Dare Your Walls to Wear Black

March 24, 2011

In a recent Wall Street Journal article, the host of HGTV’s Candice Tells All, Candice Olson, reveals a few of the interior-design ideas that guide her work. Some of her tips are well-known rules of thumb, but she also delves into less clear-cut terrain – when to paint a wall black, for example – with reassuring confidence.

Olson strongly suggests choosing wall colors based on the fabric, art, and rug in a given room. She notes that juxtaposing walls and furniture with relatively neutral tones (her example: beige sofa, mushroom-colored wall) produces “a quiet, serene look.” Of course, those seeking a livelier effect can pair neutral furniture and brightly colored walls – that same beige sofa, say, with aquamarine behind it.

There are dangers inherent in painting walls trendy colors – in a few years, a room may seem very dated – but there’s always the possibility of repainting. Olson says lavender and wisteria (pale violet) are very popular right now. She also emphasizes that if an artwork will take center stage in a room, the walls’ intensity must be dialed down. In other words, a neutral wall is the most effective backdrop for a vibrant painting.

So far, nothing revolutionary. Olson does offer some not-so-basic pointers, however. She observes that light olive, or gray-green, is a neutral color that offers a nice change of pace from familiar creams and beiges. Olson also points out that a room with windows that face north or east will get cooler light, for which light caramel or buttery hues are a good match.

In contrast, south- or west-facing windows bring in warm light; “soft shades of warm colors,” she says, are good at playing it up. Rooms with low or moderate natural light are excellent places for walls with cool colors, like blue or moss green. These hues might be significantly altered in a sunnier room, where the light’s yellow tinge could turn blue into green, and green into lime.

Olson mentions a way of testing colors that we’d heard of before, though it sounds even better coming from a TV star. Basically, if you want to test a potential wall color, paint some of it on a big card and hold it up to the wall (or even attach it). You’ll see how the color interacts with the room’s natural and artificial light, and you can examine the card at various times of day. Just bear in mind, as Olson does, that incandescent light, like sunlight, has a yellowing effect. Halogen lights, on the other hand, tend to show colors accurately.

Accent walls are a fine way to introduce “riskier” colors; one black wall is a far cry from four. Olson gives standard advice: Accent the longest wall, or the one that frames the room’s main piece(s) of furniture. She also mentions that tinting a room’s ceiling with a bit of what’s on the walls softens the transition between them. Unless she’s dealing with an unusually small room, she generally paints trim in a color that contrasts with the walls.

One of Olson’s color schemes sounds particularly elegant. She recommends painting dining-room walls in a dark navy blue, which can beautifully complement both crystal and silver. For those with an even greater taste for drama, black is the answer. “Everything goes with it,” Olson observes, and it can generate a feeling of mystery without descending directly into Gothic gloom. Living rooms and bedrooms are, in Olson’s opinion, the best places for black walls. A glossy finish and robust lighting help keep things stylish. In the kitchen, one wall at most should be black, she says. Use the color even more sparingly in the bath.

Ideas about choosing wall colors are a dime a dozen. That said, Olson’s color concepts have the consistency and sensibility you’d expect from someone who regularly advises countless television viewers on beautifying their homes. “Color has to have context” is one of Olson’s mantras, and we couldn’t agree more.

Black walls are scary; uninitiated design professionals or homeowners cannot picture a black wall bringing new life to a room. However, when our customers see a black wall done well in another’s home, it creates what we call a je ne sais quoi effect – they want their room to look just like that.

Candice Olson, host of the HGTV design show, “Candice Tells All” – also recently featured in the Wall Street Journal – agrees; black walls don’t have to be scary. Painting a wall black, with the right lighting, setting, and accessory colors, can transform a normal room into a rich, elegant space.

An example of a black wall done right. Photo by The Wall Street Journal.

Black walls aren’t pretty everywhere. They work best in bedrooms, bathrooms above the chair rail, and certain living rooms. If you’re extra daring, you can even slap on some black in the kitchen; but limit it to one wall, Olson warns. One cute idea is to use blackboard paint for the kitchen. Yes, blackboard paint – wall paint that you can write on with chalk. It might be easier to get the kids to do their chores if it’s spelled out right next to the fridge. And believe it or not, even with kids’ doodles, it still looks chic.

A black, glossy finish adds that extra dose of glamour, that je ne sais quoi. Olson calls it the “little black dress” of a home – “everything goes with it.” I’m willing to bet that that one line made women everywhere want to paint their living rooms black.
Olson has other fabulous suggestions, like:

- Neutral furniture and bright wall colors are beautiful together. Go for a color like turquoise, or one that’s in vogue, like wisteria or lavender.
- If your décor is colorful, don’t make the walls too bright, especially if you’re hanging artwork.
- Gray-green or light, olive-colored walls are viewed by Olson as neutrals and can be used in practically any room.
- Lighting, lighting, lighting! For a black room, lighting is especially key – make sure to “beef it up.” For brighter rooms with south and west-facing windows, where the sun is particularly strong, warm colors work best. Very bright colors in these rooms may be a bit too much for the eye to handle. Cool colors, like moss green or blue, work well in rooms with low light. Remember, the sun casts a yellow tint on everything it hits. Olson states that investing in halogen lighting will bring out your walls’ true color(s).
- Who doesn’t love a good accent wall? It’s a quick update without committing to painting an entire room, which believe me, when not left to the pros, can be exhausting. I’m all for slapping red paint on my longest wall or the wall that I’ve placed my couch against, and calling it a day.

So take a page from Olson’s daring playbook and step out of your white-walls-and-ceiling box. You may just discover that you’re a brave, black wall kinda gal/guy after all.


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