This article originally appeared in the June 2018 issue of House & Home.
We recently moved the offices of House & Home Media one block from where we’ve been for almost 30 years. First, can I just tell you about moving a media/design company that has collected props, decades of back issues, DVDs of 20 years of TV, hundreds of design and cookbooks, housewares and did I mention… props??
It was one of the worst best things I’ve ever experienced. The bad part is obvious. Discovering what we stored — and for how long — is always a shocker. What were we thinking?
But then, there’s the exhilaration that comes after the purge. Now I know what my friends mean when they talk about the feeling of freedom that comes from downsizing. We’re now in an airy, open loft space in an old brick-and-beam building, still on Toronto’s trendy King Street West. It’s the kind of space that, six months ago, would have screamed black to me: teak-framed black leather furniture, black desks, black light fixtures and black desk chairs. Back then, I would have painted all the old window frames black and done all of the above, no question. It’s a look we’ve all seen in so many trendy, creative offices. But not anymore.
Lately, I’m feeling the urge to lighten up and ditch some of the black. For one thing, I’m seeing too much of it in too many rooms in every design magazine. Black window frames are becoming cliché, and black-edged furniture is close behind.
This is a huge change for me. I’ve been using a lot of black in my design work for decades. My accent palette is often cream, mustard, taupe, cayenne, deep pink, teal, and straw — colors that balance well with black.
It is possible to do strong, graphic rooms in pale colors? Can I avoid the too sweet, overly feminine effect that pale rooms often have? I hope so. Let’s explore some of the ways to achieve an edgy, dramatic look using only light colors.
Keep Everything White Or Light: Any room that is all one light color will set the stage for dramatic impact. You’ll be layering tone on tone, and there will be a marked difference between the effect of the same color on sofa upholstery fabrics, blinds, painted furniture, lighting and accessories, just by the nature of the materials and how they present in that one hue.
Add Textures: My single favorite way to add drama to an all-white room is by using bamboo, rattan and wicker. The color of these materials is stunning against white. The varied textures of woven furniture and baskets is another plus. After that, opt for fabrics associated with the tropics: linen, cotton, bamboo, canvas, seersucker and piqué.
Use Some Clichés: A hanging pendant made of shell discs edged in brass, a wall of framed silver dollars, sea horses, intaglios and other found treasures, a bowl carved from a block of white marble or baskets of white towels: reminders of the seaside or the lake work well in light schemes.
Add Vintage: Original mid-century modern woven or wood chairs or tables add a different vibe to a room with mostly new furniture. This applies to any period piece of furniture in good condition. There will always be something about the patina and workmanship that gives it a pedigree that you can’t get from brand-spanking new.
Use Glass, Mirror, Plexi And Sparkle: Reflective and clear surfaces used in small doses will help open up a space, and hits of sparkle are just plain fun. A round sheet of glass placed on a woven tabletop will instantly make it feel more polished and easy-care.
Employ Stylists’ Tips: Create a gallery wall. Frame everything of every size in the same classic, matte white lacquered frames. Some should have white matting and some, no matting at all. Try black and white photos, drawings, etchings and found objects. Intersperse small, interesting mirrors. These walls are difficult to get right. The best way is to trace each framed piece on kraft paper so you can make templates and lay things out on the floor. Then, using painter’s tape that won’t mark your wall, play around until you settle on the best arrangement.
Use New Colors: You don’t have to resort to all-white or neutral shades to achieve that fresh-air feeling. There is a palette of strong country colors that works especially well with simple, Shaker-inspired millwork. You can see examples in the work of Plain English, the U.K. joinery company opening a location soon in N.Y.C.
One thing I will point out, though. In all the shots on these pages there is always one touch of black. It may be something as small as the back plate on a sconce or a bowl on a coffee table. Take a look, then cover the black bits and look at the photo again. Notice what happens to the shot; it will look less impactful. You need those little bull’s eyes to focus your eye.
I’ve taken the first plunge by ordering two multiarm hanging light fixtures in brass with white heads for my office. So far, so good. They feel like such a huge departure, and now the rest of the room has to go light. No turning back. Stay tuned for the big reveal once it’s done. I feel lighter already.
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