knowledge that they do indeed, for the most part, need professional color design. Paint companies do not care how their paint is sold.


Color is a language that all human beings understand. All those who can see color, of course. We use color to navigate, identify danger and its opposite, create energy, and stimulate the senses. Color acts immediately on the nervous system through the optic nerve. In other words, people experience color all day long. In my last post I touched briefly on this: as opposed to other disciplines or sets of skills/knowledge, people often assume they have a total command of the subject.

My main objection to trends has always been that they disregard the effects of color. If I paint my dining room Greenery, what am I creating, and what other elements will be necessary to complete and balance the design, in order to drive the desired effect.  Yes, we all know how we respond to a given environment but how was that environment devised? The effects of color are not at all common knowledge. Nor humane design principles (such as visual ergonomics), the science of color, the effects of lighting, exposure, etc. (By the way, this can apply to designers.) Though anyone can have a go at it, likewise anyone can recognize an exceptionally designed environment that exemplifies the aforementioned knowledge.  I am not demanding you hire me or all is lost. A lot of lay people are excellent designers for themselves. Speaking generally, it pains me a little when I encounter a space that is not as fantastic as it could or should be; this is based not only on my aesthetic sensibilities but on my belief that people deserve the utmost beauty.


There is, in fact, no color  without space, form, line, scale, value, and texture;  For example, in any composition (of 2 or 3 dimensions) there is positive and negative space. Escher made hay with this. The viewer seeks a principle form within (a) space and from this positive orders the rest: assigns the negative space around the principle form(s), determines what is foreground and background, etc. Density or diffuseness of visual information also balances a composition.

I recently consulted on a living room in a small house where, typical for many San Francisco houses of the period, the space is immediately upon entry without the relief of a foyer. The clients had bought a sort of cerise-burgundy velveteen to upholster a boxy loveseat. They requested neither extreme tastefulness nor extreme hippie-ness (being former hippies themselves) with sufficient boldness of color. We came up with three designs but the one they loved the most absolutely required ditching the fabric or buying a new couch, something about which they had a niggling feeling anyway. The fabric color was so strong, heavy, and dense that the wall and trim colors had to be softened and neutralized, at least to some degree, in order neither to be competitive nor evoke the bohemian chic they wanted to avoid. All elements of design must be considered, not just color. If you pick a fabric like that it should in most cases command the room. There must be a focal point around which the composition revolves.


With all the yearly fanfare, one would suppose that color design is solely about hue. I choose beautiful Blue #1 to go with gorgeous Green #5 with Whistler White for trim and so on. A  client told me recently that he chose to work with me based on my portfolio, and that he hoped I would not be offended to learn, that he is color blind. What a great compliment! I told him.  Many properties of colors  produce a successful design, where harmony, contrast, unity, and variety are properly balanced for a desired effect. Though it is rare to have the neurological condition requisite to see no color at all, imagine designing in gray scale. When you remove color, you understand the adage that a good designer can design anything.




People tend to trust their eyes. An HOA that is finally being painted called me to check samples, and perhaps, make changes. The property is a run of thirteen very large A-frame houses in a gated community atop a hill; they currently alternate between pale earthy yellow and pale earthy creamsickle.   Our design has greater variation in both hue and value, earthy still yet modern, so the houses cease to be a horizontal monolith but will appear to vary in size and depth.

Homeowners objected to some of the colors because they did not look identical to the presentation boards I delivered at the end of the original color selection process. The samples were painted ninety degrees to the facades, on one wall, and at the same horizontal level: i.e. each successive sample was farther toward the back of the building. Rolling Stone looks grey and dark and lacks the complex green of the chip, he reported.  He took the paint back, had it reformulated and tested it on the chip, where it matched perfectly. The color did indeed look greyer and darkish on the building.  I pointed out that the sample was not only going back in space, but more importantly, was opposite a giant  orange wall.  While we were talking the sun passed over and the color flashed its original green. It will be fine, I assured him.


