Flat white

Dou­glas Lloyd Jenk­ins laments the land of bland

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When I first started writ­ing about in­te­rior de­sign, one of the early pieces I sub­mit­ted was in re­sponse to a pho­to­graph in the news­pa­per. It fea­tured a then-prom­i­nent In­dian New Zealan­der pic­tured in his apart­ment, the walls of which were painted a dra­matic dark blue. New Zealand was going through a pe­riod of ob­ses­sion with neutral paint and I thought this man’s sense of him­self – ex­pressed as it was through colour in his home – was some­thing from which we might all learn. Fast for­ward a quar­ter of a cen­tury and what I hoped was a pass­ing fad – the cult of neutral colour schemes – seems to have stuck to our homes in the same way that black has ad­hered to our wardrobes. New Zealan­ders are, it seems, a cul­ture of peo­ple who dress in black, and live in neutral.

This sit­u­a­tion has been in my thoughts again be­cause I re­cently pre­sented a dec­o­rat­ing scheme to a group that I ad­vise on in­te­ri­ors. My pro­posal was to paint a large for­mal din­ing room in bright red. The pro­posal had gone down well at first but then there’d been rum­blings. I was sum­moned, with a friendly enough re­quest, to please ex­plain? The colour re­fuseniks had the painter on their side. He pre­ferred a neutral scheme. Armed with that and the thoughts and opin­ions of other alarmed friends, who had not seen the orig­i­nal pre­sen­ta­tion, they now thought per­haps red was a mis­take. Red, I was a told, was a dark colour.

As I sat in the stream of light that flooded through large win­dows into the room in ques­tion, I won­dered when it was that red – the colour of fire en­gines – had be­come a dark colour? I soon re­alised that hav­ing lived at least the past 25 years of their lives in neutral in­te­ri­ors, and work­ing in cor­po­rate of­fices, not one of them re­ally had any per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ence of a red room to which they could con­nect. All they could con­jure was an old-style Chi­nese res­tau­rant. Need­less to say this was not the look I was work­ing to­wards.

Way back in the 90s, when the neu­tral­i­sa­tion of our do­mes­tic en­vi­ron­ment first be­gan, ask any Kiwi about colour and they’d an­swer, only par­tially gen­uinely, that ‘they loved colour’. It seemed that they’d ‘love’ to paint their homes in lovely bright colours but one thing stopped them – re­sale. Liv­ing life in a bland house be­cause of even­tual re­sale is an es­say in it­self. That aside, there was the idea that houses were pri­mar­ily com­modi­ties to be sold and, in or­der to sell, the blander the bet­ter. Things have changed sig­nif­i­cantly, par­tic­u­larly in parts of the country where the cap­i­tal value of houses marches ever up­ward. In a country where no one talks timidly about re­sale value, but instead brags about record sale prices, you should be able to paint your liv­ing room puce and your hall­way prim­rose and it not af­fect re­sale price one jot.

As yet, I’ve seen no sign of a re­turn of the earth tones of the 60s, the bright pri­maries of the 70s or the so­phis­ti­cated pas­tels of the 80s. The 90s ush­ered in neutral and there we’ve stayed. For an ap­proach to in­te­rior de­sign to re­main largely static for a quar­ter of a cen­tury is un­heard of.

Ask the ques­tion now about colour in the home and only one part of the an­swer has changed. It seems ‘we’d love to paint our homes in bright colours’ but – ‘we have art’. Art, it seems, has be­come the rea­son for the art­less­ness of our in­te­ri­ors. The so­phis­ti­cated use of colour and an interest in art are, in my mind, both mark­ers of so­phis­ti­ca­tion within a cul­ture. But it seems that some­where in the early part of this cen­tury, the road mark­ers were switched and we reached what was thought to be a fork in the road – one sign read­ing ‘colour’, the other read­ing ‘art’.

It’s pretty easy to fig­ure out where the source of this art-goes-on-white-walls think­ing comes from – art galleries. But I think, too, we can look to artists. Of­ten, when peo­ple say art, they mean con­tem­po­rary prac­tice. Con­tem­po­rary art, al­though hereti­cal to say, has so of­ten be­come sur­pris­ingly timid – art that does in­deed re­quire a white wall be­cause a sim­ple bucket of paint can be more at­ten­tion get­ting. As con­tem­po­rary art gets more em­phat­i­cally neutral, shades of white are re­placed with ‘quar­ter’ shades of white, and the down­ward spi­ral be­gins. It’s a mea­sure of good art, any good art of any pe­riod, that it can sur­vive and even thrive sur­rounded by puce or prim­rose.

In the end, my clients – meet­ing alone behind closed doors – came out unan­i­mously in sup­port of the red scheme. I was thrilled not only be­cause I’d won my case, but be­cause the re­sult will, once com­pli­mented with new curtains and re­hung with orig­i­nal, pe­riod art­works, be a daz­zling ex­pe­ri­ence that few will for­get. Not ev­ery­one will love it but most will re­call the room be­ing as im­pos­ing as it is com­fort­ing. It will, I hope, be­come a sec­ond home – a hol­i­day from the land of neutral.

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