Fifty (million) shades of white
It used to be boring, but not any more. Here's how white became the new black.
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.