I grew up in a world of white. White people, white stucco house, white walls and white sheets. And yet, I was a colorful character, with a vivid imagination, and dreams so colorful and realistic that it was often hard for me to tell the difference between what I’d imagined to be true and what I’d dreamt. Because my sister was a child prodigy, we seemed to live at the local library. It’s not that I didn’t like books, because I did, but I dragged my feet about the summer reading Olympics in which my sister was always a five time Gold winner. I had no desire to join that contest or win an award. With a sister who always came out on top, what was the point of my competing? I would never win. I don’t think my sister had a favorite book back then, she merely read to win, whereas my childhood was filled with Ramona and Beezus, Madeleines “all in a row”, and Eloise, who lived at The Plaza Hotel in New York with Nana and Skeeter, a pet turtle. Nothing about those books were white or dull.
Which is why, while subscribing to The New Yorker magazine in my 50’s, I related to an article by Eric Konigsberg in the 2007 Winter issue. The article was about Leslie Harrington, color consultant to paint companies such as Crayola, Pottery Barn and Avon. Called “Made in the Shade, ” the article was massively long, as most articles are in that magazine, but offered me a justification as to why all my clothing, toys, shoes and friends had to make up the slack from growing up in a predominantly white world. I just wasn’t a good fit – I needed to be surrounded by lime green, bubblegum pink, and bright red. And while I believed that TNYer magazine is for serious readers who are informed about many obscure topics such as the history of the Otis elevator, and how chocolate was discovered and turned into varying strengths of candy bars, some so dark your throat closed against the acid reflux, I made it my goal for ten years to read every issue of the magazine so as to feel educated, worldly and cosmopolitan (and because I wasn’t reading much else, or even writing back then).
In my 3 and 4 year old life I was anamored with horses dressed in gold, pink, purple and brown varnish. These horses went up and down to music and never strayed from their tight circle. When I was 5, my family and I moved from a white city to one where brown skinned people lived in one part of Baltimore, while I roller skated my days away in the other part of the same city. It was when I was 7 that my life began to broaden in ways I’d never thought possible. My mother, a journalist for the evening edition of The Baltimore Sun, took a job as editor of the Society, food and cinema sections. Suddenly I was in New York like Eloise, having tea at The Plaza, and attending Broadway shows. Not only that, but my mother had connections at each Broadway show which got us invited backstage afterwards. I met Yul Brynner, Robert Preston, Ethel Merman, and Mary Martin. “The Music Man” was lively and entertaining, including a little boy who spit when he spoke. But most of all, I loved Mary Martin because she could fly. In “The Peter Pan”, the music and entire production was geared toward children, and I was so awed by Peter Pan that when I got backstage, I hid behind my mother, silent as a lamb. Try as I might, though, my happy thoughts never allowed me to go airborne. The thing is, I found sitting through sometimes four hours of onstage singing and dancing, incredibly boring. No amount of tap dancing or cartwheeling men or women in high heels was colorful enough to keep my attention for long. But a one year subscription to the magazine I learned to love/hate for the amount of time it took me to read it, cost me $46 and I was damned if I’d let that hard earned money go to waste.
I don’t mind the editorial board’s political leanings or have a desire to be at the most recent Alvin Ailey show when I couldn’t even afford a train ticket to the city. I really enjoyed the “out of the box” articles interspersed among great cartoons, written by, in some cases, an editor who must have been a real geek. My son and I often mock my husband about the boring shows he watches on TV. Mostly, he enjoys anything about the Vikings to the point where he claims he wants a proper Viking funeral when he dies. That’s when you place the shrouded body on a boat, set it afire, and send it out to sea. No muss, no fuss. Never mind that it’s illegal. He also has been known to watch the old Charleton Heston films about Jesus Christ. Finally, I believe if there is a show called “The History of Dirt” , my husband will be sure to see it. But “Made in the Shade” appealed to me because somewhere deep inside, I’ m a closet rebel and aim to show my true colors in paint.