If you ask someone what color is the person will likely respond with something about frequencies, absorption/reflection, and a nod to black bodies. When I studied with the International Association of Color Consultants,  Frank Mahnke defined color as “sensory perception.” Color is always relative, as I have stated many times. Relative to what? The most obvious is to other colors. In the case of our Rolling Stone, at least two phenomena occurred that changed the rendering of the color. First, the sample was painted on the yellow building. Yellow makes any neutralized color appear greyer. This is a demonstration of relative contrast. (Complementary colors also bring each other out; purples make yellows appear more yellow, for example, etc.) Second, the sample was painted opposite an orange wall; any light, direct or ambient, will bounce off one surface and reflect color onto others, like overlaying a gel. Reds and oranges neutralize green: i.e. make it look grey.  It is as if the orange light had mixed with Rolling Stone in a bucket, exemplifying the reductive properties of color. The homeowner asked me to select a greener color to sample, which I did, with  a caveat:  the sample will satisfy the homeowners who originally selected the color, because it will look more like their presentation board, but it will ultimately look too green and our design will suffer. Better to resample on the facades before making an assessment. (They did this and the colors were approved.)


There is a reason presentation boards are grey. A true, middle-tone grey will more or less control for  relativity: that is to say,  you will see the colors relative to one another only, as the design intends, with extraneous information removed. We often use renderings/drawings or presentation boards to communicate the effect of a color design. It is important for the client to remember that these are tools and representations only. I strive very hard to color match my digital renderings, for example. Pitfalls remain. One I described above, where a presentation board does not mirror what is happening to a real life sample, but rather presents what will happen.  This is hard for the layperson to understand.


Color is  a function of light and surface. For example, a digital rendering uses illuminated light (from the monitor) instead of reflected light, which is what happens when you perceive paint on a chip or  building.  Even the best 3d renderings have a glowing artificiality about them that does not quite communicate reality,  because light is not truly being absorbed or reflected. I have chosen to make my renderings more painterly for this reason, a combination of photo-realism and pastel drawing.

Color changes under different lighting conditions.  Exposure, therefore, also determines perception. Just as the adjacent building threw orange light onto the samples, a color in Eastern light will look completely different on a North-facing facade. The ideal and most successful approach is to design color on site under actual lighting conditions. There is no color without surface. Salty Brine in the same sheen looks different on wood, stucco, and a piece of foam core. (Of course, Salty Brine also looks different in different sheens.) For example, the rougher the surface, the darker the color will look. This is why, particularly for exteriors, it is mandatory to sample. It is not a question of whether the color is correct but rather, do you like the color on the surface? The two are inseparable.


Scale effects perception. The most common mistake I see people make is to choose colors that are too light. This applies to both interiors and exteriors. The greater the surface area, the lighter a color looks. Outside this is amplified because daylight can be up to four hundred times brighter than any interior light source. I once had a painter detail me on his method for addressing  all this: he explained that he would darken or lighten a color he wanted to use based on its application: for example, floor, interior wall, exterior corner building, etc. (This struck me as strange coming from a painter, since changing colorant ratio can effect performance. ) I explained that I select a color  anticipating how it will look; in other words, I extrapolate.  I do not need to manipulate a color but  simply choose the correct one from the outset.


This extrapolation applies to light, scale,  surface, and effect, the whole of color design. It is an ability forged by my training as a printmaker and honed by many years of experience at this particular craft, and, an understanding of the properties of color. This is not to say that I am not surprised by outcomes from time to time, but in general, I know what a color or design will do. I am passionate about aesthetics but adamant about efficiency too.

I have a friend who is a professional physicist. We joke that people  always talk to me about color because it is part of their daily lives and they have a sense of understanding it; physics is also a part of our daily lives  but no one dares engage him in conversation! Even though I am hired for my expertise I sometimes meet resistance, mostly incredulity. I might repeat over and over that a color someone prefers to my selection is too light, too bright, too this, too that for the application or desired effect. We might stare at it together before the job  gets started (or repainted!) and the client will confide, “I had to see it to believe it.”


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.