Tuesday, March 9, 2010


If you ask me what my favorite color is, you may not get the same answer today as yesterday. Some days it’s a kind of mousy putty color with a lot of heathery lilac in it. Others it’s a bright shade of something like chartreuse that you might get if you could combine the petal color of a daffodil with the green from the first shoots through the spring snow. When I was a kid, the answer was much simpler and always the same: red. Oh, I liked dark blue and dark green well enough, but that red crayon was the first one worn to a nub. Crayola should have put two red crayons in every box. Children like red. It’s in your face. No hiding.

The very first print of a work of art I ever bought, at the tender age of 8, was Charles Demuth’s “The Figure 5 in Gold” (1928) from the Alfred Stieglitz Collection at the the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The painting is based on a poem by William Carlos Williams, and I didn’t need lessons in the interpretation of modern imagery to know that it was about a fire truck (of course, my father was the captain of the Manhasset Lakeville volunteer fire department, company No. 5, which might have given me a clue). Here follows a photo of the young me with my nextdoor neighbor, Bobby Cosgrove, visiting the fire house.

In design terms, I wouldn’t say I’ve never seen a red room I didn’t like, but I can certainly say I’ve never seen a red room that didn’t command my attention. This red dining room by Benjamin Noriega-Ortiz is one of my favorite photos (by Jeff McNamara) from my days at Metropolian Home. 

Benjamin likes monochromatic spaces, and this one Is not fooling around. Red paint, by the way, is a bear to work with. You probably need six coats to get the saturation you want and to cover whatever was there before. Which may be why lots of people don’t rush into red rooms. I had a red room when I was a graduate student, but I used enamel paint, so it only took one coat on top of the primer (the landlord was not thrilled about it—kiss that security deposit good-bye).

Designer Marjorie Skouras likes red, too. She uses it for clients and chose it for her own living room in Los Angeles, punching up the wall color with a lot of sass and a boldness (possibly inspired by red) to mix things up in a witty “new modern” way.

Red is many things—hot, sexy, passionate, intense—but it isn’t shy. Try to ignore this famous John Singer Sargent painting in a gallery room if you can:
Another artist who loved his red was Mark Rothko. Since I’m not likely ever to be able to afford an actual Rothko, I fantasize about turning his work into rugs. Just imagine this fabulous painting in deep pile underfoot. How much furniture would you need?

Some people find red rooms to be too intense, but I think that depends on your notion of calm. Matisse obviously thought a red room was perfectly relaxing.
Nowadays, perhaps, we might say it’s a bit over-designed, what with the tablecloth matching the wallpaper and all, but, hey, if you saw this in real life it might be actually be absolutely stunning.

Here’s a little house in Sweden that takes its red seriously:

Okay, I tell the truth: It’s actually an art installation—but if you saw it in Maine, would you think it was ironic—or a major outbreak of folk art?

And this room is much too traditional for my taste, but the man reading the book seems to think it’s peaceful enough.
Maybe every other room in his house is painted white.—ML

You can see more work by Benjamin Noriega-Ortiz at bnodesign.com.
Marjorie Skouras is at: marjorieskourasdesign.com.

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