Fifty (mil­lion) shades of white

It used to be bor­ing, but not any more. Here's how white be­came the new black.

The Australian - The Deal - - First Up - Deirdre Macken

JUST paint it white. That’s what real es­tate agents say to prop­erty own­ers, who might call in dec­o­ra­tors, sign up for Selling Houses Aus­tralia or en­gage their own ren­o­va­tion tal­ents on a prop­erty listed for sale.

If only it were that easy. Paint­ing walls white might once have been a de­fault op­tion for homes but now even ex­perts are chal­lenged by choice.

In these days of Pan­tone per­fec­tion, white is no longer a colour. It’s a start­ing point and by the time most get to end of the colour chart, they re­alise that there may be 50 shades of grey but there are hun­dreds of shades of white. And ev­ery white tells a story.

Some of that story is told in a book pub­lished by Pen­guin this month called White

Rooms by de­sign writ­ers, Karen McCart­ney and David Har­ri­son. The book presents it­self as a guide to us­ing only white in homes.

An en­tire book de­voted to one colour might seem ex­ces­sive to those who pre­fer to wan­der into a hard­ware store and or­der a can of white paint but white is se­ri­ous busi­ness to de­sign­ers across many in­dus­tries.

The first cel­e­brated white room was cre­ated in 1927 but the move­ment re­ally be­gan in the 1990s when ar­chi­tects pushed back against the pas­tel 1980s when salmon decked the halls and king­fisher blue cheered up bed­rooms.

The min­i­mal­ist move­ment of the 1990s dic­tated that in­te­ri­ors be washed in white and some de­sign­ers be­came so en­am­oured that they’ve never moved on. One of Amer­ica’s most lauded ar­chi­tects, Richard Meier said re­cently he’s never lived in a non-white in­te­rior and never would.

But even as decor styles evolved, white re­mained the sta­ple hue. Last year when Du­lux re­vealed the most pop­u­lar colours for home dec­o­ra­tors, four out of the top five were whites. And it’s not as if there’s a short­age of whites on colour charts.

Du­lux Colour Plan­ning and Com­mu­ni­ca­tions man­ager An­drea Lu­ce­naOrr says 30 years ago the group had only 20 whites but there are now 30 on the re­tail charts and 200 in the spec­i­fi­ca­tions book.

When Elle Decor asked de­sign­ers to re­veal their favourite whites two years ago, they all had dif­fer­ent pref­er­ences (China White, White Wish, Hunt­ing­ton White, Cot­ton, Real White and Pa­per White) but at least one of the de­sign­ers was pre­pared to ad­mit “get­ting white paint right can be a daunt­ing propo­si­tion”.

In­deed, white is now the de­fault op­tion not be­cause it’s easy but be­cause it’s hard. It’s hard to get right and even harder to stay in fash­ion, as any­one who still has a house painted in Mag­no­lia (pop­u­lar a decade ago) or China White (wan­ing now) or Black White (on the rise). The White House, by the way, is re­puted to be painted in Whis­per White, which seems ap­pro­pri­ate, es­pe­cially as of­fi­cials have pre­vi­ously re­fused to dis­close ex­actly what shade of white it is.

If white has proved so peren­nial, it might be be­cause most peo­ple are lazy or it might be be­cause of the emo­tional char­ac­ter­is­tics of the colour. In colour psy­chol­ogy, white con­notes pu­rity, calm­ness, new begin­nings, clean slates, blank can­vases and it’s sup­posed to fa­cil­i­tate ef­fi­ciency and or­gan­i­sa­tion.

Lu­cena-Orr says that white is the per­fect colour for to­day be­cause “peo­ple want the flex­i­bil­ity to up­date and change easily, they like neu­trals be­cause they don’t date and white has all those el­e­ments of time­less­ness, el­e­gance, seren­ity and the per­cep­tion of space and light”.

There were, how­ever, two mo­ments that ce­mented white into the mod­ern psy­che. The first, says Lu­cena-Orr, was Ap­ple’s de­ci­sion to launch the iPod in crisp white. “Be­fore that tech­nol­ogy was al­ways a deep space blue,” she says. “But since then white has be­come the colour of new tech­nol­ogy.”

The sec­ond was the abil­ity of car mak­ers and man­u­fac­tur­ers of plas­tic prod­ucts to en­hance white with metallics, re­flec­tors and dif­fer­ent tex­tures and there­fore give the prod­ucts deeper and crisper hues. White is still the most pop­u­lar colour for cars and not be­cause it’s the choice of fleet buy­ers.

White space (or neg­a­tive space) is also the hottest trend in web de­sign.

The early days of web de­sign were char­ac­terised by busy look­ing sites that at­tempted to tell a story in the space of one screen, but the evo­lu­tion of the scroll and swipe func­tions has al­lowed de­sign­ers to spread out into vir­gin ter­ri­tory. In­deed, ac­cord­ing to a story in Fast

Com­pany in May, white space is cru­cial to cus­tomer in­ter­faces. This is be­cause it in­creases com­pre­hen­sion by up to 20 per cent; it helps “cre­ate men­tal maps”; it clar­i­fies re­la­tion­ships and over­comes hu­man de­fi­cien­cies. “The power of white space comes from the lim­its of hu­man at­ten­tion and mem­ory,” the ar­ti­cle con­cluded, rather harshly.

There are, by the way, neg­a­tive as­pects to white. Most in­te­rior de­sign­ers be­lieve that “white kills art”; oth­ers say that daz­zling white can cause eye strain; the wrong white can cre­ate a ster­ile en­vi­ron­ment; all white in­te­ri­ors have elit­ist lean­ings and that when used in shops it fails to stim­u­late shop­pers and can be, well, bor­ing.

The mar­keters have proven the de­sign­ers wrong on that last one: some­how, they have turned a de­fault de­ci­sion – just paint it white – into an agony of choice.

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