Painting a room red: Sometimes a great notion

Kittyoffice_3A few years ago, I wrote a book (now out of print) with TV decorator Kitty Bartholomew.

One of my favorite chapters in the book is on color. Kitty has studied color her whole career. She's not so much interested in trends (though her audiences want to know about trends, and she delivers that info), but more about the effect color has on our minds, bodies and emotions. To increase her understanding, she learned from studies done by the Wagner Institute for Color Research.

Red is Kitty's favorite color (her home office in Santa Monica is pictured here). Red is a particularly powerful color and not one you'd want everywhere, such as on the walls of a hyperactive child's room. In the dining room, though, it's perfect.

Here's what Kitty says about the color red:

Red is the most dynamic and energizing color of the spectrum. As you know, not all reds are alike. In fact, red is the great separator between men and women. Men and women respond to reds in very different ways. When babies are born, the first thing they focus on is shapes -- black and white shapes. Then they start focusing on color, and in particular the color red. Little boy babies will see yellow-based red first. This would be a tomato red, or what we think of as lipstick red. Little girl babies will see blue-based reds first. An example of a blue-based red is a burgundy color.

So men are born with an inherited affinity for yellow-based red; they see it first, foremost and longest. But women, their whole lives, are very much drawn to blue-based red. They have a natural preference for this color. The exception for men is that if they are more traveled they will be more accepting of blue-based red.

So how does that translate to our everyday lives?

Well, we women are the major consumers. Oftentimes we’re out shopping with one another, and we encourage one another to go for more of the blue-based red for our families, whether it’s jackets or sweaters or lipsticks or sofas. Now, I guarantee you, nine times out of 10, if you see a man wearing a burgundy sweater, a woman bought if for him. Rarely would he choose it for himself, because he doesn’t really have much of a reaction to that kind of red. I’m not saying don’t enjoy that color, but be aware of how people respond to it.

Red is the warmest color, with the longest wavelength, and is the closest to infrared. Red can make us feel hot. It can accelerate heart rate and raise blood pressure. Red can stimulate the pituitary gland. Red makes food look more appealing. Restaurants know this, which explains red-checked tablecloths. Studies have shown that men in particular eat more, drink more and spend more money when there’s red in their line of vision. So red is good somewhere in the dining room or kitchen.

In a nursery, red has been shown to stimulate the creation of positive neurons in the brain. So it makes a lot of sense to have it somewhere in the nursery. I’m not advocating red walls in the nursery; that might be a bit much. But red toys, red mobiles, a little red area rug for babies who are just starting to learn how to crawl — that would make a lot of sense. Red might be perfect for a cozy dining room. Even if it makes the dining room look smaller, so what? You’ll be dining most often at night, and the coziness can add much to your life.

The intensity of red can be overwhelming though. Let’s say you have an adolescent who’s hyperactive. Maybe he’s on some kind of medication and you need to calm him down. You wouldn’t want to have a primary red in the bedroom, because it further adds to the overstimulation. Avoid red in a bedroom if you’re highly stimulated anyway.

You can tone down red with shades of green and blue-green that are its opposite on the color wheel. You can temper it with beiges and off-whites. Plants or art in these colors will provide necessary visual balance and relief. Or you can add red for accents. Spray paint a wicker table red for accent in a living room or dining room. Or maybe a kitchen with a red-and-white checked floor can really make an impact.

Red can also be very flattering to any kind of complexion, especially by candlelight, or by low-voltage lighting. It’s a wonderful color for rooms that are used primarily in the evening. That doesn’t mean it won’t look good in the daytime, but it looks especially good in rooms at night.