Acclaimed designer Steven Gambrel puts color in its place – and time

Chicago TribuneOctober 26, 2012 

Choosing color for oneÕs home is a function of the twin elements in the title of his new book, ÒSteven Gambrel: Time & PlaceÓ

Along with his sister’s return flight from France, interior designer Steven Gambrel sensed something else in the air.

“I can feel it coming on: She’s going to want to bring that color back with her,” said Gambrel, a Virginia native whose firm is based in New York City. “There is a reason we travel. Those color combinations – sunny yellows, tomato reds and Mediterranean blues – are not as successful in Virginia as in the south of France. The light is different. Which is great. Those colors you’re going to have to go visit.”

Choosing color for one’s home is a function of the twin elements in the title of his new book, “Steven Gambrel: Time & Place” (Abrams).

“I’m really intrigued by how different regions have different personalities and histories. You see certain colors repeated, and color becomes part of the spirit of a place,” he said. “In Russia, the colors don’t work with the environment but must have been a reaction to it – they needed color to cheer them up from those dark winters.

“You can determine visually that something’s successful because it looks good. Then you study the culture and realize the reason it looks good is it comes with a history of function.”

Q: What is the art to using color as punctuation?

The way to work color successfully is with a thread that runs throughout the story, similar to writing. With color as punctuation, the most successful is red.

And sometimes when I’m trying to convince a client to have a punctuation of color in the house, I’ll remind them of how they dress. With a woman, it may be red lipstick or a red purse. Basically the accessories that run through a house might become a thread.

Q: How do you start?

The whole house needs to be considered as one place and one story. We were looking at this small library, which in previous decoration was bright white, and the giant living room was bright white. The white living room was successful because it had bright light coming in. But the library suffered because it was not competing properly against it.

Now, it’s dark slate, and speaks the language of warmth and comfort and cuddle-up time. In the big room, you’re reminded this is a sunny, vibrant, happy room where you’re entertaining people. The color is there to help you define your actions and lifestyle.

Q: Where do people go wrong with color?

The mistake is to use it without fully understanding where it comes from. First, develop colors that react to architecture or local environment. More earthy terra cotta tones tend to come out of an environment that has a clay-based soil. Clear colors tend to come out of landscapes that have a sandy soil.

It’s like eating seasonally and locally. It probably shouldn’t taste right to have strawberries in February. A lot of colors that are successful are probably the ones that do react to nature.

And now that you have that foundation, it’s a great opportunity to add an unexpected punctuation point that isn’t based entirely on nature but on product, on small doses of color that are a contrast or complement to colors we’ve already selected.

Q: Are there color schemes that have become cliché?

Certain pairings can look dated, but I think the reason is they were used at a certain period and probably used relatively successfully. The kitchens of 1960, avocado and yellow, were successful.

Even sometimes when you have a color story that’s very tasteful, you almost find yourself adding a hit of what we call “good ugly.” A teeny little bite of chartreuse is a really dynamic color to add to a room that’s full of grays and steels and platinum.

Q: You like a bright blue – that can be a tough color to get right.

One of the interesting things about blue is that blue reacts to blue really well. One way to cool down bright blue is with deeper, darker blues. A pale blue shirt with a navy jacket just works.

Q: What’s the appeal of those shiny lacquered walls?

It’s about reflection. It’s amazing to see color, but to see color with its reflective qualities is even more remarkable. Typically the value comes with saturated color. It’s already great – you have saturated color, and you make it shiny, and now you have something you feel you can see deeply into.

It also often requires a more matte surface to go with it, like a nubby carpet.

Q: What’s the trick to using white?

One of the mistakes of white is people use it as compromise or as indecision. And I always say white is just as much a color and choice as any other.

White is most successful when it’s used as oyster into biscuit into sand into pale gray, and used as a color. Then if you hit it with stronger color, that would be a much more modern statement. That hint of turquoise against white is very beautiful and a very clear statement.

Q: How do you develop a color story?

On my desk, I might have textiles that I want to use in a room, but I also might throw in a piece of lacquer that will represent a tray we haven’t found yet, or a piece of glass that might represent my desire to find strong transparent color in maybe a lamp or vases.

I might also throw on a picture of a painting from an auction catalog that has a hit of red.

It doesn’t mean we have to find a painting that has a hit of red in it, but somewhere we have to find a hit of red to make the story complete.

It’s about collecting ideas on a table or bulletin board, and looking at it and wondering where the balance is off, and throwing whatever is right onto that table, and once you have something that makes sense, don’t worry about what it represents. That’s probably the right ratio of color in the room.

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