Where once I loved knick knacks, flea market painted furniture and overstuffed chairs, now I’ve come to like glass, steel beams and shiny wood. Minimalism. Even wishing I could pare down my life to “Tiny House Nation”. However, with a house filled with cherished family heirlooms, I can’t afford to change my style of decor. So instead I read as many decorating magazines as I can, am an avid follower of Pinterest, the interior designers on IG, and paint often. Which is why “Made in the Shade” only took me a day to read, unlike the customary three. I learned first about a color consultant, Leslie Harrington, and what made her the foremost authority on color pallettes. I learned about the history of paint, and how different colors have evolved from traditional names like white, red, orange and pink.No one I knew early in my married life wanted identical blue foyers. Colors evolved over time through names given them by paint companies moving from orange to pumpkin, from off white to latte, and bright blue to tropical sky. Paint companies told customers that they needed to freshen up their rooms, or switch dens into offices, or turn a college grad’s old room into a man cave. The power of suggestion is mighty. Each generation of people were led to believe that the colors they were passionate about were unique in how and where they were used. Which is why the insides of prisons are painted pale greens or grays. They’re calming colors. You would not want a prison painted with hot pallettes of reds because red is known to create stress, increase tempers, even cause murder. Porches have always been greeting places, but imagine how much more comfortable versus confining they could be with blue ceilings, potted plants, and varnished wood flooring? Martha Stewart catapulted us into front hall steps stenciled with an argyle pattern, salmon in the dining room, and stainless steel counters in the kitchen. Even Marble counter tops. Ms. Stewart wrote how tos on stenciling, then started her own paint line.
For the millenials, paint names have evolved from off white to flax and grass green to edame, wooden ceilings, granite countertops in all-white kitchens, mud rooms with cubbies, and stained decking in shades of grey or stark white. Duron and Valspar are no longer leaders in paint companies. Farrow & Ball, from London, England, has hit the home decorating scene with $75 gallons of paint called butterscotch for dining rooms, and cafe mocha for small spaces. Me, part of Generation X, is an active Duron eggshell satin paint user of colors such as Duckling (used in all 3 of my houses), and Saffron Ivory, a muted creamy white. In every house in which we’ve lived, I’ve been the painter. Usually, I’d wait for my husband to leave for National Guard weekend duty, and when he returned, not only had walls been transformed from white to Chinese Red, but I’d also rearranged furniture. I was a Martha Stewart before anyone had ever heard of her. To me, painting is very therapeutic, although these days the up and down repetitive raising of my arms affects my shoulder arthritis. Also in every house we’ve lived, my living room has been painted duckling. On a gray day, the walls are light yellow. On a sunny day, the walls are brighter. It is a Duron color, although at Lowe’s they will recreate the exact color you need using their base Valspar. Another shade my husband I agree on is grey. It reminds us of the fog that enshrouds the island of Nantucket, our favorite place to be. However, there are many shades of grey these days – steel grey, grey mist, gray silk, and according to whatever paint brand you choose, 50 or more shades. Seriously, grey can be on the silver side or more on the greenish side. We thought in this house we wanted grey in our dining room, but with south facing sun, this grey turned disappointingly to taupe. It looked good 22 years ago when we first moved in, but now, it needs to go. I’m thinking beet.
My kitchens have always been Chinese Red except in this house, where the kitchen is about the size of a galley, so I covered a wall with a cherry design wallpaper and painted the trim white. It’s a dark room with dark cabinets and a new wooden floor. It will be our last project, whereas in our last house, the kitchen was the first redesign.
Our upstairs dressing room has suffered through many fits of pique. First I painted it salmon, which in time, I found that almost everyone in this neighborhood used in their dining rooms. Then I used Cornflower blue, a beautiful color in the can, but once on the walls turned the room into one of doom. So I switched to neon green which I had seen in a teen age girls’ bedroom and loved the wake up call it bombarded you with when you entered the room. Alas, my family begged me to cover it up. A year later, it became a calming Saffron Ivory, after two laborious coats of primer. I didn’t enter the Martha Stewart era of painted furniture, stenciled stairs, Roman shades, swags and/or extra long drapes like most of my friends, because of the expense. Besides, I already had gone through that stage.
Where we live now, the windows are not thermal so I’ve had to add curtains to shades for warmth. Pan back to our former home, originally a tiny 4 room fixer upper made of brown shingles, the house was so ancient, the window panes were beveled, and too interesting to cover up with curtains. Where the house was situated on a busy main road, we had no sidewalks and so no one who could see in. In due time, we painted over the brown shingles a very attractive skim milk. It was, in essence, Nantucket grey. Inside, our kitchen was Chinese red, the dining room wallpaper was a Schumacher design, and in my son’s room I painted the wood floor white, and then splatter painted it in red, blue, green, and yellow.
But back to color. Imagine what a dull world we’d have without choice and along with choice, the chance to decorate your house any color you want. My mothers’ color palette was stifled, to say the least. She could have painted all the walls any color green, as my father was colour-blind green. In my independent life away from my parents, I’ve never had white sheets or white walls. I carry a red purse, wear an orange checked raincoat, and have a penchant for turquoise or black and white striped leggings. Even my friends are of color. These days I choose my colors wisely, because painting is hard work. But I also can never see myself living in a White House with only white sheets again. Sales at HomeGoods help in that arena.